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It wasn’t the Baja 1000, the famous ‘let it all hang out’ race for 4WD and other off-road vehicles on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.

But for a couple of days last week I got a feel for what it might be like – in Essaouira in Morocco.

That’s where Ford let us get rambunctious with the new Raptor version of the Ranger pickup.

There were desert areas, beaches and dunes with lots of tyre-sucking sand, and rocky foreshores which threatened, but failed, to shred the BF Goodrich All-Terrain tyres.

I’ve done off-road driving in Iceland, Asia, and the Andes as well as some less challenging places at home in Ireland.

So letting the Ranger Raptor rip wasn’t particularly providing me with new experiences. But it did give me respect for what passion and engineering nous can do to push a standard pickup up to the next level.

The guy behind the Ranger Raptor has lived in Australia since 2004.

But Northern Ireland native Damien Ross, pictured, has worked for Ford almost all his career since graduating as a mechanical engineer.

Damien still has a Northern lilt. He wears lightly his title as chief programme engineer for Ranger Raptor.

But the passion that brought the vehicle to reality rumbles underneath his conversation.

Ford previously used the Raptor designation in a version of the F150 pickup truck in the US.

That was born as a ‘pre-runner’ for the Baja 1000: vehicles produced by contestants to run the Baja route in advance of the race, making pace and terrain notes.

They also provide opportunity to highlight a vehicle or brand.

Ford decided it would be nice to build a pre-runner right out of the factory on the F150. It scored with the truck-buying American public.

In Australia, at Ford’s design and engineering centre for Asia-Pacific, Damien Ross and his team took notice.

With a new Ranger already in the production programme, they made a case for a Raptor variant, initially for Australia, where the Ranger nameplate is popular.

“We took the same DNA as for the F150 Raptor,” Ross says.

The vehicle was developed in Australia, with much of the tough test driving done around Alice Springs. Not many people live there.

When Ford Australia finally made pre-production imagery and details public, the concept accelerated.

“We were doing Asia-Pacific. But then Europe said they were interested. And the Americans said ‘we want it’,” Ross says.

Ranger Raptor is more than a marketing mod to a workhorse that’s already a bestseller in European markets, including Ireland.

“We had to meet specific performance requirements both on and off road. In comfort and handling, and ability.”

As a body-on-frame vehicle, the Ranger was already tough. For the Raptor, that chassis was made considerably tougher.

Lots of extra stiffening, including the shock absorber towers. “We replaced the Ranger’s rear leaf springs with coils. That gives really good handling in the curves, more comfortable, less sway.”

There’s a 150mm track increase and new front suspension geometry, increased ride height, a 2.3mm steel ‘bash plate’ front and rear, uprated brakes and deeper wading depth.

A distinctive Raptor grille also sets the pickup apart, as do flared front fender protectors and wheel-arch extensions.

Redesigned bumpers include an integrated tow hitch at the back.

For rough terrain, it has greater ground clearance and increased approach and departure angles.

Six electronically controlled terrain driving modes include an appropriately named ‘Baja’ one tuned for off-road high-performance as required by that contest.

Raptor comes as standard with a range of driver assist systems, including hill descent control, roll stability, and trailer sway control. There will just be the one version- priced at €63,950.

Given the work put into the vehicle, it was always going to be a capableone.

However, when we had some fun with it in Morocco, it turned out to be not just an excellent performer in the rough, but a seriously refined car on the highway.

The 2.0 bi-turbo diesel has more power and torque than the 3.2 used in the Ranger Wildtrak.

It seemed to be exceptionally smooth, helped by a 10 speed automatic gearbox.

Overall quieter than any of us would have expected, Ranger Raptor is as drivable as any large saloon car.

In the dunes, sand can be tricky to drive through without getting into trouble, but the terrain management and some level-headed use of the torque available saw us safely across courses which won’t likely be met by most buyers of the machine. Rock crawling proved the apparent strength of the reinforced chassis.

And yeah, it WAS fun. Bad-ass fun …

Ford is expecting to sell 60-80 in Ireland this year – and maybe 100 next year.

If you are interested, then maybe you should pre-order, as I’m told all of the first batch arriving in August are already spoken for.

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