DARWIN, Australia – My foot is flat on the accelerator as the Ranger Raptor floats over a dirt track that's more akin to a rally stage than a farm road ... at more than 100 km/h. The first serious bump appears from the dust and I hesitate. This is the kind of obstacle that could easily rip off the suspension of a standard bakkie before sending it into countless barrel rolls. I expect a frantic "brake ... brake!" command from my instructor, but it doesn't come. Instead, he calmly says "go".

I brace for impact. The Raptor’s suspension compresses but there's no spine-crushing jolt. The double-cab bakkie is still utterly composed as the wheels leave the ground, before it returns graciously to terra firma moments later…

The name

The Raptor name is borrowed from the Ford F-150 Raptor that has long captured the imagination of the American public. Whereas a standard “truck” needs plenty of upgrades (and thus the investment of plenty of spare cash) – from the suspension and tyres to the brakes – to stand a chance of effectively covering rough off-road terrain at speed, the big Ford is more than capable enough when leaving the showroom floor. And, according to Hermann Salenbauch, global director of Ford Performance, the Ranger Raptor follows in its big brother’s footsteps, and plays the role of the fifth member of the top echelon of the Blue Oval's performance range, alongside the aforementioned F-150 Raptor, the GT, the Focus RS and the Mustang Shelby GT350.

Looks

Styling wise, the Raptor takes race-inspired looks to the next level. What contributes to the aggressive but tasteful execution (in contrast to the popular-but-brash aftermarket kits often seen in South Africa) are the increased width (by 150 mm) and increased height (by 50 mm) when compared with a standard Ranger. Indeed, the Wildtrak support vehicle appeared positively tame next to the Ranger Raptor.
Ford Ranger Raptor

Up front, you'll find a new bumper, tow hooks and bash plate, while the flared wheel arches (using composite material up front) are barely able to contain the massive 285/70 R17 tyres. At the rear, yet more tow hooks and a model-specific bumper can be found, while the tailgate operation is now spring loaded.

Inside, the changes are more subtle. Highlights here include racing seats that manage to be both comfortable and figure-hugging (both necessary when in full flight), a Raptor-specific instrument cluster with an analogue rev counter, a steering wheel with the obligatory Raptor logo (plus red centre position marker) and bespoke gear-shifter treatment.

On the road

The on-tar drive to the remote test location lends me an opportunity to evaluate the Ford’s road manners. Although the suspension is race inspired with coil-over Fox Shocks front and rear, there is a certain plushness to the ride. While I wouldn't quite class it as passenger car comfort, the experience is markedly more resolved than in the donor vehicle, with much better body control in the bends.

Braking is taken care of by a ventilated disc arrangement. Dynamically, the Ranger Raptor is a joy to pilot and the all-terrain BFGoodrich KO2 tyres provide higher levels of grip on tar than expected, with minimal road noise despite the aggressive tread pattern. But the full range of the tyres' capability will come to the fore only when the tar ends.

Powertrain

Of course, the elephant in the room is the all-new, bi-turbodiesel engine. Although the on-paper power outputs of 157 kW and 500 N.m eclipse the figures of the current 3,2-litre, five-cylinder unit, they lag behind in the ultimate "power war" numbers of the Volkswagen Amarok V6 and Mercedes-Benz X-Class X350d.

As the extra bracing added to the chassis and suspension upped the mass of the Raptor to 2 332 kg, straight-line performance was never going to be the stand-out feature (which is bad news for robot racers). This was confirmed over lunch by Damien Ross, chief programme engineer, who did not entertain any complaints over the power output and was confident that any doubts would be put to rest after the off-road section…

The new 10-speed, automatic transmission, which was co-developed with General Motors, works a treat and allows the driver to make the most of the willing engine. Large metal shift paddles behind the steering wheel encourage manual control, although this is mostly not required. The standard transfer case of the Ranger is retained, meaning that selectable four-wheel drive and low-range with rear diff-lock is included. A steep quarry section reveals that first gear high-range is sufficient to tackle most low-speed gradients. Low-range, though, provides extreme crawling ability.

Baja mode

But the Raptor is not designed to go slowly. Carving up the dirt track, the Ford makes its driver feel like an off-road-series competitor. Different driving modes are available, but most interesting is the Baja setting, named after the famous Baja 1000 that takes place in Mexico. This mode sees the electronic control systems allow plenty of slip before any “recovery” action is taken.
Ford Ranger RaptorThe new suspension set-up with Watt’s linkage rear axle limits body lean during extreme cornering and the Raptor can easily be coaxed into long, controllable drifts on the sandy surface. In short, the Ranger Raptor encourages hooligan-type behaviour and makes it surprisingly easy to achieve.

Up the ante

Just when I think I have experienced it all, I'm handed a race suit, helmet and neck brace. This is for protection when sitting next to a Ford test driver who is going to give me a taste of what the Raptor went through during its extensive development. Nothing can prepare you for the speed the Raptor is capable of when hitting ruts, jumps and ditches, all without sustaining damage. The closest experience I had had before this was in a Dakar off-road racer ... but this is a standard production car!

The short loop is quickly completed, with the Ranger Raptor not showing any strain after what many would consider a severe beating. It is simply unimaginable that the development requirement is 1 600 km (or 1000 miles, as in the Baja race distance) of this type of onslaught during testing.

Summary

The Ranger Raptor is an immensely capable off-road vehicle and its ability in this respect far exceeds that of a standard Ranger ... or any other competitor in the segment, for that matter. The fact that these qualities shine through strongest during a full-on dirt-road assault may count against it as such opportunities are not usually available right outside the local showroom floor during the requisite test drive.

Of course, pricing will be key, but many local buyers will likely take the plunge on looks alone and end up using it as a family vehicle – a role it is admittedly perfectly capable of playing. Still, that would be a shame as the Ranger Raptor has been built for traversing barren terrain at high velocities, even if a chequered flag is nowhere to be seen...

Author: Nicol Louw