Flatter the novice, reward the expert.

These are the words that drive a very special unit within the Ford Motor Company; a crew that is dedicated to producing exceptional vehicles that can put smiles on those that drive them. They're called Ford Performance.

The history of this group is as interesting as it comes. Previously, major markets of Ford had their own performance or motorsport division. North America had Ford Racing and SVT, or the Special Vehicle Team (hence SVT Lightning). Australia had Ford Performance Vehicles, which specialized mostly on the Falcon and other Aussie-market vehicles. Europe, on the other hand, had Ford TeamRS. The Blue Oval finally unified their global motorsport and tuning efforts in 2015, and called it Ford Performance.

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Some would think that what these guys do is similar to what M does for BMW or what TRD does for Toyota, but they're not exactly like that. While many in-house performance tuning departments are focused on turning luxury sedans into high-horsepower, tire-blistering saloons for the autobahn or shedding weight to turn coupes into corner-carving driving machines, Ford Performance is just that little bit more different.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

They've built hot hatches like the Fiesta ST and the Focus ST, hatchbacks that have had their abilities dialed up to 9 simply because the S and T stand for Sport Technologies. They've built the Focus RS, a very hot variant of their hatchback. They built the Shelby GT350 and GT350R, high performance cars that need no introduction, unless you have no idea what a Mustang or who Carroll Shelby is. And then there's the Ford GT. If we have to explain, we can take all day. And of course, there's the F-150 Raptor; a truck that can conquer any kind of terrain and put a smile on your face.

Now if you look at that portfolio, you'll realize that it's about as diverse as a hotel's international lunch buffet. The performance versions of the Fiesta and Focus were made for Europe's B-roads; asphalt that snakes through mountains that demand sharp handling and and even quicker response. The Shelbies (is that the right way to pluralize the name?) and the F-150 Raptor were for America; wide, long and straight roads that were perfect for big, heavy performance vehicles. The Ford GT, well, just take it to a race track and you'll be the mixing it up with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis, no problem. 

But if you haven't noticed, the rest of the world -us- have been missing out on what Ford Performance has to offer. Those are not products Ford considers as having global potential; they were made for specific tastes, for specific roads, and for specific needs. 

That's where the Ranger Raptor comes in, and why we flew to Darwin in Northern Australia to drive it... in the outback.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

What makes this a Raptor?

The term raptor may have been popularized by a fictional dinosaur park that spared no expense (except when it comes to adequate security), but in reality it's a generic term for a bird of prey. Eagles, vultures, falcons, hawks and the like are all raptors, technically-speaking.

In Ford's usage, the Raptor has always denoted the high-performance, off-road version of the F-150 since 2009. Prior to that, the high performance variant of the F-150 was the more road-inclined SVT Lightning. But again, that Raptor (and the Lightning that preceded it) was a North America-only model. That is not the case for the Ranger Raptor. 

This is the first time the Raptor name has been used on the global Ranger pick-up. The most obvious upgrades are in the visuals: this Ranger looks the part of a Raptor. The wheels, the stance, and the graphics all evoke a higher degree of performance. Though perhaps the most eye catching detail is the massive F-O-R-D grille, a signature of the F-150 Raptor that the aftermarket has been producing for Ranger, Everest, and even EcoSport owners. 

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

But beyond the many cosmetic upgrades, it's easy to see that the Ranger has bulked up significantly to deserve the Raptor name. The Ranger Raptor is slightly longer; the Wildtrak is 5277mm long, but the Raptor is 5398mm long. The truck sits higher; Ford raised the Ranger by almost 50mm, all the better to clear obstacles and jumps with. Yes, I meant jumps. The front bumper improves the approach angle even further; Wildtraks can enter an incline that's about 28 degrees, but the Raptor can approach ones that are up to 32.5 degrees without scraping the bumper, or those reinforced bash plates.

The biggest change is in the width. The body itself is not wider but -much like muscles- the fenders bulge out. The complex shape of the wide front fenders actually cannot be pressed out of steel, so Ford used fiber reinforced plastics (FRP) instead of metal to make the fenders. Those pieces are somewhat cosmetic only; they were really made to accommodate the wider track of the vehicle.

Car 101: the distance between the center of left and right wheels is known as the track, while the distance between the center of front and rear wheels is known as the wheelbase. If you lengthen the wheelbase, stability is improved, but it sacrifices maneuverability, and vice versa. The same applies to the track; the wider it gets, the more stable the car at high speed. In the Ranger Raptor (compared to the Wildtrak) the wheelbase remains unchanged at 3220mm, but the track has been increased by 150mm. In automotive speak, that's a massive change; something I'll explain later on. 

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

When Ford revealed the Ranger Raptor to us in Thailand a few months ago, they didn't give us a peek at the interior by opening the doors; in fact, they even tinted the sole Raptor that was at the launch so we couldn't see what's inside. Now that we're driving it, we can tell that the changes aren't so much cosmetic, as much as they are functional.

The dash and layout all look rather standard for a high-spec Ranger, though while the Wildtrak has orange stitching, the Raptor has blue. The clearest upgrade is the steering wheel; it's been reshaped to something that feels like a sport steering wheel that came from the Momo factory, and even has a rally-inspired red position indicator at the top of the leather rim. There are also paddle shifters, something we'll get to play with a bit more later.

The upgrade we like the most, however, has to be the front seats. They're more racing bucket-inspired with bigger side bolsters to hold you while cornering, but surprisingly, they're far more comfortable than expected. That will come in handy when we take on the Australian outback. 

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

Power, drive, and control

When we opened the hood, we got our first look at what powers the Ranger Raptor: a 2.0-liter twin-cam turbo diesel engine that has a cast iron block and a cast aluminum head with the intake manifold built into it; the unified intake/head construction is similar to the 1.0L EcoBoost motor.

The biggest question is the size of the engine itself: the current Ranger Wildtrak has a 3.2-liter turbo diesel, so why does a more performance oriented Raptor have a tinier motor?

The new 2.0L engine's size hides the fact that it's more powerful and has more torque than the bigger 3.2L, as it has 213 PS (Wildtrak 3.2L: 200 PS) and 500 Nm of torque (Wildtrak 3.2L: 470 Nm). The key to the performance of the Raptor's smaller engine is in its sophistication: whereas the Wildtrak's 3.2L has one turbo, the Raptor has two. They're arranged in a sequential format, with a smaller turbo providing boost (and reducing lag) at lower RPMs, in turn feeding the bigger turbo. At speed, an actuator allows exhaust gases to bypass the small fixed geometry turbo, allowing the bigger variable vane turbo to take over and do the heavy lifting at high RPM. 

The thought that went into this engine is clear: Ford wanted to do more, but with much less. In the case of the gearbox, they wanted the reverse; they wanted to do less, but with much more.

The reason is that the Raptor gets the new 10R80 gearbox automatic that Ford developed (and shares with rival General Motors). The name says it all: it has 10 speeds. What that means is that the Raptor has a close ratio gearbox with smaller increments each time it shifts; perfect for a smaller engine. It sounds highly sophisticated and heavy, though Ford's engineers, particularly Trevor Worthington (their head for Product Development) assures us that the 10-speed gearbox can stand up to the abuse; they did punishing tests of this gearbox thoroughly on the challenging Aussie outback and in Borrego, California 

Like the Wildtrak, the Raptor has selectable four wheel drive. For general road use, 2WD is the way to go. In the outback, we'll get to play more with the 4WD modes. The one we really were keen to try out were the selectable drive modes, particularly Baja mode. More on that later.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

Not about power

Our day with the Ranger Raptor began bright and early in Darwin. Parked outside is a convoy of about a dozen Ranger Raptors with a variety of graphics and in three colors: white, blue, and gray. Personally, I like the gray; seems like a nice truck to take out in the outback... but first we had to get there.

We had about 200 kilometers on our route in order to reach past the bush and into the true outback. The word is Australia's term for the vast interior lands of their continent; and in this country, they give the word "vast" a whole different meaning, as we were going to find out.

Given the Raptor branding, we half expected a high-powered machine that you can easily bring to a drag strip and win. But the thing we have to make clear is that if you're looking for extreme acceleration, prepare to be slightly disappointed. 

While the engine is sophisticated and does have plenty of power and torque, the Ranger Raptor weighs in at 2,324 kilograms; that's heavier than the Ranger 4x4 automatic variants. As such, getting to 100 km/h from a standstill takes 10.5 seconds. And even then, the top speed seems to be limited to 170 km/h.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

Unparalleled on the road

On Australia's national highway, the Ranger Raptor felt far better than we expected. Wind noise was superbly suppressed; very surprising for an un-aerodynamic pick-up truck. But more importantly, the special tires from BF Goodrich which were standard for the Ranger Raptor, were incredible for their silence on the highway. That was the surprising bit; blocky and knobby off-road all-terrain tires are notorious for the way they sing on the highway as the treads act as chambers to amplify tire noise. But these tires are something else, allowing occupants to talk without raising their voices. 

We had also half-expected the ride to be harsh; performance machines are notorious for rough rides for the sake of handling, but not so in this case. Easily, the Raptor is far more comfortable on the road than the already comfortable (for a truck) Ranger Wildtrak. Heck, the ride comfort is even better than even the Everest SUV. 

The reason for the superb ride comfort is the fact that the Ranger Raptor was tuned specifically to handle off-roading at high speed, which means the suspension needs to absorb everything the terrain can throw at it. And to do that, Ford Performance sought out the expertise of Fox Racing Shox.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

Fox is a specialist for off-road shocks, particularly for high-speed driving; the kind we encountered in Australia's back country. The new position-sensitive dampers from Fox are much wider in diameter at 2.5-inches compared to the standard models and have super sized pistons. The dampers have built-in reservoirs that hold twice the amount of the fluid as the standard shock absorbers for better heat dissipation. More importantly, Ford's use of these very expensive shocks (between $5000-6000, according to the engineers) allows for 22% more suspension travel in front and 32% more travel in the back. 

We know the suspension will be great for managing the roughness of off-road terrain, but we were surprised at how sublimely that translated to comfort for the Raptor on-road.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

Measured cornering

After about an hour on the road, we entered a big property: Tipperary Station.

Remember what I said about places here being vast? Well, the massive cattle ranch known as Tipperary Station measures in at well over 200,000 hectares. That translates to over two thousand square kilometers, or about 3 and a half times the land area of all the cities within Metro Manila. 

Once out of the highway, we entered a bitumen road into the Tipperary property... a twisty one. Here, the Ford Ranger Raptor showed why it's more than the regular truck.

Again, it's not big on acceleration, but it has very predictable manners. There is some lean from the suspension, but they hold the weight on the outside to give you confidence to make it around the corners. And once again, the tires are just perfect; nary a chirp on the road if driven properly, even though BFGoodrich intended these 285/70 KO2 all-terrain tires to deliver the best of two worlds. Best of all, you can drop the tires in the dirt to take the apex, though the guy behind might not appreciate that.

The brakes are a pleasant surprise; powerful and have a very positive feel when you apply pressure on the pedal. The rotors themselves are big, all of which are vented; 332mm in diameter and 32mm thick in front, 332mm in diameter and 24mm thick in the back. Even with such a heavy vehicle, braking again and again shouldn't be a problem.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

The master off-the-road

At one point, we started running out of pavement, and hit the gravel... the kind that kicks up that bright orange dust. Ford's drive instructors stopped us one by one, and released us with a good minute's gap in between in order to let the dust settle.

Normally on a road like this, we'd slow it down a bit; something like 80 km/h sounds about right. In the Raptor, 100 on this dirt actually feels ridiculously slow, and so we pushed it up a bit. 130, 140, 150... all without a problem or that leery feeling. All you had to do was make a few corrections with the wheel, and keep driving steadily.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

We accidentally set the radio to the wrong channel, and so we weren't getting any of the warnings like big rocks, or big dips on the road. One such dip actually sent us airborne for a bit at about 90 km/h, but thankfully the suspension was more than up to the task. We wouldn't dream of doing anything like the speeds we were hitting with a leaf sprung truck. 

The dampers and springs were designed to suit the new, wider track of the suspension which in itself was beefed up significantly. The back has been reworked with a Watt's linkage (similar to the Everest), while the front suspension uses forged upper arms and cast lowers. The frame was made even more rigid and is almost fully seam welded for strength. Ford's engineers say they added reinforcements and used thicker steel at certain points on the frame, particularly on the suspension mounting hardpoints.

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia 

Once into the property, Ford took us out on a special stage that they had carved into the farm; a 5 kilometer long track that winds through the plains and the hill. Here, we started to play around with Baja mode; a drive setting that takes its name from the Baja race in Mexico that features off-road racing vehicles such as trophy trucks... the very kind that inspired the F-150 Raptor and in turn, the Ranger Raptor.

Baja mode, especially in 2WD mode, allows the driver to have a bit of fun; it relaxes the stability control and permits a bit of slip and opposite lock. And on my way around the course, the instructor was just telling me to give it some more throttle mid corner and let the back step out. Even with 4WD high mode, you can really have a lot of fun, especially at speed. This Ranger Raptor is a rally raid truck straight out of the box; the kind that you can take into the desert and have quite a bit of fun bashing around and taking jumps at speed. Flatter the novice indeed.

And as a final treat, Ford had a stripped out Ranger Raptor fitted with a roll-cage for some hot laps. With a pro behind the wheel and myself being strapped into the passenger seat, he took us for a hot lap around another track that's designed to punish the Raptor. I have to say, it felt comfortable; the Raptor package really works for the Ranger.

In fact, as I was standing on the sidelines watching one of the pros take it around, there's a certain grace about how the body stays relatively steady, all while the suspension does the work. 

Ford Ranger Raptor Australia

Enjoyable performance

After spending a day in the outback driving the Ford Ranger Raptor on the highway, on gravel roads, on a high speed track, on a slow speed off-road, and even aboard a stripped out version of one, it still begs the question: what's the point of the Ranger Raptor? 

We may not have an outback to enjoy it on, but bad roads we have plenty of. And that's where you can enjoy the Raptor. No need to worry about ground clearance, the occassional flood, so on and so forth; the Raptor has got the performance to enjoy everyday. It may not be brutally fast by any definition of the term, but it's got speed, it's got handling, and makes taking on the rough stuff look so easy. 

When the Ford Ranger Raptor does arrive in the Philippines in 2 to 3 months, I know exactly where I'm taking it: the sand dunes in Ilocos. 

At least I won't have to dodge any kangaroos there. True story.