I feel like we’ve been waiting for the new 2017 Ford Raptor forever. I mean, it’s hard to not get stoked about a daily-drivable high-speed off-road truck. This week we finally got to let it loose in exactly the kind of extreme sandscape you see in the commercials, and once again, it’s almost too good—but at a price some may not be willing to pay, and I don’t mean the MSRP.

(Full Disclosure: Ford needed me to drive the new Raptor so badly they put me on a train to San Diego, gave me a $62,000 truck to drive out into the desert, put me up in a nice hotel and then sent me out into the sand with the vehicle, a helmet and a full tank of gas.)

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We basically simulated exactly the kind of weekend an ambitious Raptor owner might have—drive from the city to the sand Saturday morning, play off-road all day and head home again as the sun goes down on Sunday.

Time to make the donuts! (Photo Credit: Ford)

Wait! Before you race down to the comment section to say “you spelled ‘squeeze into the mall parking garage’ wrong,” I know, and I promise I’ll detail the Raptor’s performance in the Starbucks drive-thru the next time I get my hands on one for a longer test. For now we get to focus on the fun.

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The truck’s composure and performance on twisty mountain roads really blew me away, but even as much as I expected the truck to be good off-road, I was shocked at some of the speeds I was putting down in the dunes.

My experience off-road driving includes hundreds of miles in Baja in previous-gen 6.2-liter V8 Raptors, some stock, some to modified and one supercharged to around 600 horsepower. I’ve also driven the FX4 “Off-Road” trim of the current F-150 and a huge handful of other vehicles on pretty much every surface type we’ve got in the U.S., Mexico, South America and Australia.

The simplest way to explain what sets the 2017 Raptor apart from any other production 4x4 that it makes all these off-road heroics so damn easy to do. It’s quick, it’s comfortable and it’s so intelligent that if you park it with your dog inside, Fido might have a Baja medal around his neck when you get back.

“käkəˌdo͞odlˈdo͞o” (Photo Credit: Ford)

Okay, maybe just a participation medal. Still, the truck multiplies a driver’s skill by an immense factor. If you’re new to off-roading, you’ll be able to have fun immediately. If you’re at least competent, you’ll be in complete control through bumps and sand at speeds you’ve only dreamed about. And if you’re a pro, you can slap a roll cage in the truck and finish the Baja 1000. Or just enjoy the most comfortable, and relaxing rip at highway speed over the same trails that took you two days to finish in your first pre-runner Ranger.

The Raptor’s 450 horsepower 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 engine has a bit to do with that. So do its long-travel fat-piped Fox shocks and heavy-paw’d BF Goodrich KO2 all-terrain tires.

But the truck’s crown jewel is its brain, not brawn.

(Photo Credit: Ford)

What Ford calls its Terrain Management System is a computer controlling the vehicle that can be cycled between six different “drive modes.” Each with a distinct configuration for throttle response, shift points, steering feel, utilization of the transfer case and the electronically locking rear differential.

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A switch on the steering wheel quickly moves you between “Normal,” “Weather,” “Sand/Mud,” “Baja” and “Rock Crawl” optimizing the truck’s behavior for each environment. We’ll get into exactly what the truck’s doing in each of those modes in another post, but while we’re talking about off-road let’s discuss traction control.

(Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

In the beginning, God gave us combustion. And for a while after that everything was manual, mechanical. You had to know how to change your driving for different surfaces if you wanted to keep moving.

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Then we came up with computers to regulate a vehicle’s behavior, and those who “knew how to drive” complained that our cars had been castrated because suddenly power was being cut when we tried to do a donut.

So “of course you turn Traction Control off if you’re really gonna drive” became a way to tell people you were legit on any automotive enthusiast forum. If this is your attitude, the new Raptor is not for you. The truck’s Terrain Management System is central to its entire operation, and what makes it such an amazing machine.

I was skeptical of its effectiveness myself before I drove the truck. Hell, my own rig has, like, two working gauges a carbureted V8 because I prefer to smell gasoline than use it efficiently.

Let’s do this. (Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

But the Raptor’s electronic system isn’t really a “nanny.” It’s more like the best co-driver you could hope for.

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It lets you slide, but safely recover. Keeps the engine speed exactly where you want it, allowing for an almost telepathic application of power. And you’ll never notice how hard it’s all working because you’re sitting in an extremely comfortable cooled leather seat with XM radio and what feels like a foot of sound-deadening between your head and the horsepower.

The “AWD/4WD” driveline you’ve heard about is unique in the sense that the vehicle can run in rear-wheel drive (yes, even in Baja mode), high and low range of 4WD like most other 4x4s, or behave like an AWD car thanks to a clutch it has allowing some power to occasionally be sent to the front wheels when the truck decides it needs it. Stick the transmission in “Auto” and you’ll never have to worry about when this is happening.

Rock crawling is a different kind of thrill, but the truck impressed me there too. The transfer case gives you a 50:1 crawl ratio in low range. As David Tracy explained in his big breakdown of crawl ratios and off-road gearing, that ratio refers to how much the engine’s torque is being multiplied by the cogs. Rock Crawl mode dials in the throttle response and shifting to make the most of that.

Geometrically, the new Raptor has a unique frame not shared with other F-150s giving it a 30-degree approach, 22-degree breakover and 23-degree departure angles. As usual, here’s the Jeep Wrangler JK for context there:

(Image Credit: Jeep)

Of course, the components supporting the Raptor’s intelligence and architecture are impressive as well.

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The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 Ford calls “EcoBoost” has been the top power option for F-150s since 2015. For 2017 that engine was completely revised for the regular version of the truck and a special High Output version was dialed up for Raptor.

“It’d be easier to tell you which parts we didn’t change,” Ford Powertrain Integration engineer Seth Goslawski told me, referring to the 2017 EcoBoost engine versus the 2015 version today’s F-150 body style was launched with. “I know the oil filter is the same, that’s about it.”

(Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

Tweaks for the Raptor are a little more subtle. Goslawski explained that there are really four significantly different power-parts a Raptor gets that a regular F-150 doesn’t:

  • New pistons, which allow for higher compression.
  • The compressor wheel on the turbo, which allows for a peak boost of 18 psi.
  • The exhaust, which is a true dual system on the Raptor with a stainless manifold instead of cast-iron.
  • And cooling, which gets an extra cooling radiator right up front in the engine bay with dedicated fans that, “yes, are submersible in mud.”

Those upgrades are good for a claimed 75 horsepower and 40 ft-lbs of torque over the same engine as equipped for a regular F-150.

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Acceleration is strong, power is plentiful for chugging through sand. But I didn’t feel the kind of pant-soiling violence on launch I got from, well, the Mercedes G63 AMG to use a vaguely comparable example.

The coilover shock looks big as a sewer pipe. You can also see the Raptor’s robust control arms, axles and tie rod ends from here (Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

The shocks are a massive 3-inches in diameter. They’re made by off-road mainstay Fox, which also does the original equipment suspension for the Toyota TRD Pro, and available on just about every other truck as aftermarket treatment. That’s half an inch fatter than the shocks on the last Raptor, which means the fluid inside can flow more efficiently and better resist overheating.

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Now you want good “flow” in your shocks because that’s the key to making a vehicle great on-road and off, instead of having to pick one. As we explained in our deconstruction of a high-performance shock, the tube a shock’s spring is wrapped around is filled with juice that flows through valves which control its rate. This in turn regulates how stiff the suspension feels at any given moment.

“Parking.” (Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

The Raptor’s Fox shocks are designed to have nine distinct “zones” or levels of softness, basically. Practically speaking that translates to stiff holding at speed on flat surfaces and full utilization of the truck’s 13-inches of wheel travel (13.9-inch rear, up 0.8 and 1.9 inches respectively from the last Raptor.)

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In testing I thought the truck felt flat as a pool table around tight turns, and falling off sand dunes was like jumping into a nest of pillows in the fanciest hotel bed you’ve ever imagined.

Ford would like you to know this is a professional driver on a closed course. (Photo Credit: Ford)

But I didn’t start this post calling the Raptor “almost too good” as a hyperbolic indulgence. For some people, it actually will be.

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I drove off-road faster more confidently in this truck than I have in any other vehicle, including racers and motorcycles. Especially race rigs and motorcycles, if you factor in how brave that nicely-bolstered-yet-just-soft-enough leather seat made me feel. It wasn’t a lot of work though, and for that reason I don’t think the Raptor’s capable of providing the same kind of spiritual experience you get in a buggy or a home-built pre-runner or a lifted VW Beetle.

Why can’t we all be this pretty? (Photo Credit: Ford)

I have heaped a lot of praise on this thing, but here is the obvious downside: the Raptor is objectively superior but by helping the driver so much, it also disconnects them from part of the adventure. It is like driving with cheat codes on in a video game.

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Cue the groans because of course this is the Jalopnik take. But I’m not trying to tell you this digitization of driving is bad, it just makes for a different experience.

Off-road driving is, quite literally, about going out of your way to challenge yourself. It’s strategic and cerebral like putting a puzzle together. With a new Raptor, it feels starting out with the edges of the puzzle already in place. You’ll get the job done more quickly, but you lose a little satisfaction in the process.

Some will argue that the Raptor unlocks a higher tier of achievement. “Now you can master higher-speed off-roading!” But for recreational purposes, I don’t necessarily see that as an appreciable advantage.

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That said, what I do appreciate is how much “comfort” can add to the experience. My ancient International Scout embodies the rough, analog expert-level off-roading I’m talking about, which I rarely utilize because just getting out of Los Angeles County in that thing is a struggle.

The Raptor can make pretty much anybody be able to go faster, longer in the kind of driving environments we put on posters. If the rumble of a V8, clatter of a long-throw manual shifter and high-stakes of primitive technology are important to you this isn’t your truck. But I bet you’re going to want one eventually.