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.

With a good understanding of what the Ford could do, Bacal saddled up in the Ram. The first issue was a transmission that couldn't seem to decide what gear it wanted. In both manual and fully automatic modes, the transmission would hunt for gears. It jumped between neutral and whatever gear it had been in before. This seemed out of character for the Ram, and at the time of this writing, Chrysler engineers were still investigating the problem.

The slow steering became a bit of an issue again, as Bacal likes to say, "If it isn't good on pavement, it gets worse in the dirt." He noted a lack of on-center feel, a large degree of steering angle needed for turn-in, and non-linear steering response. He did notice how well-balanced the Ram's roll rates were front to rear.

I found the Ram even more difficult to drive than Bacal did. In the Raptor, I could think several corners ahead and plan my line, but the Ram required far more concentration to keep it going where I wanted. I had the same issue with the transmission.

Once we got to the high-speed whoops, the Ram showed its stuff with race truck-levels of suspension travel and monster truck ...

When it did hold a gear, acceleration was strong and the rear differential felt more aggressive. Less feel and modulation in the brake pedal meant it was easier to overdo it on corner entry. Turn-in was a crapshoot -- first you got no response, then you overshot the sweet spot and plowed past your intended line. Get on the gas hard and the Ram rotated much faster than the Raptor. With the transmission as it was and a lack of finesse in the loud pedal, doling out power became a binary operation of either on or off. I had to sling the bed around and countersteer as fast as I could, because I needed all of it. After a lap or two, I found myself looking in my direction of travel through the side windows. It certainly wasn't as fast or efficient as the Raptor, but if you want to win a roostertail competition or do a remake of "Smokey and the Bandit" with a truck, this might be your choice.

After the Rally-X, we drove to a rock garden for some light crawling. Although you wouldn't expect to see either truck on the trail, it isn't unrealistic to think an owner will encounter situations that require crossing a riverbed or getting to the top of a rocky hill. Bacal rated the Ram as having a clear advantage in ground clearance and approach angle, but noted that the Raptor provided better suspension articulation, keeping all four tires firmly planted and able to deliver torque. For techier truckers, the Ford has a forward-looking camera that keeps your buddies in the truck longer, instead of standing out in the heat, spotting your route.

Our final test and certainly the hardest on the trucks was the high-speed moguls or whoop-de-doos. A series of small jumps tests suspension reactions at both extremes of its operating range. This is the absolute worst torture test a shock absorber will ever see. Both trucks are equipped with Fox Racing internal triple-bypass shocks, with the advantage going to the Ram's 3.0-inch units compared with the Raptor's 2.5-inch units. The Ram Runner is also rated at 14 inches of suspension travel both front and rear, while the Raptor makes do with 11.2 inches of travel in front and 12.1 inches in the rear.

The Ford was first out of the gate. Bacal was impressed with the predictability of the Raptor. The suspension bottomed only on the biggest of the whoops, and the impact didn't throw the truck off course. It did have a problem with left-foot braking. With constant applications at the top of each whoop, the brake system would load up with pressure and modulation became all but impossible. While amateur off-roaders will probably never notice, much less use the technique, serious enthusiasts will find it annoying.

After the first run through the bumps, it was obvious the Ram Runner had found its happy place. Although it took more effort to keep it in a straight line, our unofficial timing method showed the Ram flying over the moguls at 8 to 10 mph faster than the Raptor. That extra suspension travel and ground clearance really made all the difference here. The Ram still was not without problems. While the bottoming response was even better than the Raptor's, when the suspension topped out, in full droop, we heard crashing sounds and felt a harsh vibration through the chassis. Bacal's final comment on the Ram was that it felt much closer to a race truck in this section than the Ford.

Flying over big bumps is clearly what the Ram Runner is all about. The Raptor is a far more well-rounded package. Ford's tuning allows its truck to be faster and easier to drive in every other condition. For me, a truck needs to be a multipurpose tool that excels at whatever task you throw at it. The Ford Raptor is the clear winner in those concerns. The Ram Runner is too focused on a single objective. In professional off-road racing, drivers and vehicles are subjected to everything from pavement to gravel, dirt, and deep sand, and the Ram likes only one of them.

Some fans will say these are two different trucks: One rolls right off the showroom floor ready to go, while the other is essentially a box of parts requiring a high level of expertise for the owner to finish on his own. I'd argue that, in the end, both aim to give the owner a truck that is ready to hit the dirt and provide a near-race-truck experience. Both have a full factory warranty and can be serviced at any dealership. At the end of the day, both trucks allowed our inner 8-year-olds to pound and slide through the dirt. kicking up roostertails and doing all the things we dreamed of on our PK Rippers, but the Ford Raptor drives our outer adult back and forth to work.

  2012 Ford Raptor 2012 Ram Runner
POWERTRAIN
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD Front engine, 4WD
ENGINE 90-deg V-8, iron block/alum heads 90-deg V-8, iron block/alum heads
BORE X STROKE 4.02 x 3.74 in 3.92 x 3.58 in
DISPLACEMENT 379 cu in/6.2L 345 cu in/5.7L
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.8:1 10.5:1
VALVE GEAR SOHC, 2 valves/cyl OHV, 2 valves/cyl
POWER (SAE NET) 411 hp @ 5500 rpm 390 hp @ 5600 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 434 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm 407 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic 65RFE 6-speed automatic
1ST 4.17:1 3.00:1
2ND 2.34:1 1.67:1
3RD 1.52:1 1.50:1
4TH 1.14:1 1.00:1
5TH 0.86:1 0.75:1
6TH 0.69:1 0.67:1
REVERSE 3.40:1 3.00:1
AXLE RATIO 4.10:1 3.55:1
FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 2.83:1 2.38:1
TRANSFER-CASE MODEL Borg-Warner 4419 Borg-Warner 44-44
LOW-RANGE RATIO 2.64:1 2.64:1
CRAWL RATIO (1ST X AXLE GEARS X LOW RANGE) 45.1:1 28.1:1
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
WHEELBASE 145.2 in 140.5 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 232.1 x 86.3 x 78.4 in 239.0 x 85.4 x 79.2 in
TRACK, F/R 73.6/73.6 in 68.2/67.5 in
TURNING CIRCLE 47.0 ft 45.5 ft
APPROACH/DEPARTURE ANGLE 30.0/23.0 deg 41.0/30.0 deg
GROUND CLEARANCE 10.0 in 13.0 in
CURB WEIGHT 6260 lb 5900 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 57/43% 58/42%
PAYLOAD CAPACITY 1040 lb 800 lb
GVWR 7300 lb 6700 lb
GCWR 14,700 lb 15,500 lb
TOWING CAPACITY 8000 10,250 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 5 5
HEADROOM, F/R 41.0/40.3 in 41.0/39.7 in
LEGROOM, F/R 41.4/43.5 in 41.0/34.7 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 65.9/65.5 in 66.0/65.7 in
BED L X W X H 67.0 x 65.2 x 22.4 in 76.3 x 66.4 x 20.1 in
WIDTH BETWEEN WHEELHOUSINGS 50.0 in 51.0 in
CHASSIS
CONSTRUCTION Body on frame Body on frame
SUSPENSION, FRONT/REAR Control arm, coil spring, anti-roll bar/live axle, leaf spring Control arm, coil spring, anti-roll bar/live axle, coil spring, anti-roll bar
STEERING TYPE Power rack and pinion Power rack and pinion
RATIO 20.0:1 17.9:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 3.1 3.3
BRAKES, F/R 13.8-in vented disc/13.7-in vented disc, ABS 13.2-in vented disc; 13.8-in vented disc, ABS
WHEELS 8.5 x 17-in, cast aluminum 8.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum
TIRES 315/70R17 121/118S M+S BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A 35x12.50R17 LT M+S General Grabber
PERFORMANCE
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.4 sec 2.9 sec
0-40 3.7 4.1
0-50 5.1 5.4
0-60 6.9 7.7
0-70 9.3 10.2
0-80 11.8 13.1
0-90 14.9 16.5
QUARTER MILE 15.4 sec @ 91.0 mph 16.0 sec @ 88.5 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 146 ft 141 ft
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1750 rpm 1600 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $46,620 $46,035
PRICE AS TESTED $53,660 $68,490*
AIRBAGS Dual front, front side, f/r curtain Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
FUEL CAPACITY 36.0 gal 26.0 gal
EPA CITY/HWY ECON 11/16 mpg 13/19 mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.52 lb/mi 1.28 lb/mi
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular Unleaded regular

Both trucks have the same goal but take different approaches. Ford entices with an out-of-the-box, ready-to-run product, while Ram is looking for enthusiasts who want to get their hands dirty. A buyer's choice will likely come down to brand loyalty.

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