Best known for its prowess at punching up the performance index of various street vehicles in the family lineup, Ford's SVT (Special Vehicle Team) is now out to prove that it's equally capable of getting down and dirty. The tangible proof is its latest offering, the amazingly capable F-150 SVT Raptor. Conceived and executed as a classic but ultra-capable desert "prerunner" -- albeit one who's potential for impromptu off-road raging is nothing short of phenomenal -- the new Raptor also deports itself with equal aplomb under less-demanding driving regimens. We recently put the Raptor through its paces in both realms and came away most impressed with how well it lives up to its formidable potential.

Visually, the SVT Raptor certainly looks the part of a vehicle that would typically be used to gather pre-event route reconnaissance for competitions like the Baja 1000. Save for its central cab and tailgate, every body panel has been purposefully redone to bring a bolder appearance and greater functionality. The front end has the most tweaking, from a first-ever hydroformed bumper and unique grille insert to functional heat extractors on the hood and fenders that help boost airflow by some 20 percent. The latter also are bulged to accommodate an additional seven inches of front/rear track. Even the Raptor's runningboards are special, made from cast aluminum clad with black bedliner material.

The Raptor's chassis received a similar comprehensive remake. Its coilover front setup features new upper/lower control arms and is matched with unique rear leaf springs and a modified live rear axle. But the real key to the truck's split personality are its custom FOX Racing Shox gas-pressure dampers. They incorporate a triple-bypass design that allows them to progressively stiffen under increasing compression loads while providing for 11.2-inches of travel up front and 12.1 inches in the rear. Complementing those basics are a recalibrated and more sophisticated version of Ford's AdvanceTrak stability/traction system, an electronic locking rear differential, 35-inch SVT-specific BFGoodrich 315/70 All-Terrain T/A KO tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, beefy skid plates, an extra 2.5-inches of ground clearance plus Ford's first fitment of Hill Descent Control. The end result is a multifaceted pickup that can carry five, go just as quickly and predictably when the pavement ends, and still tow 6,000 pounds or carry a 1,000 pound payload.

Standard powertrain for the SVT Raptor is a 5.4-liter Triton SOHC V8 that makes 310-horsepower/365 lb.-ft of torque on gasoline (or 320 hp/390 lb.-ft on E85) backed by a six-speed automatic transmission linked to a dual-range (2Hi/4Hi/4Lo) four-wheel-drive system. Early next year, Ford will offer it with a new, optional 6.2-liter SOHC V8 that develops an estimated 400 hp/400 lb.-ft of torque that should endow the Raptor with even more tow/tote capabilities. Inside, the standard 40/console/40 front seats offer a solid measure of comfort and support. Among its many other standard features, the Raptor comes with an AM/FM/CD audio package, SIRIUS Satellite Radio and Ford's SYNC voice-activated communication system as well as unexpected touches including a pre-wired four-switch console-mounted panel that allows accessories like a winch or additional lighting to be quickly and easily added into the electrical system.

While far from the likes of a Shelby GT500, the Raptor does show its own kind of unmistakable SVT handling pedigree. Confidently competent on road, it responds quite smartly to steering inputs and exhibits far less body roll than you'd expect whether you're traversing open freeway curves or twisty back roads. Wind and tire noise are also kept to a surprisingly low level. However, it's not until you venture into the wild that the Raptor really comes into its own. Whether we were creeping through low-speed technical hill climb/descent exercises or running unencumbered in the Anza-Borrego National Park area outside of San Diego, California, the Raptor SVT never missed a beat or misplaced a wheel. Its ability to soak up impacts is simply unmatched by anything else out there this side of a full-on race truck. And the efficacy of its Hill Descent Control must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

The SVT Raptor clearly isn't the perfect pickup for everyone; and true to its form, SVT only plans to produce 7,000 of them annually. However, with a starting price of $38,995, this is one vehicle that truly does deliver on what it promises. That makes an ideal travelmate for anyone who regularly does journey to the end of the civilized world and beyond in the pursuit of fun.

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