It’s not lost on Ford that the F-150 Raptor needs to up its game to keep pace with its new crosstown rival, the highly impressive and far more powerful Ram 1500 TRX. As we learned from a 2020 Raptor SuperCrew’s comparison-test defeat against that big 702-hp Ram, it’s time for the Blue Oval’s beast to get serious. But before it can bulk up the engine room with an upcoming V-8-powered Raptor R variant, the standard truck needs to make better use of the 450 horses it has. Think of the updated 2021 F-150 Raptor as the first strike of Ford’s counterattack.
For high-performance off-road trucks that are designed to bomb across open terrain, the suspension’s ability to absorb the terrain is as crucial, if not more important, than raw horsepower. The Raptor ditches the rear leaf springs in this generation and replaces them with coils. While the leaf spring works for the heavy workloads that most pickups endure—including all other F-150s, except the Lightning—that old-school setup can’t maintain good wheel control in brutal high-speed desert conditions. The race trucks that inspired the Raptor abandoned the setup in favor of huge coilover shocks decades ago. Just as important, all of Ram’s current pickups have shown that rear coils also can improve ride comfort and drivability without sacrificing much in the way of cargo capacity.
For the new Raptor, Ford Performance’s engineers reinforced the latest F-150’s frame and fitted the live axle coil springs. Locating the axle are four trailing links and a Panhard rod. Up front, the independent control-arm front suspension has been modified without reducing ground clearance. It benefits from new geometry and a handful of beefed-up components including uprights, lower ball joints, and wheel bearings. To better control the wheel motions, Ford fits Fox’s latest Live Valve adaptive dampers that have 3.1-inch-diameter bodies and internal-bypass chambers. Suspension travel is increased to 14.0 inches in front and 15.0 inches at the rear—roughly an inch more at both ends than the outgoing model and, according to Ford, more than the TRX.
That wheel travel is measured on the standard 35-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires. Buyers can upgrade to 37-inch KO2s, which Ford says is the tallest rubber ever fitted to a half-ton production pickup. But what the larger-tired Raptor loses in wheel travel (about one inch), it gains in ground clearance (13.1 inches versus 12.0) and improved approach, departure, and breakover angles. And, like the 35s, trucks with the larger 37s get a full-size spare slung under the cargo bed.
Our drive time came primarily at California’s Dumont Dunes off-road vehicle area, a 7620-acre playground set in the Mojave Desert just west of Las Vegas. But one of the Raptor’s greatest improvements was evident before we even left our hotel’s parking lot: a more prominent and characterful engine note, courtesy of a new active exhaust system. Comprised of an intricately twisted set of equal-length pipes and electronic valves, the system has four settings (Quiet, Normal, Sport, and Baja) that can be toggled independently of the Raptor’s numerous drive modes. Quiet mode is perfect for an early morning departure, while Baja is great for uncorking a loud, menacing growl that pleasantly rises in pitch as you stand on the accelerator. It lacks the intoxicating V-8 roar that seems so fitting in an off-road truck—and which the supercharged TRX does so, so well—but it does lend the Raptor the aggressive voice that it’s needed since the second generation debuted with a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6.
That V-6 essentially carries over for 2021, as does the Raptor’s 10-speed automatic and variable four-wheel-drive system with a locking rear differential and an optional Torsen limited-slip front diff. Output remains a respectable 450 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque, but the engine and transmission have been retuned for a more effective power delivery. In addition to quicker, better coordinated shifts from the 10-speed, peak torque now arrives 500 rpm sooner, at 3000 revs, and full power hits at 5850 rpm versus the previous 5000, which makes it more rewarding to wind out the Raptor’s tachometer. Ford says that it also quickened the action of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but they’re still not as responsive as we’d like, and there are too many ratios to juggle anyway. We found it best to let the truck do its thing in Sport mode on the street, which keeps the powertrain on alert yet calm enough to cruise. Switch to Baja for cutting loose off road and all the systems go in to attack mode, including a lenient stability-control system that gently steps in only when the truck starts to get way out of shape.
There’s still no mistaking the Raptor’s turbocharged engine for a big naturally aspirated V-8 as it needs to be on boost to provide meaningful thrust. But its gearbox never stumbled during our day of abuse in the dunes, and the new suspension makes it easier to maintain speed over rough ground. Its front and rear anti-roll bars are softer than before while its springs are a bit stiffer, with the rears being progressive triple-rate units that Ford says help keep the suspension from sagging under heavy loads. The rear-coil setup alone saves a claimed 11 pounds.
Our drive didn’t include any challenging paved roads, but snaking through desert washes at close to 100 mph revealed a solid feel to the chassis and improved overall stability. The quick-reacting Fox dampers soak up the impacts as we skipped across the tops of undulating whoop-de-doos at highway speeds, and the rear axle is now more resistant to hopping and shaking when accelerating on loose terrain. Touchdowns from big jumps are smoother than ever. As for the difference between the two tire sizes, the lighter 35-inchers spin up quicker and enhance the truck’s overall sense of agility, but the 37s bring a more substantial and unstoppable feel that we came to prefer. Plus, they better fill out the Raptor’s wheel wells. Unsurprisingly, the 37s also trim 2 mpg from the truck’s EPA highway rating, knocking it down to a wallet-emptying 16 mpg.
Along with some minor exterior tweaks, you can spot the new Raptor by its more pronounced headlight signature and larger marker lights. Big-tired models even can be had with bedside graphics that advertise the size of their footwear. As with all 2021 F-150s, the interior has been freshened with a handsome redesign, nicer materials, and updated infotainment, including 12.0-inch displays for the instrument cluster and center touchscreen. Since most Raptors sell as well-equipped crew-cab models, Ford has killed off the smaller SuperCab version and upped the standard content as well as the base price to $65,840, a $7705 increase over the 2020 SuperCrew model. Several large option groups serve as trim levels, but if you want the biggest tires, you’ll need to swing for the top Raptor 37 Performance package, which is bundled with a ton of other upgrades as a $13,650 upcharge—pushing the price some $7370 above the 2021 Ram TRX’s entry point.
So, where does all this put the new Raptor compared to its archrival? The TRX is the standard of this wild segment not just because of its immense power that makes it quicker than some sports cars, but also for its tanklike solidity and awesome composure on just about any surface. The Raptor has noticeably closed the gap, with this next step in its evolution bringing more excitement, refinement, and better at-the-limit control when pounding through the desert. Now it just needs the 700-hp V-8 of the R model.
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