by Edrick Deery
We’ve all seen cars, athletic gear, wristwatches, etc. designed and engineered for “extreme” conditions that the users will never actually endure. Most manufacturers don’t mind; the extreme capabilities serve as a selling point designed to appeal to buyer fantasy. But Ford is trying something different with their Bronco Raptor. The vehicle has been designed to be driven aggressively over very challenging terrain–which, frankly, your average buyer might not know how to handle; to teach them how, Ford has created four off-road courses around the country. At these Bronco Off-Roadeo facilities—Ford describes them as “off-roading and adventure playgrounds”–Bronco owners receive free instruction (it’s included with the purchase of a new Bronco) on how to push the vehicle to its limits, and have fun doing it.
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Because, quite frankly, approaching limits can be scary. So can driving highly-modified off-road vehicles on the street; from experience I’ll say, when vehicles are aftermarket-tweaked to survive extreme off-road environments, performance on the street typically suffers. This can make ordinary driving difficult, uncomfortable or outright dangerous.
The point of the Raptor, however, is to give the driver the best of both worlds. This isn’t a vehicle that you trailer to an off-road site using a second vehicle. Ford’s intention here was to create a Bronco that can conquer any off-road terrain—they’ve even come up with a cute acronym for the ability, more on that later—without sacrificing streetability.
Core77 and a group of journalists were invited to Ford’s Bronco Off-Roadeo facility outside Las Vegas, to put the Raptor through its paces. (To make attending more convenient for Bronco owners, there are three other facilities spread across the country: New Hampshire, Texas and Utah.) The Nevada facility is meant to accommodate Raptors, featuring trails designed by pro racers from the Ultra4 off-road racing series; like the other facilities, the goal is to educate Bronco owners on how to maximize fun by taking advantage of all the capabilities the vehicle offers.
TLDR; The Ford Bronco Raptor is off-road ready straight out of the box, and it’s a BEAST! You could literally drive a new one off the dealer lot, throw it into gnarly terrain and start hitting jumps with it. More on the jumps below.
The facility’s newly-constructed Basecamp building is modern and features some fun design touches throughout. In particular I dug this chair made of seatbelts and this little “raptor” easter egg in the walkway.
The group of journalists were given helmets to wear for the more extreme trails, then everyone hopped in a Bronco Raptor to hit the trails. To get there from Basecamp, you travel down a paved stretch leading to public trails managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We didn’t come here to drive paved roads, but they provided an opportunity to mash the throttle and experience the 418hp and 440 lb-ft of torque that comes from the 3.0 liter Ecoboost V-6 with dual turbo chargers. Power fed from the engine through the 10-speed automatic transmission to the transfer case is exhilarating, yet very smooth.
Eventually we reached Raptor Valley, a private section of desert that Ford purchased. They recruited a team of Ultra4 racers to design a multitude of difficult trails that truly highlight the capabilities of the Bronco Raptor. There are sections for high speed runs over rough desert terrain, slower technical sections where there’s very little room for error, and even jumps, which I swear I’ll get to.
Each journalist had their own Bronco Raptor, and we were all paired with a professional off-road instructor. The instructors I met were all highly accomplished and included winners from Ultra4—these men and women are serious pros. And since the trails in Raptor Valley are very advanced, each journalist would temporarily move to the passenger seat so the professional instructor could take the wheel and drive a “hot lap” through each trail, while providing tips to the passenger. These hot laps provided an opportunity to see just how capable and FAST the Bronco Raptor truly is over very challenging off-road terrain. My instructor had us whipping around the trail at a pace that seemed crazy…then it was my turn.
Dialing in the proper seating position is crucial for serious off-roading, and the seats had plenty of adjustability, allowing me to dial in the perfect fit. (There’s no power adjustments here, it’s all manual, presumably to keep weight down.) I shifted into drive, launched the Raptor down the trail in true drive-it-like-you-stole-it fashion. Boy was it fun!
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The trails go up, down, around and feature sandy stretches, deeply rutted surfaces, loose rocks, sharp corners, and that stretched-out repetitive-washboard surface known in off-road parlance as whoops. You’ve really got to pay attention, as the trail features can actually change with each lap; I was going fast into a tight sandy corner when I discovered a new obstacle in the road, a rock the size of a Yeti cooler that had presumably been displaced by the vehicle ahead of me, and I had to make a split-second decision on whether to go over it or around it. I chose to veer around it with a quick sequence of brake-steering-throttle-steering. It’s moments like these where you can really evaluate the vehicle’s response to your commands, and it was exactly what I wanted, the right combination of power and agility for a vehicle this size.
During the slower, technical portions, you’re on really narrow parts of the trail where you have to navigate with precision. On the left and right are untraversable obstacles like steep rocky banks or cacti, and you’re avoiding holes while climbing over large rocks and rocky ledges with jagged edges that can cut the sidewall of a tire. Again the Bronco Raptor performed admirably—the 47-degree approach angle (impressive for a street-legal vehicle!) helps—crawling over obstacles confidently. The vehicle sits up on 37-inch tires and the hood obviously prevents you from seeing things you’d like to see in these conditions, so there’s a handy nose camera that takes up the slack.
One of the more extreme trails in Raptor Valley featured banks of shale, silt, rock hillsides, deeply rutted corners and a couple of big jumps. Again, the professional instructor drove the first hot lap around the trail while providing tips to me in the passenger seat. Only this time, Ford’s Chief Engineer for the Raptor Program, Arie Groeneveld, was riding in the back seat. After the hot lap, Arie got out and said “We want you to catch big air off those jumps. I’ll get out to reduce weight so you can get maximum air,” while grinning ear-to ear.
I followed the instructions I was given—in the approach to the jump you want to “build speed, build speed, don’t mash the throttle or you’ll spin the wheels” which would reduce your speed and thus your air–and launched the Bronco Raptor off both jumps on this trail. Absent the weight of a third human we did indeed catch more air, and the landing was surprisingly soft and plush. It’s a credit to the live valve technology that Ford Performance and Fox Shocks collaborated on that allows the vehicle to know when it’s airborne, and adjust the suspension on-the-fly (pun intended) to absorb the landing. In fact, the shocks handled the jumps so well that the suspension didn’t even compress fully and make contact with the bump stops. Typically, capability like this is only available from the aftermarket, not on a factory production vehicle.
In addition to jump guidance, the entire time the instructors are offering helpful tips—”let off the throttle before you hit the dip,” “light brake before you enter the turn,” advising on throttle and steering maneuvers, et cetera—as well as making sure you see sneaky rocks and obstacles and helping you pick lines. Even if you’ve got a lot of off-road experience, unless you’ve won the races these men and women have, you’ll find their input super helpful.
The interior is pretty clean, but like most modern vehicles, the steering wheel and dashboard feature a bewildering array of buttons and different display interfaces that let you customize vehicle settings to your liking.
I had no hope of learning let alone memorizing what all of these buttons did in a few hours, so I can’t speak to their design efficacy. (At one point I couldn’t even find the parking brake.) But there are a couple of welcome design features that jumped out at me.
In the top center of the dashboard, and pushed a little further back than the perspective in this photo below indicates, is this switch bank that controls the sway bar disconnect and the front and rear differential lockers:
When you’re bouncing around off-road, it can be difficult to impossible for your finger to locate a switch in space. But because of where these buttons are placed, you can place your palm on the dashboard to stabilize your hand, and that makes it easy to press the right switch even as you’re getting tossed around. And the switches are textured to improve grip for sweaty fingers.
Up top is another panel of switches that are pre-wired but not hooked up to anything. They’re there for you to connect to the add-on accessory of your choice. That’s a nice touch.
My favorite design feature is on the steering wheel, and it isn’t any of the buttons. It’s this simple orange patch at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel:
When you’re driving at speed, you have so many things to look at and assess while you’re working the controls, quickly turning the wheel one way or the other, and in those moments you can actually lose track of which way the wheels are pointed. But this orange patch stays in your peripheral vision and connects with your brain to make it easy to visualize which way the wheels are pointed. You might have to try this out yourself to really get it, but I found it invaluable. It also comes in handy when you’re starting from a dead stop and aren’t sure which way the wheels are pointed.
The paddle shifters are nothing like the ones in a car made for highway cruising; Ford’s designers have made them super tall, so that with your hands at 3 and 9 (or 2 and 10, or 4 and 8), you can easily tap them with any of your four fingers on each side. As you’re navigating trails, with your hands moving all over the place, being able to easily tap the paddles is nice.
In these two photos below you can see the large, red-rimmed dial that appears to be in a strange position.
That’s the G.O.A.T. mode selector. (In this scenario, G.O.A.T. stands for Goes Over Any Terrain.) This dial, and the buttons on its face, allow you to select different drive modes to suit the terrain, with presets that adjust the throttle response, shift points for the transmission, brake behavior, and the even the sound of the exhaust, for when you want a more visceral experience.
Obviously you can’t look down at the dial when you’re driving, especially when your eyes are glued to the road, trying to manage the chaos ahead at speed. But you learn where it is pretty quickly; in my far-forward sitting position it was right by my right pants pocket, almost behind me, yet I found it easy to reach when I wanted it. The dial itself features satisfyingly chunky, tactile clicks for haptic feedback, while the visual feedback—an indication of what mode you’ve switched into—is logically provided on the dash, closer to where your eyes are.
These are the composite roof panels. (We didn’t take them off because it was 108 degrees that day.) They’re designed to be hosed off, which is nice.
Ditto for the marine-grade vinyl seats, you can hose any mud or grit off of these. I understand there’s also a leather seat option but I can’t imagine selecting that, especially if you plan on doors-off off-roading.
Overall the experience was pretty thrilling. The Bronco Raptor handled everything that was thrown at it, and the Ford engineers in attendance wanted us to push the vehicle, hard. They’re supremely confident in the product and want their customers to experience the fun and exhilaration that comes from utilizing it. And the help from the professional off-road driving instructors is great for building confidence.
Perhaps what’s most notable is that Ford’s performance division is replacing the aftermarket. Twenty years ago if you wanted a truck that did what the Bronco Raptor could do, you’d have to “go to a guy” or make a lot of modifications yourself. Ford wisely realized they’d be leaving money on the table, so why not bring it in-house and do the R&D? It’s also way more convenient for the customer—outside of unusual specialty tires, there’s nothing you’d need to buy on the aftermarket, and have installed, to do the crazy stuff we did on these trails. Overall, I think the Bronco Raptor is one of the most capable off-road production vehicles that money can buy.