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Ford’s European-market performance pick-up has sensational Baja rally-style thrills, and more on-road pace and appeal than its predecessor

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The new, second-generation Ford Ranger Raptor has landed in the UK and it's the kind of car that would be happy if you took that literally. It's a double-cab performance pick-up truck with the capability of a cross-country rally prerunner, the type of car rally racers use to scout a course more habitably than in their race truck. 

This time, the model makes a whole spectrum of noises that are variously louder and more interesting than those of its diesel-only predecessor. Chiefly there's the warble of its new turbo V6 petrol engine, particularly when channelled through an active exhaust in what would amount to a totally unsilenced running mode if it weren’t for all the mandatory European-market exhaust after-treatment going on. 

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The Raptor still doesn't have the one-tonne payload it would need for UK commercial vehicle tax classification (and if it did, there’s no way it would be so good to drive). But that’s probably as it should be: it emits more CO2 than a V8-powered BMW X5 M.

But the most interesting noise that the Raptor makes is a quiet but perceptible click that comes from its suspension just as its wheels part company with the ground – and just as that split-second of eerie silence known best by rallycross drivers and stuntmen takes over the cabin.

Only a Baja-style, road-legal performance vehicle quite like this one - a modern fast Ford developed not in North America, nor in Europe, but on the dirt and sand of Australia - could ever really need systems specifically intended to cope with the realities and consequences of ‘getting air’. The click in question is produced by special position sensors mounted on the Raptor’s suspension control arms, put there with one purpose: to send a signal to the truck’s central Vehicle Dynamics Controller chassis brain just as its axles hit their 'full-Daisy-Duke-droop' position. Once you know what it means, that click will produce a Pavlovian response in a giddy driver every single time.

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The VDC unit, in turn, tells the Raptor’s new Fox ‘Live Valve’ adaptive dampers to promptly force extra compression pressure into the lower extremes of their travel, effectively preparing this 2.5-tonne, 5.3-metre, 288bhp flying pick-up truck for imminent landing. It seems a missed opportunity, frankly, that the seatbelt warning lights don’t flash on at this point. If your jump was high enough, and your backside drifted clear enough of the seat cushion, perhaps they would.

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Most importantly, though, when contact with terra firma is re-established, the Raptor’s suspension copes with the weight, the inertia and all of the rapidly dissipating energy generated with an extraordinary matter-of-factness. There’s no squirm or pitch, very little rebound, and no sense at all that the suspension’s even near the limit of its travel. What it says is (and feel free to insert your own Aussie drawl here) “go aaahhn - go for your life, mate. I could do this all day”.

And, off road at least, you’ll be amazed what else this extra-special pick-up can do. Being the first Ranger Raptor with two locking differentials, plus a proper electronically controlled four-wheel drive system with transfer gearing, it comes with 265mm of ground clearance, a ladder frame and 70-profile knobbly BF Goodrich off-road tyres. 

It’s a big vehicle with a long wheelbase, and yet it climbs, descends, crawls and twists over rocks, and articulates its rear axle like some gigantic, undiscovered Antipodean mountain goat. The Raptor’s go-faster coil suspension has been left only moderately firm, fairly long travel and quite dexterous, expressly for that purpose; and the car’s electronic traction control systems really do make extraordinary slopes and angles surprisingly easy to deal with.

Just how much of all this, you may be wondering, will make the Ranger Raptor the kind of driver’s car that Ford will need in order to maintain its reputation as one of Europe’s chief purveyors of affordable, usable and relevant performance cars - as both the Focus and Fiesta head towards retirement? It seems a very reasonable question – and the Raptor doesn’t have too many answers.

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Even with this more enticing V6 petrol engine, the Ranger Raptor isn’t the most exciting fast road car. Part of the problem is - still - power. In other territories, it will have much closer to 400 horsepower, but because European-market emissions regulations peg its V6 back to just 288bhp, the Raptor makes a slightly suspicious amount of noise when you give it full power without really accelerating that hard.

The 10-speed automatic gearbox doesn’t help when you leave it to its own devices, often preferring to downshift a couple of times before getting on with the job at hand. Use manual mode instead and the car seems to come to heel better but, a bit disappointingly, the Raptor never really feels muscle-car fast. There's still a diesel this time, too, which we haven't tried, but it does without both the locking front differential and the fancy dampers, so is both slower and likely less precise to drive. 

Given its size, that absence of lightning pace might be less of an issue in the UK than in some territories with broader roads. The Raptor's body is more than two metres wide and you can make that 2.2 metres-plus if you include the door mirrors. On your average British back road, then, given its height and girth it very much feels like a truck, albeit an astonishingly capable one.   

It is remarkably well-damped. There’s none of the high-frequency fidget and fuss of your average live-axle pick-up’s ride with this one. Those clever dampers are super-progressive in their inital response and filter out the kind of inputs you might find on a B-road with the all disdain you’d expect from them. It steers well for such a big car, too, and handles with decent feel and precision - though not with the balance, grip or immediacy to satisfy a sports car or even super-saloon regular. It has all of the straight-line stability of lower cars, though, and because noise levels are low, plus leggy gearing spins the engine over at under 2000rpm at cruising speeds, it's a surprisingly good motorway car - albeit not a particularly economical one. 

In short, like so many track-day specials when they’re driven on the road, the Ranger Raptor very much feels like it wants to be somewhere else. For UK drivers especially, it’s a niche proposition: it's amazing in its element, but when it’s not, it doesn’t entertain like a great driver’s car really ought to.

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Right now, with cars like this and the Mustang Mach-E GT, Ford Performance is busking things a bit, you sense. Working with what it’s got, and hoping, no doubt, that other strategic opportunities open up in the fullness of time. We can get access to Ranger Raptors in lieu of, say, a new Focus RS because in the UK it's excise-registered as a commercial vehicle, so Ford doesn't need to sell dozens of zero-emissions cars to offset each 315g/km example. That said, its 652kg payload is too puny to allow buyers to reclaim the VAT on it as a van, and benefit-in-kind rates are as a car - so rather expensive.

But what else can Ford do? The Ranger Raptor might seem like a left-field option, but it isn’t alone among modern performance vehicles in needing quite a specific environment and set of circumstances to really show its brilliance. Trust me: it can do remarkable things. 

The bigger question, perhaps, is what access does a particularly successful electrician from Stoke-on-Trent, or a quantity surveyor from the Lake District, have to an empty quarry with Baja-style jumps, or an idle forest rally stage? Your guess is as good as mine on that score - although we can rest assured that very few Raptor owners will feel like they need it in order to justify spending their hard-earned however they damned well like.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.