Man wasn’t supposed to fly. But tell that to the new petrol V6 Ford Ranger Raptor as it makes pilots and heroes of its lucky drivers as we test a pre-production model in the desert.
“You’re okay, just pin it,” says my co-driver as our Ford Ranger Raptor bears down on a blind crest at an indicated 120km/h. What? Ahead is a natural ramp of hard-packed desert sand, the kind you see in Dukes of Hazzard clips where in real life, of course, the car’s chassis folds on landing.
As my passenger is Cody Crocker – triple Australian Rally Champion and quadruple Asia-Pacific Rally Champion – if he says “pin it”, that’s what you must do. This despite rally drivers not having a rational relationship with fear.
Strapped into the Raptor’s fighter pilot-like seat as we take flight, I can’t help noticing rally legend Crocker bracing himself more than I was expecting. Not fingernails in the dashboard stuff, but enough to have me wondering exactly what will happen when we finally return to terra firma.
For now, we’re actually flying. In a vehicle you put license plates on. And not just four wheels briefly off the ground kind of flying. This is proper Colin McRae stuff, and in a dual-cab pickup weighing over 2500kg with driver on board. I’d dearly love to know our air time because it felt like I could have knitted a scarf between take-off and landing.
Nothing about this Raptor and the experience feels normal. In my two decades testing cars I’ve had countless life-affirming moments – most enjoyable, some terrifying – but this one’s all new. It’s a race truck. There’s no other way to describe it. It just adds niceties like faux-leather seats and a giant infotainment screen.
The rest is textbook Dakar Rally. The new Raptor has a brawny 292kW/583Nm twin-turbo V6 petrol engine for starters. In a ute. This guzzling 3.0-litre’s block is made from the same high-performance graphite-iron Ford uses in its NASCAR racing engines and on our off-road track with open throttle it sounds totally Days of Thunder. It’s a barking, angry, spitting belter of a motor.
Back to that landing. Crocker’s reminding me to keep on the throttle to ensure the nose doesn’t dip while we’re airborne. I don’t care for the physics but thank goodness it’s working. We fly flat, we fly long. And we land with barely a bump.
I was half expecting my spine to leave a permanent dent in the seat base, but instead it feels like the Raptor has returned us to Earth with the tenderness and care of an expert masseuse.
Like the engine, the chassis is a world away from what we traditionally expect from our dual-cab one-tonners. Said chassis is reinforced to handle these mad jumps and landings. Over the old Raptor there are new shock tower mounts, unique aluminium upper and lower control arms and a Watt’s link-equipped coil-sprung rear – not like the cart springs on a normal Ranger.
Then there’s the damping that somehow cushioned our 120km/h flying stunt. Bespoke 2.5-inch live valve internal bypass shock absorbers do the pillow work and are smart enough to adjust electronically up to 500 times a second. The Raptor knows when it’s flying and the shocks pre-arm for full compression on landing. Panic not, your spine is safe.
This was unequivocally not a normal road test, befitting the very unique nature of the new Ranger Raptor. Ford was finalising the testing and validation process ahead of the Raptor’s on-sale date, all taking place in the South Australian desert in a controlled, closed testing environment run by Ford’s engineering team.
If you were hoping for news on what the Raptor’s like on the school run, the Hume Highway or trying to park at Woolies, I sadly can’t help you. We were given no opportunity in these pre-production test cars.
What I can tell you is that, from the current crop of toughened-up dual cabs pervading our market, there is nothing quite like Ford’s off-road rock star. It’s doing double backflips while the others are still learning wheelies.
Ford says there’s no obvious Raptor rival. I normally ignore such hyperbole, but really, it’s true. The Raptor still manages work duties, albeit less competently than a normal Ford Ranger. It tows 2500kg braked versus 3500kg, while its payload of 741kg is a fair chunk off qualifying as a proper one-tonner.
But we all know the obvious: you buy a Raptor for the looks, off-road ability and downright mad fun of it all. After our test I learnt that three motoring journalists had placed orders for one, that’s despite our profession being notoriously poorly paid and the Raptor’s list price of a chunky $85,490 – well over $90k to driveaway. But with the current waiting list up to a year and demand way outstripping supply, I’d imagine you’ll see Raptors being flipped for six figures soon after deliveries begin.
It’d be hard to part with one. The drive experience and noise are utterly addictive.
There are seven different drive modes, including the up-to-11 Baja Mode. This is your maximum attack high-speed off-road setting. Its 2.5-inch active exhaust basically becomes a straight-through system, its decibels perilously close to the legal limit. Some sound is piped into the speakers for occupants to enjoy; despite the artifice, when it sounds this good who cares?
Let’s consider the outgoing Ranger Raptor. A hero truck it may be, but its 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel was always under-powered, wasn’t it? The 500Nm was solid, but not the 157kW.
The new Ranger’s petrol V6 twin-turbo almost doubles that figure with its 292kW, and is mated to a fettled 10-speed automatic. It features an anti-lag system aligned to Baja Mode, keeping the turbos spinning for three seconds after you lift off. This means the boost remains on tap, ready to surge you forward as soon as you pin it once more.
Ford hasn’t quoted an official 0-100km/h time, but insist it’s hot hatch quick on the dirt – roughly six-seconds, give or take. Probably due to its bulk, it feels faster. And the theatre of that racing exhaust note is a dramatic leap over the old diesel Raptor.
Our off-road course is a blend of soft sand and loose gravel. The road holding is utterly phenomenal thanks to the smart full-time four-wheel-drive system, while the 33-inch BF Goodrich K02 off-road rubber helps give impressive control on the loose surface.
In real life, at these cornering speeds on such tracks, we thank all the gods for traction and stability control. Then co-driver Crocker turns it off. Of course he does, he’s lived half his life sideways.
I believe it’s a death wish, but the Raptor’s road holding continues to bemuse – it turns where I point it, sits tight and slides only enough to bring elation rather than abject terror. It communicates really well how the back end is moving, giving huge confidence to driver (and hopefully my rally co-driver).
At high revs the V6 absolutely wails and I’m staggered by its responsiveness, no matter the revs or gears in Baja Mode. Steering, too, has lovely weight, but if you tuck into the well-worn deep ruts on the inside of a corner it feels like you barely need to touch the steering wheel. The Raptor just follows its course, and if you’re not greedy on the throttle, the torque pulls you out with serious surge – just ensure you’ve straightened the front wheels first.
The brakes, blessedly, feel able to handle the punishment. They’re vented rotors all-round and the system leans on an electronically-controlled brake booster, new ABS and stability control all custom-tuned for such off-road shenanigans. There’s decent pedal feel for such a big truck, which is exactly what you need when trying to pull up from three figures on soft sand.
For the second time, Crocker tells me to pin it, this time along a long straight to a course finish line. The road feels impossibly loose, but here we are building to 160km/h and the Raptor just holds on. Bumps? They’re dealt with impossibly well, that super-smart suspension refusing to be rattled.
I reckon I’m ready for the Finke Desert Race. It all just feels too easy.
For Raptor owners less keen on flying, our brief test showed more typical off-road expeditions should present few dramas either. There’s an electronically-controlled on-demand two-speed transfer case and for the really loose stuff or bigger rocks, it fits both a front and rear locking differential.
A Trail Control setting is also a button push away – basically a slow-speed off-road cruise control – so you just do the steering while the truck works out speed over the terrain. Sling it into Rock mode and it does this at very slow speed for better control over extreme rocky paths. Cameras everywhere – easily accessed through a giant central screen – all make for an idiot-proof off-road experience.
This all happens in a pleasingly high-tech cabin. We didn’t get our usual time to properly poke, prod and explore the interior of this pre-production Raptor, but when the showroom model’s offered to us we’ll cover it more exhaustively.
What’s obvious is the new Raptor’s interior’s massive leap over old. A 12.4-inch digital dashboard accompanies a 12-inch vertical infotainment screen, featuring wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Ours featured B&O sounds, magnesium paddle shifters and ambient lighting while the faux-leather felt of reasonable quality on the tall, well-bolstered seats. Code Orange stitching (to match the exterior hero colour) and ‘Ranger’ logo on the seats add a dash more verve. These, added to the drive abilities, can’t help but make this $90k ute look decent value.
The exterior completes the properly rugged package. You’re not about to mistake the Raptor for anything else with the giant F-O-R-D lettering in the grille and massive flared wheel arches. C-clamp matrix LED headlights, functional bonnet and fender vents, black 17-inch alloys, aluminium side steps, 2.3mm-thick steel front bash plate and tow hooks all help it look tough as nails.
Do you want me to grumble? Okay then. I reckon less than one percent will use their V6 Raptor to anywhere near its potential. I fear many will be used purely to peacock urban streets, and some of those with a raft of pointless aftermarket accessories fitted.
Fuel economy isn’t brag-worthy either. The Australian Government’s Green Vehicle Guide quotes 11.5L/100km, but I’d look more to Ford UK’s WLTP figure of 13.8L/100km. And should you wear out that very smart suspension, I wouldn’t bank on a cheap visit to Pedders to remedy it.
But I don’t care. Thankfully a vehicle like the Ranger Raptor exists, despite it being about as woke as Donald Trump in these environmentally conscious times.
Performance cars and trucks with guzzling petrol engines are very much on borrowed time. The reasons why are sound, but we’re going to gravely mourn their passing. The incredible, ballistic and fun-filled Ranger Raptor will go down as one of the finest last hurrahs. Get one while you can.
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Variant tested RAPTOR 3.0 (4x4)
Key specs (as tested)
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