I went to college at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. My daily driver had a full rollcage, a one-piece race bucket, and 3-inch harnesses. In an effort to shave weight, the air-conditioner, heater, and a few other amenities were tucked away in boxes in the garage rather than in the car. I couldn't afford a track car and a separate daily driver, so one vehicle had to serve both purposes. It seems fitting that I would return to Vegas to compare the Ford Raptor and Ram Runner, two trucks designed to be real deal desert prerunners and function as an owner's daily truck.
Ford fired the first shot in this desert duel by releasing the Raptor to dealerships for model year 2010. To say it was well-received is an understatement: Ford sold more than 7000 of the flared and lifted beasts in its first year. A year later, Mopar, in conjunction with Kroeker Engineering, released the Ram Runner upgrade kit for Ram 1500 trucks, which allows buyers to purchase the pieces separately and build the truck as their budget allows. It fits on Ram 1500 trucks with 6-foot, 4-inch beds from 2009-2011, with a kit for later model 1500s in the works.
To determine how these trucks work in the real world, we needed to do more than just play in the dirt. The first test would be driving them from our offices in El Segundo, California, to Sin City in 110-degree June heat. Road loops were done on the twisting pavement around scenic Mt. Charleston. Less than an hour from the Las Vegas strip, the tallest peak in the Spring Mountain range rises to nearly 12,000 feet, and we used as many of those feet as possible. We spent the following day on a dry lakebed and some of the same routes used for professional off-road racing around Jean, Nevada. We did additional off-roading just outside Las Vegas around the Red Rock Park area.
On the road, it quickly became clear the Raptor was the easy choice. The drive to Vegas revealed the Ram Runner's biggest flaw early on. Its steering was anything but precise: dead on center with no feel and a non-linear reaction to driver inputs. It required a big steering input to get the truck to start to turn, and when it did, it turned quick. It was almost impossible to hold the Ram in the center of its lane. The driver had to let it drift from one side to the other and then yank it back. The Raptor, on the other hand, responded right away to even light input. Slight pressure off-center corrected for crown in the road or small crosswinds.
The Ram's ride was also better suited to running off-road than on. It banged over road imperfections, but wallowed over larger bumps and around turns. The Raptor was more carlike, soaking up bumps sharp and rolling. On the mountain roads around Mt. Charleston, we could really hustle the Ford along. The brake pedal always actuated high in its travel, with tons of feel and no sign of fade. For a vehicle this big, it turned in easily and onto the chosen line with no overreaction to throttle or brake. Even big mid-corner bumps don't throw it off stride. It always tends toward understeer, but that's pretty much expected on something like this. I'm still surprised at what it could handle, but that's what a wide track and plenty of rubber on the ground delivers.
The Ram was more of a handful on the switchbacks. With the lazy steering, I always felt I was chasing the apex. It took most of the day to get a feeling for how far I had to turn the wheel before getting a reaction, and the same with the long brake pedal travel. In big sweepers, I couldn't put in a small enough steering input, and I ended up sawing at the wheel like a prewar Grand Prix driver. In tighter turns, I'd start on line, and then the truck just kept leaning with very little resistance to body roll. To Mopar's credit, the body roll seems better balanced front to rear than in the Raptor. Part of the Ram's problem may have been in tire selection, which was not part of the package. If we tested the Ram Runner with a less road-focused tire, it might've cleared up some of the steering issues, but likely not all of them.
In on-road acceleration, the two trucks felt more closely matched than what the numbers show. The Raptor is powered by a 411-hp, 434-lb-ft 6.2-liter V-8, while the Ram makes do with a 5.7-liter that churns out a still respectable 390 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque. In 0-60-mph testing, the Raptor pulled a 6.9-second run, while the Ram took a more relaxed 7.7 seconds. For comparison, we clocked a 3.5-liter EcoBoost F-150 last year at 6.2 seconds, so neither of these trucks was going to set the strip on fire. The Mopar exhaust on the Ram definitely made it sound faster with a bellow and roar that sent animals running for cover.
The Raptor is capable of all trucking tasks right off the showroom floor. From its suspension tuning to the drivetrain, it feels ...
We half-expected to see the Ram run right by the Ford once we got off-road. We brought out Joe Bacal, professional off-road racer and vehicle tester, to help us push both trucks past their respective limits. His current ride for the Baja 1000 is a stock-bodied Lexus, so Joe didn't have a dog in the Ford versus Ram fight. He not only drove these trucks as hard as any owner would, but his experience testing vehicles meant he could tell us exactly what was happening while he was jumping, sliding, and crawling over our off-road course.
A dry lakebed provided the surface for our makeshift Rally-X. We mapped out a course that included medium-speed sweepers, low-speed hairpins, and a high-speed chicane. The Ford made the first tracks on the hard-packed silt. Bacal had told us basic characteristics carry directly over from road to dirt, and we were surprised at just how correct he was. He has developed his own rating system during his years of vehicle testing. He said Ford's steering was well above average in feel and predictability. His one complaint was a lack of self-centering at low speeds. He was similarly impressed with the suspension tuning in roll, stability, and damping control.
When it was my turn, I was immediately at home in the Raptor even though I spend most of my time in vehicles half its size, grinding rubber on blacktop. The tires dug in, and acceleration was faster than I expected. It tracked straight even on the loose and broken surface. The long left-hander at the north end of the course was the largest corner here, but still required a big loss of speed. Getting into the brakes hard would load up the steering with more resistance. A quick flick to the right got the back end loose and loaded up the left-side suspension. Easing out of the brakes and rolling the steering wheel gently back to the left, and the Raptor turned in almost as fast as it did on the road. The turn would begin with a bit of understeer, get into the throttle, and rotate the whole truck around. The back end would swing outside and was easily controlled with countersteering and some modulation from the right foot. This is the kind of stuff car guys live for.