Ford F150svt Raptor Supercab 621

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Pentastar V-6 version. This is so that automakers don't compete against themselves. (We may see their other offerings next year.) Second, because we will have a dedicated heavy-duty truck shootout in a few months to pit the Va-ton trucks of the Big Three domestic automakers against one another, those same trucks opted out of 4x4 of the Year.

The 4x4s competing for the 2011 title are the Lexus GX460 Premium, the Ford SVT Raptor with the 6.2L V-8, the Land Rover LR4, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. (To qualify, all vehicles must be in produc tion by January, 15,2011, must produce no fewer than 2,000 vehicles, and must have a two-speed transfer case.) The prices for these contenders range from $40,000 to nearly $66,000, while the power numbers vary from 300 hp to just over 400. Oddly, the most expensive truck also has the lowest power rating.

More than power and cost are factored into our test. We consider on-road drive, cargo space, and general ergonomics, but mostly we judge their off-road performance. How well can we see off-road? Is there good underbody protection? Are the fancy traction control systems too fancy? Does the vehicle climb hills? What about descending hills under control? Can it carve a sand dune, crawl a rock, twist through a ditch, and still bomb across a desert two-track? Will it fit in a tight spot, or are we going to be calling the manufacturer's representative to explain why their new SUV has a dent in the rocker panel? These questions and more set the 4-Wheel & Off-Road test apart from street car magazines that claim to test 4x4s when all they really do is drive to a ski resort or golf course for the weekend.

• Outstanding looks • Exhaust and looks are loud

• Outstanding looks • Exhaust and looks are loud

The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor debuted last year to rave reviews, and for good reasons. It is the first out of the box prerunner-type truck that can be purchased at your local dealership. Equipped with Fox Shox, lonq-travel suspension, V-8 power, and a locking rear differential, it walked away with our 4x4 of the Year crown 365 days ago. If there was any complaint from last year's truck it was the lack of power, and this '11 version makes up for that with an additional 91 ponies (411 hp, 434 Ib-ft) coming from a 6.2L (379ci) V-8. The '11 will also be available with a larger SuperCrew four-door cab, but it was not ready at the time of our testinq.

From the bottom the Raptor reminds us of many other American-made pickup trucks. In fact, some described it as "the Standard," meaninq simple, basic, and ruqqed with qood skidplates, although the transmission pan, exhaust, and rear driveshaft are exposed.

The interior and exterior styling of the Raptor is bold, but with the performance to back it up. Our truck's Molten Orange paint carries over to the interior with an accent package. The bright color is already starting to wear on some judges who have seen many such Raptors on the street. Interior comfort is high with seats like a big couch and a simple straight-pull transmission shifter, and yet the small center dash buttons and dials for the radio and HVAC are confusing, especially when you're rocketing through the desert.

The big truck is a road hoq at 97 inches wide, yet feels qood going through city or highway traffic due to crisp steering and brakes and wide screen visibility. Though we enjoy the massive power gains of the 6.2L over the previous 5.4L, there is a high-speed exhaust drone that reminds you this is a muscle truck roaring down the freeway.

The Raptor can crawl. The 315/70R17

BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires dwarf the competition and make short work of most boulder fields. However, the wide body and even wider side steps (gravel deflectors) cannot stand up to big boulders. Plus, we would like to see a front locking differential instead of brake-based traction control. Though rockcrawling isn't impossible, it's less technical and more brutish in the Raptor, as you just barrel over everything and hope you fit.

The hiqh-speed section of the test should have been where the Raptor walked away from the competition, but with half the field featurinq four-wheel independent suspension (4WIS) we really noticed the unsprunq weiqht of the solid rear axle in comparison. The truck has plenty of power and strenqth to bomb across washboard roads and throuqh desert whoops, but the ride has been spoilt by the smoother 4WIS competitors. The suspension soaks up the big hits, but was rough, jittery, and skittish. Also, the transmission seems to hunt for the right gear when at the upper speeds.

The Raptor is king of the hill in hillclimbing. The truck's locking rear differential continues climbing, and the suspension keeps tires firmly planted to find traction. At the same time the wide stance and long wheelbase keep it stable, inspiring a sense of security.

In the sand dune section of the test the Raptor felt biq and heavy against the others. The power was there, but wheelhop and transmission episodes made it hard to get the right momentum.

The Raptor with the bigger engine is still the one to get. It hauls in the desert where it was born. It is big, bold, and fun.

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