It’s not a unicorn, that’s just my GoPro. (Photo Credits: Andrew Collins)

The all-new 2017 Ford Raptor is a 5,500 pound turbocharged brick sitting almost a foot off the ground on 35-inch off-road tires and long-travel shocks. I was expecting the off-road performance to set a new standard, but on winding roads? I thought we had laws of physics against stuff like that.

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The truck was flatter in corners, smoother on shifts and quieter everywhere than I expected. Not just for a truck, I mean compared to anything I’ve driven in a while.

(Full Disclosure: Ford needed us to drive the new Raptor so badly they put me on a train to San Diego, left me alone with a whole buffet and then let me have at the truck for a couple hours under the supervision of one of their executives on Sunday. On Monday, we drive off-road.) 

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Before I could cut the Raptor loose in the SoCal scrublands, I had to actually get out there. That meant taking the truck from San Diego to Anza Borrego. And that meant we had a chance to figure out if Ford’s street-performance “Sport Mode” was something worth playing with or just the result some engineer’s sick sense of humor.

I probably don’t need to tell you why the new Raptor is a big deal, but just in case I do, Ford’s high-performance F-150 variant was always a crowd pleaser when it came with a V8 in its last iteration. Now based on the new truck, it boasts a more powerful—yet more controversial—3.5-liter turbocharged V6 engine with 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque. Everyone is waiting to see if it holds up.

Planet California

In spite of its blunt instrument looks, it became apparent pretty quickly that the new Raptor is more than surprisingly smooth on the street. It’s clean. Precise, even.

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If you’re tired of reading already, you can catch some off-the-cuff driving impressions from Sunday’s live video right here:

Now that I’ve had a few more cocktails I mean hours to process my thoughts, I’m starting to realize three aspects of the Raptor’s on-road performance stuck out the most: its impressive flatness through corners, the subtle-smoothness of shifts and its freakish quietness all the way up to the highway speed limit.

Ride & Handling 

The new Raptor sits on all-terrain BF Goodrich KO2 tires. These came out a couple years ago and have basically been considered the benchmark for daily drivers that go off-road.

I’ve run them on old V8 Raptors and open-wheel buggies in Baja, with impressive results. A new Raptor just finished the Baja 1000 on a set without getting a flat. (Unconfirmed, but as told to me by two Ford reps on Sunday.)

BF Goodrich’s reps have explained that the KO2 has received some minor tweaks for treatment as the new Raptor’s stock rubber. Apparently to make it quieter and more complaint, which it certainly is.

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The truck didn’t come close to scrubbing out around hairpins, tracked straight as an arrow under hard acceleration and didn’t have any kind of wobble you sometimes get running off-roady tires on the street.

Steering, which has three modes independent of the truck’s drive modes, felt extremely light at low speed in “Normal.” Like, “are we sure the front wheels are on the ground” light. It becomes less dramatic once you’re earnestly underway, and the “Comfort” mode didn’t feel appreciably different for me. “Sport” steering, however, added a nice layer of artificial weight to the rack’s response which made me feel a lot more confident coming hot around corners.

Under normal cruising or straight-ahead flying, you might as well be sitting in your boss’s office chair. Stern, confident, with just enough softness to float on. Road feedback is muted, but it’s very easy to keep the truck moving where you want it to.

The Ten-Speed Transmission

Cutaway gearbox.

For the first 10 or 20 miles of our drive, the Raptor had me thinking its new 10-speed automatic was a divine gift to road-going vehicles. While I was gently stepping up to town speed limits and back down to stop lights, the truck must have shifted 50 times without me noticing. And the trend continues if you drive like your truck bed’s full of explosive contraband.

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But you won’t. It’s a 450 HP Raptor. Giddy up on the gas and downshifts can be a little rough. In manual mode, the magnesium paddle shifters are fun to use with a very satisfying click as you slap up and down. Actual response from the gearbox felt fine.

I didn’t see the kind of quickness I’ve been spoiled by with a Porsche PDK or the paddles in a Nissan GT-R, which is not surprising, but the Raptor’s paddle experience was good enough to be taken seriously.

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Putting the truck in “Sport” mode with the transmission in regular-old-automatic “D” makes the truck quicker to downshift when you get on the gas and holds gears longer on its way to redline. So yeah, it makes the vehicle a little more excited to be driven aggressively.

It’s Quiet (Too Quiet?)

Inside the SuperCab

Climb in, shut the door and it’s like you just put your head underwater.

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First, it’s a pretty familiar experience for anyone who’s seen a modern F-150. The basic architecture and interfaces are the same, though the Raptor seat’s soaks you up a whole lot more completely than the recycled cloth thrones in the work truck.

Actually, the Raptor’s seats will be available in cloth for the first time with the 2017 body style. The leather’s on the soft side and the bolstering is stronger than I remember it being on older Raptors.

But the real star of the interior is the steering wheel. Ford has added just enough girth to the standard F-150 helm, wrapped it in a nice material and kept the signature red dash in the top-center. The weighting and responsiveness of the steering itself changes dramatically with what mode the truck’s in, but we’ll get to that shortly.

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The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 makes itself known through a fat four-inch true dual exhaust system, but once it’s running, you’re liable to forget it if you keep your foot light enough. (I got close to 19.5 MPG that way too!)

Wind noise is basically nil below triple-digit speed, and the smooth California canyon roads we rode on were barely more audible. Even on those meaty BFGs.

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There’s no exhaust-opening “loud button” per se, but you’ll get the engine soundtrack if you keep it at a rolling boil. Or at least above 3,000 RPM.

As to whether the 3.5 EcoBoost V6 sounds good or not, I’m afraid you’re going to have to decide for yourself. And you will, because its whirr and whoosh and deep exhale is very different from a V8's rumble. The turbos are absolutely part of the tune, too. But I like it. I liked the old truck’s song too. Force me to choose and I have to say I’d rather listen to a V8, but not so much that I’d pass up on all the toys and treatments that the Raptor has for this new generation.

Yes, the 2017 Ford Raptor feels fast under a heavy foot and makes quick work of mountain-road passing but in town and on the highway the power felt closer to “competent” than “shock and awe.”

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Oddly, the strongest impression this wild rascal of a truck left me with was how refined it was and restrained it could be. But somehow knowing the Raptor can be driven like a pleasant little pussycat makes me even more curious about how it handles the real rough stuff.

Stay tuned for an update on how the truck does with rock-crawling and high-speed desert driving.