We let Ford’s eagerly anticipated off-road rocket spread its wings on dunes, dirt and blacktop to see just how capable this formidable-looking newcomer is...

For all of its hardebaarde connotations and braai-side bragging rights, off-roading requires a surprisingly delicate touch. Obstacles often need to be carefully negotiated with balanced applications of throttle and steering inputs, lest your 4x4 is unceremoniously bogged down in the mud or gutted by sharp rocks lurking just beneath your diffs. Even sand driving, where momentum is everything, can punish the ham-fisted with whinnying tyres and a resigned reach for the shovel to extract your now beached wheels.

But with the Ranger Raptor, Ford now prescribes a different modus operandi; all-out attack with pretty much any semblance of calculated off-roading obscured by high-revving engines, wakes marked with plumes of kicked-up sand and the occasional bit of airborne ridge-negotiation. Unlike the approach taken with the 336 kW V6 F-150 Raptor, the folks behind this apex 2,0-litre Ranger have instead opted to make their bakkie a nimble athlete. It’s a bold move, especially with a R100 000 premium over the already impressive 2,0-litre Wildtrak, and the all-too-common perception the only thing that should come in two litres is the bottle of Coke accompanying your brandy. But does a paucity of punch detract from the Raptor’s appeal? We took it and its more conventional Wildtrak stablemate over roads, dunes and dirt tracks to see if the wait was worthwhile.

Packaging

Going purely on design, it seems the wait was worth it. We’ve always considered the Ranger, especially in Wildtrak garb, an imposing slab of bakkie but the Raptor makes it look meek by comparison. Along with the block “Ford” lettering in the grille, Raptor decals and bulging wheelarches housing not only model-specific 17-inch rims shod with 285/70 R17 BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres – plus front and rear tracks 150 mm wider than those of the Wildtrak – the Raptor’s ride height has also been jacked up to 283 mm. That extra 46 mm of ground clearance may not sound like much, but park the two nose to nose and that height difference shows. Factor in chopped bumpers and underbody protection made from 2,3 mm steel, and the Raptor looks every bit the Baja racer.

And that’s exactly what Ford’s performance arm has aimed for. Changes underneath that muscular shell start with a ladder-frame chassis combining the Ranger’s front-end architecture and the Everest’s rear section; the latter accommodating a Watts linkage axle in lieu of the Wildtrak’s leaf-sprung tail. With suspension travel upped by 32% fore and 22% aft, this setup lends itself better to the rigours of high-speed off-roading and combines with additional chassis bracing to up torsional rigidity and check lateral movement.

As with the F-150 Raptor, Ford has turned to Fox Racing for the Ranger Raptor’s suspension setup. Double-tube racing shocks have been allied to the revised front wishbone suspension with coil-over springs out back. The inner lining of the front tubes features a line of oil-bleeding holes which close sequentially under compression, incrementally modulating the Raptor’s damping in response to whatever surfaces it’s traversing.

On-road

It’s this sophisticated system that immediately impresses with a compliant ride on tarmac bereft of wallow. Furthermore, the Raptor’s wide track makes it feel foot-sure and pleasingly composed under cornering. This is especially evident when the uprated, six-setting Ford Terrain Management System is in its sportier preset, rendering the variable-ratio electric power steering palpably more direct than the Wildtrak’s more benign helm.

Time on the tarmac also highlights the impressive levels of refinement served up by both cars. Even the bit of extra noise you’d expect from the Raptor’s knobbly tyres is well suppressed, albeit in part by synthesised engine sound lending the turbodiesel a warbling, off-beat tone. Indeed, you can settle back in wonderfully supportive sports seats and chip away at the miles without fatigue. Just beyond the steering wheel’s chunky leather rim, a pair of magnesium paddle shifters beg to be toggled. But with what’s sitting under the bonnet, their slow response on both up- and downshifts is understandable.

Drivetrain

While Ford’s engineers have had a field day with the Raptor’s underpinnings, the constraints of mechanical packaging and economy of scales see it share the company’s new 2,0-litre, four-cylinder sequential twinturbo-diesel engine with the Wildtrak. Yes, it’s exactly the same. The same reasonable 157 kW and 500 N.m of torque; the same GM co-developed 10-speed automatic transmission.

Looking at the Raptor’s hulking form, you do feel this concession sits astray of its perceived reputation. Our performance testing compounded this impression when the Wildtrak outstripped the Raptor in the 0-100 km/h run, clocking 10,10 seconds versus 10,94. A kerb weight that’s 166 kg north of the Wildtrak likely didn’t help acceleration off the mark, nor did it help bring the Raptor to a halt from 100 km/h any quicker, despite its uprated braking system with 332 mm discs all-round.

But the Raptor’s natural habitat isn’t a drag strip. The brilliant bowls of white sand in the Atlantis dunes is the perfect place for it to strut its stuff. Toggle the drivetrain-management system into its model-unique Baja setting and traction control intervention is kept to a minimum, while the gearbox adopts a more aggressive gearshift pattern. Then it’s a case of throwing caution to the wind and barrelling onto the sand. The large footprint afforded by those BF Goodrich tyres and that wide track make the most of what little traction is on offer.

You recalibrate your previously cautious off-roading approach; foot flat wherever you go, dismissive of most bumps and searching the landscape for a natural ramp. And when you find a suitable launch pad, the Raptor just begs to take wing. That chopped bumper and bumped-up ride height means you can approach inclines at a pace that would see other bakkies spearing their noses into the dune. Grit your teeth and feel the suspension hunker down as your momentum builds to the bottom of the ramp before seemingly springing the Raptor clear of the rise. The expected impact of the fast-approaching ground isn’t as jarring as you’d expect, owing to dampers tuned to retain their pre-flight compression and resist bucking the bakkie about on landing. It’s only when you’re climbing steeper slopes or trying to get a bit more height on the parabola you’re carving along a dune face that you feel a bit more power wouldn’t go amiss.

Having effortlessly attacked the sand in the Raptor, traversing the same terrain in the Wildtrak, with its more conventional footwear and suspension, brings into stark relief just what different creatures they are. The Wildtrak is a capable off-roader, of course, but the traction and effortless ability to skim over the sand that characterise the Raptor isn’t there. Without that purchase on loose surfaces, you have to take a more measured path through the sand, paying more attention to maintain momentum.

The Raptor carries this ability to confidently traverse rough terrain at speed onto dirt roads, too. The Wildtrak takes to loose gravel and rutted surfaces well enough but the Raptor’s broad tracks and supple suspension allow it to coast over bumps you’d skirt around in the Wildtrak. Driven back to back on dirt, the Raptor’s more settled nature and direct controls often see you confidently carrying upwards of 20 km/h more pace across rough roads than you would in its more stock sibling.



TEST SUMMARY

You’ve got to tip your hat at Ford for releasing a model like the Raptor. Granted, sensibility dictates it’s the Wildtrak you should opt for, and that’s reflected in the team’s scoring (the Wildtrak scored one point more than the Raptor). With solid off-road ability, good on-road manners and just enough in the way of visual accoutrements to lend it a rugged air, it’s a well-rounded (much cheaper) package. This balanced nature is furthered by the fact it’s more capable of undertaking workhorse duties; the Raptor’s chassis and suspension revisions see it sacrifice more than 250 kg of payload and 1 000 kg of braked towing capacity. We feel confident in our decision to give the Ranger our award for best bakkie in our recent Top 12 Best Buys.

To really appreciate the extra capability served up by the Raptor, though, you have to follow our lead and drive it back to back with the Wildtrak. It’s only then you experience the sheer gap in off-road ability that separates them and appreciate the engineering and effort put into its underpinnings. It’s about as close to an off-road racer as you can get without delving into the depths of the sport (and your wallet), and revels in the sort of high-speed rough-terrain antics which would send suspension struts through the bonnets of some of its rivals. And while that price premium isn’t to be sniffed at, it’s worth bearing in mind going the aftermarket route to turn your Ranger into a Raptor would require considerable outlay, and the result still wouldn’t be as accomplished.

Some will lament Ford’s decision to go the four-cylinder turbo-diesel route, as the Raptor’s chassis certainly feels capable of handling some extra grunt. There’s also the nagging knowledge similar money can net you an Amarok V6. Even so, while the appeal of two extra cylinders is hard to ignore, you’d be loath to throw any other premium-packaged bakkie into rough terrain with the sort of abandon you would the Raptor.

ROAD TEST SCORE

Ranger Ford Ranger 2.0Bi-Turbo double cab 4x4 Raptor
77 / 100
  • Price: R819,400
  • 0-100 km/h:
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 157 KW @ 3750
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 500 N.m @ 1500-2000
  • Top speed:
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 8.3 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 220 g/KM