Ford's new Raptor shines in tough off-road conditions

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The redesigned Ford Raptor, starting around $50,000, is expected to be in high demand for its impressive performance in grueling conditions. (KABC)

Yes, it's a pickup truck. But the Ford Raptor is one of those vehicles that also achieved a bit of cult status.

"Once people got their hands on it and started realizing it was pretty legit, and a pretty capable vehicle, the popularity spread," said Andrew P. Collins with the website Jalopnik.com, referring to the first-generation Raptor.

It burst onto the scene in 2010 as a sort of factory muscle car for the dirt.

After a hiatus when Ford switched over to the current aluminum-bodied F150 in 2015, it was back to work creating an all-new Raptor.

"We certainly delivered with the first-gen Raptor, and we set the bar very high. So it was a high standard that needed to be exceeded, and the team has done a fantastic job doing that," said Doug Scott, marketing manager for Ford Motor Company's truck division.

At Ford's official press launch here in California, I got to be one of the first to climb into the 2017 Raptor, to do some rock crawling on very steep terrain. It was fun, but other modern 4x4 vehicles could have tackled the same obstacle course with similar ease.

To experience the Raptor where it really shines, Ford strapped me into safety gear, had me put the truck's four-wheel-drive control system into a special "Baja" mode, and sent me out for some high-speed driving in the Anza-Borrego Desert.

Accompanying me in the passenger seat was a Ford engineer who worked on the Raptor's suspension, and spent hundreds of hours on these same stretches of barren desert as part of the team that developed the Raptor.

From ripping through deep sand without the engine even breathing hard, to cruising rocky roads at up to 80 mph, it soon became clear that the Raptor isn't resting on the laurels of its legendary name. Everything on the 2017 Raptor was beefed up over the 2010-2014 Raptor: the frame, the suspension, the tires, you name it.

This is the kind of project automotive engineers love to work on, deal with challenges, and push the boundaries just a bit.

One example is the very wide track of this truck; the distance between the outer sidewalls of the tires. It's much wider than the standard F150, and helps give the Raptor an aggressive stance. They thought about going even wider, but they reached the limit of how wide the truck could be and still move down the Ford truck assembly line.

Under the hood, the 6.2 liter V8 of the old Raptor is gone, replaced by a twin-turbo 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6.

Don't cry, V8 fans. This special engine gets the job done, with 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque, both big increases over the V8. And fuel economy was increased by 23 percent, partly due to the new 10-speed automatic transmission that's also part of the Raptor package of upgrades.

"This one is a high-output version of EcoBoost, so I think that the engine team has done a great job. It's got dual exhaust, so it has its own unique rumble and sound," remarked Ford's Doug Scott.

One thing that hasn't changed - the Raptor will be in demand right off the bat due to all the buzz it's getting and all the pre-orders Ford has received.

"Think about like when a new iPhone comes out. Everybody wants to be the first," said Jalopnik's Collins, adding, "The first few months are going to be really hot. Dealers are going to go a little crazy squeezing everything they can out of them."

Even at a starting price of about $50,000, this new Ford Raptor will definitely be hard to catch. Both on the showroom floor, and on whatever kind of rocky surface it's going to be driven on.

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