2017 Ford Raptor First Drive: Return of the Ass-Kicking Pickup Truck

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Off-road Ford 4x4

2017 Ford F-150 Raptor | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Price aside, high performance vehicles have always been engineered to cater to a specific kind of car shopper. While the risks of producing a flop can be high, automakers continue to search for ways in which they can carve out their own niche market. It worked for Acura back in the day when it first introduced the original NSX, while Lexus has impressed us with cars like GS F, and Fiat-Chrysler continues to crush with its line of Hellcat and Scat Pack sports cars.

But the average off-road-ready pickup truck remains a bit of an oddball, because outside of some suspension upgrades, styling adjustments, and additional traction settings, very rarely are their powertrains upgraded to extreme levels. Fortunately, Ford is not interested in playing it safe with its redesigned F-150 Raptor, making its Baja 1000 inspired “supertruck” even more capable than predicted. We recently had the privilege of driving this twin-turbo torque Goliath in the desert wilds outside of Borrego Springs, California to get a feel for what the pugnacious pickup is capable of both on and off the open road, and were left pretty damn impressed on almost every level.

Redesigned Ford F-150 4x4

Redesigned Ford F-150 Raptor | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Much like a loaded Range Rover, the majority of this truck’s life will be spent on the asphalt, and in order to accommodate this, Ford has made the 2017 Raptor far more refined than one might expect. For all of its off-road potential and imposing stance, this truck is still a street legal machine, and the company has designed its 2WD system, suspension, and steering inputs to allow both practical highway cruising and easy parallel parking. It also offers many of the cabin qualities one comes to expect in the typical F-150, along with a laundry list of Raptor-exclusive upgrades like accented seats, unique trim touches, custom stitching, and driver performance displays.

Comfort steering settings provide a lighter feel for low speed turns, Regular mode offers balanced mid-range responses, and a Sport configuration requires extra effort on the driver’s end, but rewards them with plenty of feedback. There’s also a 23% improvement in combined fuel efficiency over the outgoing model (16 versus 13 MPG), and a standard Weather setting can be toggled on the fly to activate all-wheel drive support. But hammer on the throttle and 510 pound-feet of torque hit almost instantly, and if you stay on the pedal, the modified EcoBoost engine feeds all 450 ponies to the hubs all the way up until redline.

While all three steering modes felt properly calibrated at various speeds, it was the hardcore 3-inch Fox Shox setup and BF Goodrich K02 tires that made the most notable handling surprises. Despite being 5,500 pounds and lifted to the point where it boasts 13 inches of suspension travel in the front and 13.9 inches in the rear, the Raptor remained surprisingly flat in the corners and grips tarmac far better than expected. Its cabin also proved to be a quieter space than expected, even as the 3-inch dual exhaust behind it spewed fumes at a 50% better flow rate than the normal 3.5-liter EcoBoost F-150.

Despite its ferocity and undeniably wide 80-inch footprint, the Raptor is a more refined creature than one might expect. Once outfitted with 360-degree surround view cameras, detailed digital driver displays, power adjusting pedals and steering wheel, heated/vented seats, and a SYNC3 infotainment screen, you get the notion that hardcore trucks no longer need to feel barren. While sticker prices rocket northward of $60,000 after opting for various add-ons or the 802A package, Ford knows that it has zero issue attracting buyers, as Raptor owners typically are not the kind of people that mind high dollar purchases.

White Ford Raptor

2017 Ford Raptor in white | Ford

After getting outfitted with helmets and neck braces, we were turned loose in the gypsum-filled wasteland known as the Borrego Desert, where we tested out the truck’s Sand and Baja drive modes as well as its high speed off-road prowess. Designed to compete in desert races and over-engineered to give novice 4×4 enthusiasts access to a plug-and-play platform, the Raptor features one of the most all-encompassing chassis layouts ever conceived, both in its frame design and suspension symmetry.

Even at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour the truck’s steering controls and footwork felt incredibly planted, due in part to its nine-zone position sensitive Fox dampers and sport springs. It also features a re-calibrated electric steering rack, which learns from your driving preferences and adapts accordingly over time. Approach angles offered 30 degrees of clearance up front, 22-degree center breakovers remained unscathed, and a 23-degree departure angle allowed worry-free driving as we bounced from sand dune to silt-covered service roads. While there were plenty of washed out areas and rough patches along the way, the cabin remained virtually rattle free, and very rarely did we hear the 4.5-millimeter front skid plate scrape while jumping from dune to dune.

Off-road adventure time in the Ford Raptor

Off-road adventure time in the Ford Raptor | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Baja mode proved to be a fun 4-Hi setting and was our preferred drive mode for most of the morning, as it locked the transfer case and prompted the industry’s first 10-speed transmission to hold gears, forcing both snails to spool harder in order to eliminate lag. Engine controls are also re-calibrated for increased performance, as RPM’s tend to hover right below redline, while traction settings and stability controls are heightened to keep the shiny side up.

Our high speed instructor was also quick to point out that the BF Goodrich K02 all-terrain tires had been concocted from a special compound and came in a size unique to the Raptor, and once slightly deflated offered notable grip improvements in deep sand. Aluminum running boards served as rock shielding for the pickup’s rear haunches, reinforced shock towers kept flex down, and active grille shutters reduced high speed resistance, while functional vents piped hot engine air outward.

Redesigned Ford F-150 4x4

Redesigned Ford F-150 4×4 | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After returning from the high speed course, we loaded into a different truck, popped the drivetrain into Rock Crawl mode and went out for a much slower sweep of the desert landscape. Although the Raptor specializes in Baja-style speeds and handling, this latest model has also been designed to tackle rocky terrain without the need for air suspension.

All those breakover angles and clearance benefits really come into play when you are confronted with an ascent like the one Ford had lined-up for us that morning, which the Raptor tackled with nary sign of wheel-slip or suspension snag. Toward the top of the climb we encountered a blind crest, which we easily navigated thanks to Ford’s array of forward-facing cameras and clever driver display screens.

Ford Raptor driver display

Ford Raptor driver display | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After snaking slowly down a rock-riddled decline on the other side, we were greeted by a steep descent that bottomed-out in a sizable gulch, prompting the engagement of the Raptor’s downhill descent control. While speed adjustability remains tied to both pedals, at slower clips the camera setup stays engaged, allowing the driver to easily navigate around sharp rocks and other treacherous terrain. Toward the bottom of the gulch we were greeted by a spotter, who guided us over the dried-up gully, testing the full geometric articulation of the Raptor’s clever chassis in the process. Then, without a scrape to be heard from its stealthily tucked exhaust, the Raptor ascended the other side and slowly plodded its way back to home base.

Back at the ranch we reassessed our pickup and the way in which it had behaved throughout the day. Outside of getting an EPA estimated 15 mile per gallon average in the city, and sporting what we overheard being referred to as stock 3.5-liter F-150 rotors and pads, the Raptor had conquered both Mother Nature and won our vote for all-around OEM badass of the year. While it certainly sports a hefty price tag and package options tend to spike the bottom-line in $10,000 increments, we are confident that Raptor fans and 4×4 enthusiasts alike will find everything they need in this latest model. It may not be built with every kind of truck lover in mind, but there’s no denying the Ford Raptor’s capabilities nor its place on the throne.