By Bill Owney
SHADY LAKE, Ark. – BUP-WAAAAH!
In Baja Mode, the Ford Raptor’s exhaust note shatters the stillness of the idyllic forest spring. Screaming up a mountain road, the cabin seems to float serenely while a rapidly undulating suspension soaks up a twisting and dipping road. The pickup flies up the mountain, putting down a grip in the loose gravel road like a cheetah digging into the forest floor as it zeros in on prey.
Ah, yes. Some days it’s fun to be me, especially when the task at hand is to grab Boy Wonder and head for the hills in the third generation of the coolest pickup ever to roll out of Dearborn, Mich. A decade after Ford created a niche of Baja-inspired pickups, Ram countered with the TRX, pronounced T-Rex. People who spend time quantifying the angels on heads of pins might find it productive to debate which is better.
This day, however, is spent reveling in the comfort and capability of the Corvette of pickups. This is an apt parallel: Powerful, luxurious, sophisticated, the Raptor is a symphony that attains lovely ensemble tonality among multiple robust systems: engine, transmission, brakes, suspension, electronics, technologies almost too numerous to count.
Pushed hard through a challenging section, the truck strives to make the driver look smart. Readings from suspension height sensors and other instruments change damping rates independently at each corner 500 times per second. Next-generation FOX ™ Live Valve ™ internal bypass shocks respond at the same speed the human brain processes visual information. The truck analyzes and solves before the driver even registers a terrain change.
There are lovely, anodized paddle shifters, but why bother? In the latest Raptor iteration, Ford has its 10-speed automatic dialed even better than the previous generation, which was pretty good at figuring out which gear it needed to be in. Now and then I saw a hairpin approaching and tapped down a few gears to dial up the revs, but for the most part, the truck kept itself going where I had it pointed without intervention.
When it was in the wrong gear, I put it there. Ooops.
Boy Wonder observed that any number of top-flite engineering teams had their hands on this truck. A 12-inch digital gauge cluster features a large information-on-demand area, along with truck-specific graphics and animations that respond to drive modes and can display off-roading data and turn-by-turn navigation.
The cabin is filled with upscale materials and is dominated by a 12-inch center screen that allows users to split the screen and control multiple functions simultaneously, including navigation, music, or truck features.
A first glance at the (heated) steering wheel was almost too much for my technology-loving offspring because there are so many buttons. Switches control shock, exhaust, and transmission settings, in addition to seven selectable modes found on a twist dial on the dash.
Exhaust settings? Yes, an equal-length active exhaust system allows the driver to tell the truck how deep and long to sing. And sing it does.
Under the floorboards, the latest generation has a five-link rear suspension, instead of leaf springs. Extra-long trailing arms better maintain axle position on rough terrain. That, combined with more sophisticated engine management software, means the truck can put more torque to the rear wheels for quicker starts off the line, faster acceleration, and better throttle responsiveness while simultaneously delivering comfort, stability, handling, control, and traction at speed.
We found many things to like. The ability to connect smartphones without a USB cord for seamless integration of Apple CarPlay™ or Android Auto™ compatibility was nice. So, too, was a dynamic cruise control that maintained a constant relative gap with the speed limit. Set cruise control five miles over the speed limit and the truck holds it there when the speed limit changes. Think how nice that would be on that Gawd-awful drive to Houston on U.S. 59 where the speed limit changes every time a bird breaks wind.
Do birds break wind? Frequently, if U.S. 59 in East Texas is an indicator.
A trailer-assist system, which figures out how to park a trailer at the twist of a dial, has been around for a few years, as has the external camera system, a field Ford pioneered and still leads.
Makes no sense
To be sure, neither the TRX nor Raptor make dollars and cents sense.
The 450-hp, twin-turbo, 3.5-L V6 Raptor starts just north of $64,000. The 702-hp, 6.2L Hemi® V8 Ram is $10,000 more. Most buyers add $15,000 to $20,000 in various doodads and whatchamacallits.
Put 10 percent down and you can have that baby for a mere $1,500 a month. Pickups costing less than half as much have greater payload and towing capacities. If you want an F-150 that can go off-road and haul a boat, get a Tremor.
Oh, and please be sitting when you call your insurance agent for a quote.
Then there’s the gas. High octane, please. The EPA says the Raptor will deliver about 16 mpg in combined mileage. We, uhm, did not achieve that. The EPA says the TRX gets 10 mpg city and 14 highway. In our brief test drives, the Ram landed in the single digits, but stoplight to stoplight was downright exhilarating.
Conventional wisdom holds that Ford will catch or pass the TRX in power and lousy fuel economy with the V-8 powered Raptor R, due later this year. In an age when fuel prices and mandated Combined Average Fuel Economies are both spiraling up, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
On the other hand, the rollout of the electric Ford Lightning is less than 10 days away. The technological expertise found in the Raptor indicates Ford has figured out some things.