It started, as most good ideas do, over a few pints of Guinness. There, at an Irish bar in Brighton, fellow Globe writer George Kennedy was telling me of his youthful auto adventures, particularly on the offroad trails near his childhood home north of Boston. Being as this was bar talk, I offered an ante.
The challenge: Take two of the most hardcore, factory-stock, off-road vehicles on sale and set them loose in the snow without hooking up tire chains or reducing tire pressure. We wouldn’t even bring a tow rope or a few planks of wood, as most 4×4 enthusiasts do in case they get stuck. All we’d have is a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, a Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited, and enough common sense to get us both into trouble.
With four-wheel-drive engaged, we wanted to experience what these red and orange American braggarts could really do on roads where Subarus wouldn’t dare to tread. We spent an afternoon switching trails and swapping trucks. We got mud and snow in places you’d never think of looking. There were glorious splashes and skids, just like you see on the commercials.
In short, you should believe those advertisements. But as we’d ﬁnd out, even Jeeps and Baja race trucks have their limits.
Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Back in 2004, Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, a crackpot group of speed-freak engineers, stamped the last F-150 Lightning. That was a lowered, track-tuned version of the company’s F-150 workhorse, a pickup truck that spit exhaust fumes out the side doors. Since 2010,SVT has gone haywire again, only in reverse.Picture a double-wide trailer home crashing over sand dunes and you’ll have a valid impression of the F-150 Raptor and its considerable buffoonery.
This is a nothing short of a monster truck, jacked up and ready for war. There’s a front-mounted camera with its own washer so you can see what you’re about to crush, angled skid plates to bite off rocks, and 35-inch tires that could tippy-toe over your Toyota. The shocks allow nearly a foot of wheel travel, so you never, ever need to slow down for neighborhood speed bumps. The Raptor is seven inches wider than a normal F-150, itself no sprout, and when combined with lazy off-road steering and sideview mirrors that reach out giving high ﬁves to opposing trafﬁc, it takes a big red ball of nerves to stay in the lane. It’s a truck that demands giant, gaping-wide expanses of land, and we had none of that during our short test.
We did have more than a foot of snow, and on the trail, the Raptor acted as if it were on pavement— that is, we couldn’t feel a thing beneath its three-ton frame. Until we got stuck. Turns out, the Raptor’s blocky BF Goodrich tires are more suited to gravel and sand than packed snow, and even in low range with the rear differential locked, the Raptor clawed itself deeper and deeper into a bank that a snowshoer could have climbed out of without difﬁculty. But brute force is the Raptor’s game, and after several turns of the wheel and grunts from the 6.2-liter V-8, the Raptor freed itself. There are not many problems 411 horsepower can’t ﬁx.
Yet there’s more brains than you’d expect. A high-res screen in the instrument cluster lets you see the Raptor’s tilt angle, there’s a controller to vary the amount of trailer braking, and four auxiliary switches let the owner attach any electrical accessory (such as a winch or light bar) without ripping apart the Raptor’s internal wiring. There’s decent room for four, even on the short cab version we drove, and the person sitting on the far back right can get a massage from the 700-watt Sony subwoofer mounted under the seat. Our 2012 model included an older version of Ford’s voice-activated Sync infotainment system, which actually works better than the MyFord touch system on 2013 models. Our truck came fully loaded for $50,985.
The rest of the interior isn’t built as tough as the exterior. The leather feels like rubber; what looks like rubber is hard, rough plastic, and the plastic door panels visibly shake and rattle each time you strap yourself in. Yet on the highway, the Raptor is rather insulated, so long as you ignore the droning from the enormous exhaust pipes. But why are we getting off topic? Here’s what you need to remember about the Raptor: Big power, huge tires, bulletproof suspension, and zero tolerance for parking regulations. Now would be a good time to move toTexas.
Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited
The scientiﬁc process dictates that any experiment must have a control—a standard by which all new information must be measured. When we planned this small adventure, it was understood that the control in any off-road experiment is the Jeep Wrangler. This long descendant of the Willys Jeep is the ultimate standard in 4×4 capability, and is to fourwheeling what Kleenex is to tissues.
The particular Jeep in question is the Wrangler Sahara, which anchors the trusty 4×4’s luxury credentials, if you could call it that. While a Range Rover owner may scoff at the lack of 19-way massaging and heated and cooled seats, the cloth seating and easy-to-use controls are a security blanket of predictability that any previous Jeep owner can easily recognize. The pot is sweetened with a twotone interior, Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, and touch-screen navigation. In the time of the Willys, this could have qualiﬁed as a mobile command unit.
Jeep offers the Wrangler’s exterior in a color called “Crush’’ that exists somewhere between the shade of orange found on a utility truck and the color of an orange soda. If you are not yet aware, it is a very bright shade of orange. This attention-grabbing hue is augmented by the optional body-color, three-piece hardtop. At $1,000 for the color package, it is one massive, orange cube. Luckily, we were inside the vehicle and were more concerned with function than form. Such is the Jeep Way.
The deﬁning factor between the Jeep Wrangler Sahara and a more extreme vehicle like the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor is practicality. Both vehicles are capable of many of the same activities, taking to the trails with superb composure. Both vehicles have incredible approach angles (the angle from the front bumper to the front wheels, or how steep a hill you can approach from ﬂat ground) and can navigate all manner of dirt, sand, and rock with ease.
Where the Raptor exceeds in excess, the Wrangler is able to do more with less.The 3.6-liter V6 powerplant makes 285 horsepower, which may seem anemic compared to the Raptor’s robust 411, but for trails, rock, and mud, it’s not about how much power one wields, but rather the manner in which it is delivered. The Wrangler features Jeep’s trademark Command-Trac 4×4 system. It is shift-on-the-ﬂy and delivers a 50/50 torque split in 4WD High.
Those wide-eyed over the Raptor may overlook the fact that we are in New England, and open swaths of desert trails are hard to come by up here. In the back trails of the Berkshires and White Mountains, slow and steady power delivery is the preferred method of off-road travel. It should also be pointed out that the sheer width of the Raptor will preclude it from a number of trails that the Wrangler will have no trouble traversing.
Once again, it is a matter of practicality. Be it price, where the four-door Sahara Unlimited with many options selected comes in at around $38,000, thousands less than the Raptor’s starting price of $42,975. Practicality can also be found in the logic of 17/21 MPG compared to 11/16 in the Raptor. There is also the small chore of parking the Raptor, which requires a small team of spotters. While some repressed, ancient instinct drew us to the Raptor, it was sensibility that won us over with the Wrangler. Besides, you can go just as far off-road in the Wrangler—you just won’t be doing it at high speeds.