I AM airborne in a Ford Ranger Raptor, the desert track a few feet below passing by in a blur of ochre. I brace myself, anticipating a hard impact when the prototype dual-cab’s tyres reconnect with terra firma, but it doesn’t happen – the impact is muted and barely discernible.
So I relax, just as Ford test driver Matt Gerlach, working the wheel beside me, punches the throttle. This elicits an immediate response from the Raptor’s 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder as the 10-speed auto shifts down a couple of gears and shoves us forward at a ridiculously fast pace, on to the next corner. The speed of approach – and the cornering speed – is bloody impressive, and I know I should feel a wee bit scared, but all I feel is the huge shit-eating grin on my face.
4X4 AUSTRALIA and one fellow Aussie journo (we were the only two local scribes, joined by two Thai-based writers) are at Ford development HQ – in this case, in the middle of the outback, where ‘Project Redback’ – Ford-speak for the Ranger Raptor Development Program – is well underway.
Here, we meet a number of Ford representatives: Damien Ross, Chief Program Engineer for Raptor; Simon Johnson, Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer; and Anthony Hall, Vehicle Engineering Manager; plus myriad engineers (25 to be exact), PR types, test drivers and, most impressively, two Raptor prototypes covered in the ubiquitous prototype-chequered paintjob. One of these rolls past us not long after we arrive, but before I can even think about snapping a photo using my iPhone, the PR team hand out specific phone-camera covers. They must have read my mind.
TO understand how the Ranger Raptor was born you have to look to the USA and the success of Ford’s F-150 Raptor. This started as a concept that evolved from the vision of Jamal Hameedi, Global Performance Vehicle Chief Engineer, Ford Motor Company, who is an avid fan of the huge desert-racing scene in North America – think: Baja, Trophy Truck racing, etc. – and the prerunner vehicles used in those events. ‘Prerunner’ is the generic term used to describe the modified off-roaders (nearly always utes with big tyres, plenty of lift and loads of grunt) that teams use to drive the race route before the event itself, allowing them to check for potential dangers and obstacles they’ll need to avoid during the racing itself. Needless to say, the F-150 Raptor was (and still is) a raging sales success. This success ignited the belief within Ford Australia that an equivalent version of the US Raptor could work, as Damien Ross explains.
“So we’ve taken the Raptor DNA; they’ve [Ford USA] written down everything – every ingredient – that we need for a Raptor,” he says. “We’ve taken that and we’ve applied that to the Ranger platform and created a Ranger Raptor. So that’s what we’ve been doing, and the Ranger Raptor is all about being able to go up to that high-speed off-road capability that you’d want for a prerunner.”
This initial idea led to Ford Oz developing a business case to satisfy the bean-counters that this project was financially viable, and then building the first of what would be many test mule incarnations.
Even before the financial questions were successfully answered, the engineering team was busy – in their own time – building early test mules, nutting out how the Raptor concept would work in Ranger format.
“It was pretty valuable getting physical prototypes very early on and getting people’s thoughts and visions on what it could be,” Simon Johnson says.
Also helping the early stages of the project gain Ford HQ approval was an unexpected test drive by Ford’s then Global Project Development Director, Raj Nair, who was coincidentally in Australia at the exact time the first prototype was finished being built.
“It [the first prototype] had been delivered to the proving ground at eight o’clock the night before,” Simon explains. “I said ‘well, there are few cars out for him [Nair] to drive so I will just park it down there somewhere’. It’s not had a safety check, no one can drive it, but yep, Raj wants to drive…
“So I did a safety check, took him around in it and it went better than I thought. So I let him have a drive of it and, yeah, he loved it; he said: ‘you’ve nailed Raptor’. So yeah, that was good.”
That prototype was one of two built initially – one for testing road loads and the other for Simon to ‘play around with’ in regards to suspension and dynamics – something the development team knew had to be nailed down early on in the program to keep it aligned with how any vehicle with the ‘Raptor’ moniker is expected to perform, both on- and off-road.
RAPTOR DNA WITH A TWIST
THIS Raptor is based off the new MY18 Ranger model to be released in the second half of 2018 and, as mentioned in the first part of this story, the powerplant is a Raptor-only 2.0-litre twin-turbo (sequential) diesel four-cylinder engine. Power and torque figures reveal 157kW and 500Nm, more power and torque than the 3.2L five cylinder diesel makes in the regular Ranger. Surprisingly, this twin-turbo diesel was the only engine considered for Ranger Raptor (at least in the Asia-Pacific market; nobody will answer any queries RE a US-spec Ranger Raptor). And the Ford team doesn’t seem overly concerned with the Australian ute market’s fixation with larger-capacity engines.
“I am sure there will be drivers who have their obsessions,” says Damien. “But when they get in this vehicle and drive it – and they don’t have another one to drive anyway, so they’re kind of pre-dispositioned – it won’t matter because they can’t go and buy somebody else’s version of Raptor. And so they’ll get in and they will just be blown away by what it does.”
The second deviation from the F-150 Raptor DNA – and from the rest of the Ranger model line-up – is the use of a Watts link coil-spring rear end (the big US rig has a leaf-spring rear). Dispelling any assumptions, the Ranger Raptor’s rear suspension is not the same as the one underneath the Everest wagon, as Damien explains.
“Probably the biggest challenge was right at the beginning when we were finalising whether we were going to take the leaf spring system that they had or go to the coil-over-shock system Watts link that we’ve got now,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons Simon built the X0 [first test mule] to prove that out; so that was probably the biggest technical decision we made which was, as it turned out, absolutely the right decision.”
Simon explains the aversion to leaf springs on Raptor, and also the differences between the Ford stabelemates’ rear ends: “One of the big benefits of the Watts link in particular is the lateral compliance – it’s very stiff,” he says. “With leaf springs, you’ve got a bit of compliance; somewhere around here [the test facility] if you throw it hard into a turn you slide and you hit a berm or a rut, and if you’ve got leaf springs you go ‘boom’ and fling about. This thing [the Watts link-equipped Raptor] just carves it.”
“So where the springs on the Everest sit, they’re very close to the diff, and that means a very strong axle, too, for the bending. For the Raptor, we’ve moved them outboard of the shocks, so we’ve inherited an incredibly stiff axle and gained strength in that, but we don’t have the spring-back [due to the outboard position of shocks] so don’t need an anti-roll bar. That’s saved us on weight and it packages well and it looks great on the road.”
THE SAME BUT VERY DIFFERENT
THE rear suspension set-up is just one of the features that set Raptor apart from its brethren. Another is fitment of FOX internal bypass long-travel dampers and coil springs, as well as larger tyres. The rubber – BFGoodrich All Terrain T/A KO2 LT285/70R17 – was developed in partnership with BFGoodrich, who used its previous F-150 Raptor tyre as a starting point. The dampers are unique: the development team partnered with FOX Racing for the Raptor-specific shock (which works in a similar way to a remote reservoir shock, but with the reservoir inbuilt), working with coil springs supplied from outside FOX. Like the tyres, the shocks are big and beefy to cop the loads and additional stress of the vehicle, which included plenty of corrugated kays during testing.
The end result: Raptor rides 50mm higher than the standard Ranger and offers a compliant and controlled ride both on- and off-road, which was, for Simon, the biggest challenge.
“It’s important to us that our customers get a vehicle that will exceed their expectations off-road, but is something that is useful every day,” he says. “I’d happily jump into the Ranger Raptor and drive for 12 hours – it’s so comfortable. So we’ve managed to keep that plush ride and yet make it absorb massive inputs off-road here in testing.”
Neither Simon nor Damien would elaborate on the difference in wheel travel, beyond saying it was ‘significant’. Equally significant are the exterior bodywork styling and underbody changes; the front-end geometry had to be altered to allow for the bigger shock/tyre package, with the large, chunky alloy A-arms a pointer, along with the bigger brakes (ventilated discs front/rear). There are vents in the front quarter panels, and a front air dam to keep brakes cool. The fuel tank is a reshaped Everest one. The Raptor also runs on a wider track, necessitating a re-laying of the frame.
“We’ve basically heavily modified, or more or less designed-new, the frame,” Damien says. “So we started off from a basic underpinnings and we’ve strengthened the frame to be able to take the off-road loads, because you often hit whoops and bumps and can take off a little bit and land and you can’t do that on standard frames; so that’s been strengthened [in key areas]. And we’ve had to redesign it for things like the spare tyre because the tyre’s a lot bigger.
ENGINEERING THE POSSIBLE
The biggest re-sizing challenge was, Damien reckons, the engine bay, which is pretty bloody crowded.
“The engine bay has an all-new layout,” Damien explains. “We’ve had to move, shuffle… To be honest, this is probably one of the areas in the vehicle that we’ve had to package everything. With new technology and, especially if you go to higher emission controls, just trying to get everything fitted in there, it’s a task in itself.”
Exterior panelwork changes include the obvious pumped-out front and rear guards to accommodate the wider track, the re-positioned rear bumper, and higher-rated recovery hooks. There’s also a reduction in load-carrying capacity (Damien mentions load weights won’t be up to Wildtrak level, but offers no exact figure) and Raptor-specific styling clues such as the front grille, which is, during our visit, still in mock-up stage. The prototypes’ non-finalised interior is ‘regular’ Ranger, albeit with that 10-speed auto shoehorned in there, along with myriad recording instruments for collecting data on suspension, steering and engine performance.
One similarity with the stock Ranger is the part-time 4x4 system rather than adapting the Everest’s full-time set-up. The Raptor does, however, get the latest version Terrain Management System (TMS), borrowed from the current F-150 Raptor, which includes ‘Baja’ mode.
“It’s a mode that allows you to drive unhindered by other systems taking over; when you’re in a road situation and [the TMS] sees certain traction and steering actions it’ll take an action because you’re on the road,” Damien elaborates. “But, out here you’re in sand and dirt. Those kinds of manoeuvres… this Baja mode will stop those [reactive systems] coming in when you don’t want them.”
This is no one-trick pony, as impressive as its desert driving performance is; Ford has gone to great lengths to ensure the Raptor’s off-road performance is balanced by equally impressive on-road behaviour – the calm Ying to the truly crackers off-road Yang, with both an on-road Sport mode and, a ‘sedate driving mode’, according to Damien.
THE morning of day two saw us finally jump in the Raptor prototypes for a fast blast around one of the test tracks (the 18km loop). Well, sort-of finally: Ford teased us slightly, albeit with good reason. Before our lap in the Raptors, we tackled the same loop in a stock Ranger, to use that experience as a baseline for the differences between the two vehicles.
There are five test drivers at the facility, with each driver allowed only to do three hours at pace each day, due to the stresses their bodies are subject to. I am in with Matt, and am about to find out all about those stresses.
The 18km test loop is a bumpy, sandy mix of straight sections with numerous tight and not-so-tight on- and off-camber corners. The stock Ranger is, itself, a pretty handy off-road performer, but this track tests it severely, with plenty of bumping and banging as Matt manhandles it through and over the various sections. The lap is relatively quick, but I am feeling it.
Next is the Raptor. Owing to these vehicles being prototypes, we are seated in full race seats with race harnesses, helmets, suits, etc. The interior is packed with the aforementioned gauges and screens, but, not long after we blast off, it is the speedo I take most interest in. Throughout the loop, the Raptor averages close to twice the speed of the regular Ranger – and Matt hadn’t taken it easy with the stock unit – and we get airborne twice, both times landing with little drama.
In terms of a standout, it is hard to split the 10-speed auto (and Baja mode, of course) and the suspension. But, if I had to, the Raptor’s suspension/tyre combo would just win out: it is simply brilliant. Those many thousands of kilometres Simon has spent swapping out, and adding in to, the shocks’ shim stacks and myriad other tweaks has paid off. Compression is very well-controlled, and rebound keeps the Raptor feeling very ‘tight’ in regards to how it responds to being shoved around by the bumps and off-camber surfaces below it. The wider track gives the Raptor a more planted feel, and those big tyres finish it off, offering a compliant ride while still tracking true when responding to fast directional changes by the driver. Even more impressive is the fact there’s minimal transfer of the impacts through to us inside the vehicle – a standout in itself when you consider the terrain, the speed, and the fact I am sitting on a bare-bones race seat. Simon’s claims of the vehicle offering owners a more comfortable, relaxed driving experience over longer distances rings in my ear.
Funnily enough, it is the engine that is noticed the least – and that’s not to say it doesn’t impress. There’s no doubt the 2.0-litre TTD donk has some serious grunt; progress is rapid, no matter whether punching along a straight or spearing out of a corner. And it works brilliantly with that auto; its quick shifts are matched perfectly in situations where you’d assume the engine may come off-song (exiting tight corners, etc.), but it shifts subtly, and that 2.0TTD keeps singing, sling-shotting you forward. Needless to say, the time for that loop was significantly faster than our stock Ranger lap. After, I take a seat and jot down just one word in my notebook to describe that Raptor lap: “Otherworldly”.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
THIS Raptor program would seem a huge investment of time and money, if the fact the vehicle will go into 180 markets wasn’t taken into consideration – and that is not taking into account the elephant in the room that is the potential for it to be released in the USA. The term ‘investment’ needs to be also taken into consideration for buyers, though. This thing will sit at the top of the Ranger stable and will no doubt be priced accordingly. The question is: will buyers part with a considerable sum of money for it?
“We haven’t settled on price,” Damien responds. “In terms of customers, we don’t expect it to be the same [sales] volume as an XLT, but more in terms of the Ford Performance type volume. Knowing what kind of price range it is in, I think it is fantastic value and I would be buying this thing straight-up for that. We’ll see what the customer says.”
That tone of confidence is what sticks in this writer’s mind as I get my head around what we were shown over the two days in the Red Centre.
It is dubbed Raptor, so, yeah, you’d think I’d be quoting numerous bird-of-prey clichés (swooping, fast, vicious, etc.) in summing up the vehicle, but that’d be too easy. With the arrival of Raptor, the days of a ‘special edition’ 4x4 ute comprising nothing more than a shiny paint job, blacked-out wheels and bright stickers are, thankfully, gone. Shit just got real, folks.