The New Ford Raptor on the Motu Safari

Our first impression of the new Ranger Raptor that Ford supplied for us to use as an arrow recovery vehicle for the 2019 Motu Safari was, well, impressed.

First impressions count. When Ford offered us the new Ranger Raptor for the 2019 Motu School East Cape Safari, they possibly didn’t realise quite what they had let it in for. Destined for recovery duties at Rod Millen’s “Leadfoot” festival the weekend after we had it for Motu, the big black Ford was decked out in fluorescent yellow decals that added to the impression.

As one of the rescue vehicles, we put the Raptor through four days of real world New Zealand backcountry four-wheeling.

Again, we were impressed. And, almost without exception, so were the 200 odd Motu Safari entrants who spent the next four days in the Raptor’s company, judging by the number of them who came over to look at, under and in the truck at the overnight campsites.

Interestingly, many of them were pretty knowledgeable about its specs, and several quite in-depth discussions ensued. The new Ford Raptor has aroused a lot of attention in its short time there.

During our time in the Raptor, we tried it out on the highway, some pretty average rural roads, lots of gravel, farm tracks, river beds (and the rivers), in dust, water, mud and sand.

By the time the Raptor goes through the safari, small puddles have vanished, but river gravel has been turned into quicksand, stream crossings have become mud holes, and long grassy hills have become mudslides.

It was one of these mudslides that we encountered early on in the first day on an old military road in the Motu valley. Overnight showers had left things pretty damp underfoot, and the tyre tracks told of some pretty wild rides earlier in the day. We selected “mud” from the steering wheel controlled menu, and the Raptor just drove straight down.

The Motu School East Cape Safari has to be New Zealand’s longest running 4wd school fundraiser, having started way back in the early 1990s as a one-day farm trip, before the collaboration between the Geyserland 4wd Club and the school transformed it into the four-day off-road adventure extravaganza it is today.

Rather than the usual “follow the leader” tag along off-road event, the Motu has a group of Geyserland members head off each morning, setting out arrows and instructions along the route for the event entrants, who then sent off in small groups to follow on their own cross country adventure.

This leaves the East Cape looking like the scene of an Apache attack, so a trail crew, again Geyserland club members, follows through recovering arrows and signs, ready for the lead crew to disperse them again the next day, and assisting stragglers in trouble. The Raptor was to be part of this team, and so completed the entire Safari course right at the back.

We encountered the famous hill climb that had forced a number of vehicles into an overnight camp-out a few years ago. The usually tricky section had turned into a 100-meter long rut, and the winch truck parked at the top has had a busy day recovering embedded Safari goers.

The Raptor just drove straight up. As it did everything else we encountered over the next three days.

We were in the company of a couple of well-sorted club 4x4s, in a stock standard ute, well off-road, and we held our own. Easily.

In fact over the whole trip, the only time we called for assistance was on a tight, rocky, off-camber bend, where an inside rear wheel slid off the edge of the track. I have no doubt the Raptor could have freed itself, but out of consideration for the mag wheels we could have damaged on the rocks, we gently extracted it.

And, to be fair, there were some periods where we probably weren’t even using it at its best. The many variations in driving mode settings took us a little while to sort out the optimum for the conditions.

To give an example, the Raptor’s Sport mode on a good road with big corners is probably the best ute ride I’ve experienced, but on a rougher tight country road, it is not nice at all. Given that the Raptor is optimized for that back road experience, it seems appropriate that “normal” works the best in that environment.

Ford place a lot of emphasis on the Fox developed coilover spring/shock units fitted to the Raptor, and there is no doubt they do a damn good job.

That suspension lifts the truck about two inches from the standard models, and the 20 inch BFG All Terrain tyres add to the clearances too.

Throughout the trip, we tested the entry and departure angles extensively, and apart from the odd towbar scrape, they passed. Again, we were impressed. Then, with its 850mm wading depth, the Raptor gave us great scope to explore the many rocky rivers we navigated along the way.

As has been the case since its introduction, the main subject of the discussions around the Raptor was the ability of the new 2 litre diesel engine to cope with the job. Admittedly it has better figures than the inline five it replaces, but… It’s only two litre!

Then the reduction of the towing rating of the tuck from 3.5 to 2.5 tonne, was produced as evidence that the little motor wasn’t up to the job. Actually, the two things are unrelated.

There is no way that the suspension could be made to do what it does and still cope with the heavy duty demands made by the higher towing capabilities. The engine had nothing to do with it. So even if Ford decided to bring in a V8 or V6 option, it wouldn’t alter the towing capacity.

Early on it took some time to get the truck moving in high ratio, but that was more a matter of getting used to the power band, and getting the engine revs up into the torque range.

Matched up to a rather special 10 speed automatic, that was very very good at gear selection, the engine delivered.

On the road, there is no hint of a lack of performance, we just cruised up the Waioeka Gorge on the way to Motu with consummate ease, even taking advantage of a couple of passing lanes.

Off-road, low ratio, there is absolutely no hesitation. With the smaller of the bi-turbos producing instant boost, driving the Raptor became a point and shoot exercise, with the power and traction to do everything we wanted, at times with ridiculous ease.

The trans is sensational. Silky smooth on the upshifts, and producing staggeringly quick downshifts under heavy braking, it was in the right gear, at the right time, all the time. After a couple of plays with the paddle shifts, we left it alone to do its own thing, it was better than us!

Then we discovered the “Baja” mode. Yeehaaaa! Ford says it is for high-speed desert driving, but after one particularly fun session powering across some newly bulldozed sections of farm track, we can tell you it’s for high speed off-road driving, period! What an absolute blast!

Different engine mapping, different transmission mapping, different truck. Apparently best used in 2WD High ratio for ultimate “desert drift” entertainment levels, the tendency of the new settings to let the engine rev higher for longer, really urges you to let your hair down, and “give it a go mate”.

But in the end, we keep coming back to that game changer suspension.

I mean, who puts a Watts Link in the back of a ute? Or uses Spherical Joints instead of rubber bushes? Or four-wheel coil over struts, with highly tuned adaptive Fox shocks? On a ute?

Well Ford did, and they did it damn well. In 4WD terms, it drives on the road like its got independent rear suspension, but off-road, it’s like it’s got a solid front axle! That simple, that good.

We were, ummmm, impressed!

Check out more photos in the gallery below.

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