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Reviews: 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor First Drive: The Original Baja-Ready Pickup Returns

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The Ford F-150 Raptor enters its third generation for 2021 with much the same muscled-up, off-road-ready full-size pickup recipe it has deployed to much effect—and, until the recent introduction of Ram's 1500 TRX, without any competition since 2011.

a blue truck parked next to a car: 2021 Ford F 150 Raptor at Dumont Dunes 09 © the Manufacturer 2021 Ford F 150 Raptor at Dumont Dunes 09

That continuity doesn't mean Ford hasn't improved things. The latest Raptor gets an all-new five-link rear suspension, next-generation Fox shocks, and optional 37-inch factory tires. Other significant changes include an equal-length active exhaust system featuring a new "trombone loop" design that promises angrier engine sounds, a revised front suspension, and updated frame rails capable of straddling a 37-inch spare tire.

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What's For Desert?

A harsh desert environment is, naturally, where we undertook the business of evaluating the new Raptor. Ford staged our drive from downtown Las Vegas to the easygoing town of Pahrump, Nevada, where we were set loose on the Dumont Dunes in the Mojave Desert. What, you thought we'd drive the F-150 Raptor to Trader Joe's?

Still powered by a 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 producing 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque, the big Ford easily loafs along on the freeway on our way to the dunes. During our drive, we settled comfortably into the La-Z-Boy-style seats included in the available Raptor 37 Performance package. This $7,500 option adds those roomy Recaro bucket seats, exterior graphics, 37-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires, and retuned shock absorbers.

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a truck is parked in front of a blue car © the Manufacturer

The base F-150 Raptor ships wearing 35-inch tires and starts at $65,840, well below the Ram 1500 TRX's opening ask. Although tastily equipped out of the gate, opting for the optional Raptor 37 Performance package, which requires the Group 801A High package at $6,150, clearly brings the truck up to its full potential. Dropping all that cash also brings a 360-degree camera, an 18-speaker B&O sound system, Rigid foglights, and pro trailer backup assist. Our test example also had the power tailgate and 2.0-kilowatt ProPower onboard power generator.

Our cruise toward the dunes allowed plenty of time for surveying the new Raptor's interior. Because virtually every component inside the well-appointed cabin is supersized, including the control knobs, automatic shift lever, paddle shifters, and center console, familiarizing yourself with the features is an effortless task. Ford places switches for the active exhaust, suspension settings, and steering modes at your fingertips, providing a convenient way to adjust driving style settings while on the move.

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We tested the cruise control and lane keeping systems on our way into the desert, too, and they did a fine job slowing, accelerating, and keeping the truck centered in its lane. Whenever cruise control detected our relaxed steering wheel grasp, it flashed a warning on the instrument cluster urging us to keep our hands on the wheel.

Ride Softly But Carry Big Air

Over evenly paved roads, the mean-looking Raptor rides softly on its gigantic 37-inch tires. However, that's not to say all subtle bounces and vibrations have entirely gone away because, well, those are tough characteristics break a heavy truck of, no matter how fancy the shocks.

Sprints from a stop will mostly make you forget about the Ford's size, if only for a moment. Launches are enthusiastic and even better with the Raptor set to its Sport drive mode, though nowhere near on par with the new 702-hp Ram 1500 TRX, which is the quickest truck we've ever tested.

Most impressive of all is how, as with the old Raptor, an off-road truck of this size can zip through a curve at higher speeds. The big tires and wide-track suspension keep the Ford feeling planted even when being hustled, on pavement or otherwise.

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Once in Pahrump, we headed straight to Dumont Dunes for some grueling testing under the scorching sun. The day kicked off with an overlanding experience in the Raptor's Baja mode; we barreled down straight dirt paths and zig-zagged across the sand.

At a hill climb obstacle, just like you've probably seen at King of the Hammers or another extreme off-road event, the mission turned to scaling the pile at full speed and creeping to the bottom of the other (rocky) side. Gauging the right moment to gun it while maintaining momentum was the key to a successful climb in the sand. The Raptor scaled the steep hill without a struggle, more feral animal than truck.

While barreling around the dunes, we noticed the 10-speed automatic transmission's shifts are quick, and the (artificially) amplified engine noises discharging from the active exhaust deliver suitable aural urgency to the proceedings, even if the twin-turbo V-6 can't match the TRX's reserve of power.

The brake system is dutifully responsive, though coming to a halt in the dunes only requires a moderate tapping of the brake pedal. In deeper sand, easing off the accelerator is nearly as effective at bringing the big boy pickup truck to a stop in a stable and predictable manner. Oh, and body control? The Raptor has that under control.

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a car driving in the snow © the Manufacturer

Earlier we mentioned how purchasing the Raptor 37 package is almost required; partly that's for those beefy tires, but the imposing and ultra-wide Recaro buckets are every bit as worth it. Upholstered in Rhapsody Blue leather with Alcantara suede inserts and Code Orange stitching, the chairs held us firm through nonstop off-road bashing. These seats embrace as well as they cosset, filtering out some of the lumps and bumps the suspension and those big Fox shocks can't.

a car driving down a dirt road © the Manufacturer

Through a whoops field, a dune handling course, and a washout route, the Raptor showed its decade of high-speed off-road breeding. The Ford trounced the whoops section vigorously yet with solid control, never losing traction and eager to pick up speed where it could. Racing around the dunes felt like surfing on the sand with a monster truck. You quickly learn that gentle tugs of the wheel and plenty of throttle gets the Raptor going where you point it. Oh, and we never got stuck in the sand.

Armed with customer feedback, Ford evolved the third-generation F-150 Raptor without tossing in anything revolutionary. Whether this is enough to make up for the Raptor's 252-hp disadvantage relative to the supercharged V-8-powered Ram TRX, its first direct competitor, will need to wait for a proper comparison test. Going by specs alone, the Ford in its current form surely won't keep up with the Ram in a straight line, but it remains the grizzled veteran in a niche it virtually created 10 years ago. And should the supposedly more powerful Raptor R hit the scene next year, the score-settling can truly begin.

2021 Ford F-150 Raptor
BASE PRICE $65,840
LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
ENGINE 3.5L/450-hp/510-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 10-speed auto
CURB WEIGHT 5,750 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 145.4 in
L x W x H 232.6 x 86.6 x 80.7 in
0-60 MPH 5.5 sec (MT est)
EPA FUEL ECON 15/16/15 mpg
ON SALE Now
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2022 Ford Bronco .
Pros Awesome concept car looks Rugged, versatile interior Great tech features Cons Lacks the Wrangler’s fold-down windshield No available hybrid; diesel Dubious build quality It’s not easy to reinvent an icon, but Ford has done it with the Bronco. After years of speculation, the Bronco made its debut for 2021, with retro-inspired styling that’s aAwesome concept car looksRugged, versatile interiorGreat tech features

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