November 01, 2022 7 min read
The 2023 Ford Raptor R is the fastest internal combustion off-road truck that will ever be sold in a showroom. We just drove it at Michigan’s Silver Lake Sand Dunes.
When Ford’s Special Vehicle Team introduced the first F-150 Raptor for the 2010 model year, they took a completely different approach to any vehicle they’d made before. Where previous SVT vehicles had all focussed on adding additional power to existing platforms, the Raptor instead added suspension.
And what a suspension. Before the Raptor, no manufacturer had ever attempted a true long travel system. But that first Raptor showed up with upper and lower control arms that were each 3.3 inches longer than those on a standard F-150, along with the unique CVs and fiberglass fenders those control arms required. Damping was handled by remote reservoir, internal bypass Fox shocks. This took wheel travel from 11.2 to 13.4 inches, while increasing stability, and improving the suspension’s ability to keep tires in contact with the ground over rough terrain.
This was, of course, a similar formula to the front suspensions long employed by desert racers. Just here in a validation-tested, warrantied format Ford’s lawyers signed off on selling to the public.
They were not sure it would work. Not from a performance perspective—extensive development in the southern California deserts had proven that. They were worried the public wouldn’t understand, and wouldn’t appreciate what made the Raptor so special.
I remember sitting in the press conference at that first vehicle’s media launch, as Jamal Hameedi, the program’s lead engineer, painstakingly explained every aspect of that suspension. For props, he’d brought along cutaway examples of a stock F-150’s dampers, along with those from every other recent factory off-road special from other manufacturers, and proceeded to carefully lay out the advantages of piston diameter, bypass channels, and fluid movement. That was probably an effort in frustration, as the assembled car writers didn’t really seem to care about truck suspension. They’d just never before had a reason to.
Until that next morning, when Ford handed out helmets and foam neck braces, then loaded us journalists into passenger seats, next to their own development drivers. Tearing up a dry wash, through soft sand, in excess of 50 MPH was something very few of us had experienced. Swapping into the driver’s seat, it turned out doing it yourself was easy too. Nothing like this had ever been before been possible.
Of course, that was all done using the F-150’s totally standard 5.4-liter V8. 310 BHP and 365 lb-ft wasn’t a lot of oomph then, and sounds totally anemic 13 years later. The reason SVT’s engineers had to choose between an engine or suspension in that first Raptor was simple: budget. Even now, Ford just doesn’t give them much of one, and back then, with a totally unproven concept, it’s pretty amazing to think they got a long travel truck into dealers. Even if a lot of corners had to be cut to get it there.
Cut to 13 years later, and the F-150 Raptor’s third generation. Raptor is now a global brand, casting a halo across Ford’s truck and SUV range, and the company has used it to lean into go-fast off-road capability not just in flagship trucks, but across the entire Bronco range, too. (Broncos use the extended control arms from the rest-of-world 5th gen Ranger Raptor.) And that means SVT has finally been given to the green light to make the Raptor it’s always wanted to—the F-150 Raptor R.
SVT has been planning this project for a long time. At least as long as they’ve been designing the 3rd gen. That’s why they endowed it with a five-link rear end. Where that original Raptor relied on only improved damping and some lift blocks to try and enable the leaf-sprung axle to keep up with the long travel front, from 2021, all F-150 Raptors now employ rear coil springs, and position the axle using two control arms on each side, plus a Panhard rod. This allows more precise control of axle movement, which in turn improves ride quality and sharpens handling. More importantly, it’s better able to keep the tires in contact with the ground over rough surfaces, which improves traction.
And you can feel that improvement. Put your foot down off-road in the regular five-link Raptor, and rather than the axle hop and wheelspin you’d get from previous versions, the truck simply accelerates. But the conclusion that creates is clear: now that the Raptor finally has both the front and rear suspensions of a desert racer, there’s finally room for more power.
Dropping the 5.2-liter supercharged V8 from the Shelby GT500 into the Raptor’s engine bay was a relatively simple endeavor. An additional low-temperature radiator was added to reduce intake temperatures, the pulleys were made smaller to shift torque lower, and the clutch pack from an F-250 was added to the 10R80 10-speed transmission to enable it to handle the additional power. Front spring rates were increased 5 percent to hand the additional weight. The front differential housing is changed from steel to aluminum, to better dissipate heat. The sump is deeper, so the engine can safely operate at more extreme angles. Other than some engine mounts, and a whole pile of “V8” stickers seemingly stuck onto the truck at random, that was it
The result is an even 700 BHP and 640 Lb-Ft of torque. That’s down from the Shelby’s 760 BHP figure, which led other journalists attending this vehicle’s launch to ask the obvious question: Why not dial in a few more ponies, in order to claim more power than the 707 BHP Ram TRX? SVT’s answer is quite the flex: with 400 pounds less weight, a handful of horsepower simply doesn’t matter. The Raptor R is faster.
The Raptor R also has another big advantage over the TRX. Where the Ram is fitted with 35-inch tires from the showroom (but has clearance to run 37s), the Raptor R is built around those 37x12.5-17s from the factory.
The non-R Raptor comes in two versions: one with 35s and one with 37s. The latter uses longer bump stops to reduce front wheel travel from 14 to 13 inches, in order to clear that larger rubber.
Asked why the Raptor R is only available with 37s, and those longer bump stops, an SVT engineer had a simple answer: The faster truck needed the additional ground clearance, and approach angle. He also nodded towards the improved looks that come from the bigger tires.
13 years later, I’m pretty sure Ford handed out the same beaten up old Simpsons they brought along that original launch. But this time they paired them with Hans Devices, rather than foam rolls.
Watching other journalists drive the R in the sand dunes, that engineer's point was made clear. While awareness of off-roading, and appreciation for high performance suspension systems has increased exponentially since the launch of that original Raptor, driving skills have remained static. And the speed added by the R holds the potential to create some real issues. It was common to see drivers accelerate into steps tall enough to impact the front skid plate, before the front tires reached the terrain and bounced the truck into the air. Jump liftoffs were met with throttle offs, pivoting the trucks nose down on landing. But while the driving skill on display may have been less than impressive, the way the R just shrugged it all off was stunning. SVT hasn't just managed to make the fastest off-road truck ever sold in a showroom, it’s managed to make that 700 BHP, long travel pickup shockingly easy to drive.
Some of that safety is provided by electronics. Ford’s been pioneering high-speed off-road traction aids since that first Raptor, and they’re now extremely effective at keeping the vehicle from getting out of control, while still facilitating power slides.
Part of that safety is due to the additional track width. Measuring 6.1 inches wider than the regular F-150, the Raptor just never feels or looks tippy. I watched journalists fail to complete sidehill slides, and end up with a truck understeering downhill with wheels turned the wrong way. But the uphill wheels never once lifted.
But most of the R’s total feeling of safety is just down to a level of power and responsiveness that finally matches the capability of a the chassis. Where getting the V6 Raptor to jump or pivot takes a lot of momentum, the R’s transmission tuning and instantly available torque actually enhances control of the vehicle, and makes driving it even at high speeds through high-consequence terrain just completely intuitive.
Worried you might not complete a climb up a steep dune? Just tickle the throttle, and the power to do so is right there. Front washing out during a sharp turn in loose sand? Stab the throttle and the truck instantly rotates. The supercharged V8 transforms the Raptor from an immensely capable, but ultimately challenging drive, into something that makes dune running a simple, point and shoot experience.
This is how the Raptor should have driven from the beginning, and it’s tragic that so few people are now going to have the chance to experience this truck as it should drive. Starting at $109,000, before dealer markups that are likely going to be extreme, if you can even find an available truck, the R is going to be a rare beast. And that tragedy is made even more sad because odds are, this is going to be the last internal combustion Raptor. Ford, like other automakers, is rapidly pivoting towards electrification, and is slashing budgets and staff from ICE vehicle development to fund that transition. Just when the Raptor finally offers the experience it always promised, economic realities are going to force its extinction.
The Raptor then bookends a short, exciting period in automotive history. High performance factory off-road trucks, of the kind invented, and now finally fulfilled by SVT are the ultimate final bender in our addiction to fossil fuels. Going cold turkey on these things is going to be painful, even, or especially because the final taste of them is so, so sweet. — Wes Siler
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