Does anyone remember when the future was supposed to be better? Not these days. Pessimism is all the rage. The newspapers are sure that by 2100 we’ll be flooded or just underwater to Chinese bankers in knockoff BMWs. The multiplex, once an escape from dingy reality, is lately booked solid with apocalypse; the Earth dies a thousand computer-animated deaths every evening at 7:15 and 9:40. No wonder folks are gloomy. As many laughs as it is to see Los Angeles get blowtorched again and again (and again and again), a simple message is beginning to warp the national psyche: Whether it’s war, disease, aliens, or environmental collapse, something is gonna get us.

Well, maybe not all of us. Across a road-less wasteland, the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, base price $38,995, will outrun just about everything, from a zombie attack to the incriminating middle finger of the Almighty (though we don’t guarantee the latter). Keep a Raptor handy at the back door of your compound, and you will surely slip away when civilization does the big flameout.

You crave optimism? Consider our recession-mired Raptor’s $46,020 as-tested price. Granted, there were $7025 in options, but Ford must believe in a rosy, petroleum-flush future if it expects regular Joes to pay that for what appears at a quick glance to be a jacked-up cable-company fleet truck that averages 13 mpg.

Oh, but the Raptor is so much more. It’s basically a factory-built, off-road pseudo-racing truck, though it has the wrong name. This concrete-compressing ingot of pig iron, painted the color of a burnt Sunkist and weighing 6000 pounds before you scramble in, hardly evokes the stealthy swiftness of a wheeling kestrel. No, we’re thinking “Bengal” works better, as in the kind from Cincinnati that dons orange and black and inhabits the defensive line.

There is one body configuration: SuperCab (two doors plus two rear-hinged half-doors) with a small, 67-inch-long cargo box. The candy-orange paint costs $495 extra—black, white, or blue are the base colors—and the graphics add $1075. But you can cure a shyness disorder simply by steering a Raptor into a Home Depot parking lot at dawn when the tradesmen are standing around sipping their Caribous. All heads turn, following the Raptor like a bunch of, well, raptors eyeing a three-ton field mouse.

No doubt, this truck looks the business, bounding on 35-inch BFGoodrich tires with three-ply reinforced sidewalls, slivers of the anodized-alloy shock absorbers glinting from behind. The hood and fenders are cut with heat vents, and the grille roars “Ford” in blocky Hulk writing. Eye-catching, amber-and-red LED marker lights twinkle in the grille and at the corners, switched on by one of the four prewired auxiliary toggle switches on the center console (the others await your preferred accessories: spot lamps, a winch, a radiation detector—anything up to 30 amps).

Optioned with a $395 accent pack, the interior is slashed with orange panels amid the black bucket seats. The center console is likewise tomato-soup colored and tattooed with a busy dot pattern that reminded us of a Band-Aid strip. An orange leather telltale marks the steering wheel’s 12 o’clock, right where pro rally drivers like it (never mind that at 3.8 turns lock-to-lock, the Raptor’s orange stripe could be straight up and the truck still making a harrier-like U-turn).

All of the Raptor’s hyper-rugged, neo–Baja 1000 swagger sneers, “Try me, punk.”

We did, out by the Trona Pinnacles in California’s Mojave Desert, a popular filming location. We hammered sand in this bizarre landscape of calcium-carbonate spires, discovering not a single irradiated cannibal but lots of opportunities to test the Raptor’s invincibility.

On city streets, the suspension feels a little gummy, the Raptor leaning in turns and kowtowing its way up to a stoplight. In a truck meant for fast trail running, that’s a virtue. Special elongated aluminum lower-front control arms cast with the “SVT” logo are part of the Raptor’s package. The resulting 11.2 inches of front suspension travel (12.1 in the rear), damped by the big-piston Fox Racing Shox shock absorbers (the rears have remote reservoirs), allows the Raptor to practically float at 45 mph over deep water cuts, dried wheel ruts, rocky tufts, floundering cyborgs, and other desert nuisances that would pulverize other stock pickup trucks trying to keep up.

Where the terrain really goes to pieces, you can activate the off-road driving mode via the console button after first slowing to 5 mph (Ford doesn’t want you—or your dog—to stroke the button by accident). Speed up again and you notice that throttle response is lazier, the transmission stays in lower gears longer, and the stability and traction controls become less intrusive.

The changes make it much easier to walk the big Raptor over the lurching, head-tossing stuff. On downslopes, the button-activated hill-descent control automatically works the brakes to keep speeds below 20 mph. A new rock-crawling king? Not quite. A Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon has about twice the approach, breakover, and departure angles (though just over an inch less ground clearance). But nothing available from the factory smooths out a ragged trail like a Raptor on the run.

The $1950 Luxury package includes adjustable pedals. There’s generous head- and legroom in the especially supportive front buckets. The back bench also has good knee clearance. Another $2430 buys the Sony-brand stereo and nav system. Other add-ons: a rearview camera, $450, and an integrated trailer-brake controller, $230. Indeed, the Raptor only lacks a teak shotgun-shell warmer to be the perfect backwoods Bentley.

Doing nothing exceptional at the test track other than suck fuel, the Raptor posted 8.0 seconds to 60 mph, 0.67 g around the skidpad, and a limited top speed of 100 mph. It is hardly peregrine-like, but off-roaders on giant tires never are. The 310-hp, 5.4-liter SOHC 24-valve V-8 holds 80 mph on a flat without drama. Once the 6.2-liter V-8 arrives later in 2010, we expect that all the numbers will shrink, including the mileage. And with the 6.2, grades shouldn’t provoke the transmission to toggle in and out of overdrive quite so frenetically.

Navigating the aisles of a congested mall parking lot is like trying to sail the USS Nimitz up the Erie Canal, but because much of America’s wealth resides in its cities, we expect most of the 1500 Raptors that Ford plans to build for 2010 to lead lives of quiet desperation. At least until the plague hits.

Released to open country, the Raptor delivers all that is promised by its intensely burly appearance. In a world headed to Hell, only the strong will survive—that is, until the gas runs out.

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