There are few things more awe-inspiring than a desert sunrise.
I'm generally not one to wake up at 3:30 a.m., but when you're headed to the middle of the desert where it'll exceed 110 degrees by midday, it behooves one to start as early as possible.
That's what had me in a brand new 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor ripping out of a hotel parking lot in Pahrump, Nevada at 4:15 in the morning last week — and boy, was it worth it.
We were headed south to Dumont Dunes for the first press drives of its new Raptor pickup. For the three people who were up at that ungodly hour, it must have been quite a sight: An unbroken line of brand new trucks blazing down the two-lane blacktop in the dead of night.
The complete lack of light meant it was impossible to get a good photo, and maybe it's better that way — some things keep better in our memories. Golden hour is always a special time, but it's something else when you're out on the sand. As truck after truck pulled to a halt in our staging area, the sky began to lighten, and chills ran down my spine. And all that was before I knew what challenges were ahead.
The Ford Raptor has been the performance truck to beat for more than a decade, challenged but not surpassed by competitors like the RAM TRX and... well, that's really the only challenger for the giant beast, but Ford has responded well with this third-generation truck.
In 2016, Ford took a fully-stock second-gen Raptor (aside from a safety cage required by regulations) to the Baja 1000, a race across the Mexican desert that is brutally challenging for both man and machine. Not only did the truck finish third in its division, but the team drove it back to Phoenix afterward without issue.
If you’re the type of person who’s down to drive their truck home after racing it in the desert — instead of say, rolling it into the back of a trailer and chilling in the A/C of the team van — we can again declare, here in 2021, that the third-generation Raptor remains the truck for you.
Ford has outfitted the Raptor with a 450-horsepower, 510 lb-ft twin-turbo V6, mated to the most impressive suspension ever fitted to a Ford pickup. Instead of standard leaf springs out back — which is basically what the Model T used — Ford has equipped the new 2021 Raptor with a trophy truck-inspired five-link rear suspension.
It did terrific things for the Raptor when we had it out on the dunes, but it also made a massive difference for on-road driving. I couldn't drive old-and-new back-to-back, but I suspect the Raptor might be the most comfortable F-150 to drive on-road (which will be a comfort for the many Raptor buyers who'll never get off the pavement).
The trick suspension (which all the knowledgable off-roaders seem very excited about) isn't the only new thing. The FOX racing shocks have been upgraded and, perhaps more importantly for many buyers, so has the exhaust.
A not-infrequent complaint of the current Raptor is that its turbocharged V6 engine doesn't sound as impressive as the V8 did in the first-generation truck. In the development of this truck, Ford figured out that part of the issue was the length of the exhaust piping.
Because of where the exhaust system is located on the truck's right side, the exhaust pipe from the left engine bank is a bit longer than that from the right engine bank. The two sides are out of sync for various reasons, mostly physics, making the exhaust note less impressive.
To fix it, Ford ran a "trombone loop" in the shorter exhaust to make both left- and right-pipes the same length. That means the exhaust sounds even better. And that means that a lot of Raptor owners are going to be waking their neighbors in the morning.
But Ford has thought of this too. There's an adjustable butterfly valve in the exhaust, which allows for four different loudness options depending on how ferocious you want your Raptor's bark to be.
These change based on drive mode (turn to the on-road Sport or off-road Baja modes, and it gets much louder) or via a handy button on the steering wheel. Want to sneak home without waking up the kids? You can put the exhaust in Quiet Mode. Want to blast through a tunnel cackling madly like an eight-year-old? That calls for Baja Mode.
And I haven't even gotten into the actual performance of the Raptor. Whether across some high-speed desert whoops or ripping down a wash (both at speeds that would be above the speed limit on many interstates), the Raptor was like a golden retriever puppy raring to get up and go.
It wasn't exactly comfortable (though I got jostled a lot less than I expected), but that's not entirely what you're looking for. Instead, you want a vehicle that lets you get to the limits of your ability — but keeps you from getting out of sorts if you get a little too enthusiastic.
When some Ford engineers asked what I thought of their new truck, the words that came to mind were predictable and controllable. That's the Raptor in a nutshell and exactly what you want when you’re really pushing things.
If you have the ability, you'll be able to take the 2021 Raptor far, far beyond what I was able to do — even to compete in the Baja 1000 if that's your jam.
But if you're just a regular person looking to have a fantastic time exploring the sandy dunes of the Mojave? Head to your local Ford dealer and buy an F-150 Raptor and go. It's some of the best fun you'll have in your life.
One Cool Detail: These LED lights
The Ford Raptor is so wide — 86.6 inches without door mirrors — that it’s legally mandated to have a series of clearance lights on the front. There are three at the top of the grille and two more on extreme edges.
Ford took advantage of some fancy LED lighting tech for the third-generation Raptor to create a blade-style indicator lamp that looks absolutely fantastic at night or in the golden light of an early desert dawn.