Ford pushes the off-road button with F-150 Lightning Switchgear

Ford pushes the off-road button with F-150 Lightning Switchgear

Enlarge / I normally prefer my performance cars on race circuits, but the Lightning Switchgear impressed this off-road racing novice.

Jonathan Gitlin

CONCORD, NC—The venerable pickup truck can play a multitude of roles these days. For some, it’s nothing more than a work vehicle, something to carry around lumber or tools or tow a trailer full of equipment. For others, it’s the new American family car. But some truck owners like to leave the tarmac behind to have a little fun in the wilderness. Mostly, that involves low-speed rock crawling, perhaps up the side of a steep mountain. But it doesn’t have to be slow—vehicles like Ford’s range of Raptors are designed to do highway speeds across expanses of desert wilderness, largely thanks to very clever dampers and plenty of suspension travel to munch up those bumps and bounces.

Ford is yet to make a Raptor version of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup, but we got an idea of what one could be capable of this week thanks to a ride in the Blue Oval’s latest electric demonstrator, the F-150 Lightning Switchgear. It’s the result of a collaboration between Ford Performance and RTR Vehicles, a tuning company founded and run by drifting champion and off-road racer Vaughn Gittin Jr., and while it’s just a one-off for now, the Lightning Switchgear is a testbed for pushing the boundaries of what we can expect from electric trucks, Ford says. (You may remember RTR previously worked with Ford to create a 1,400-hp Mustang Mach-E in 2020.)

“This is going to focus on chassis and suspension. So to that end, just like you do with any good racing vehicle, you start with the tires,” explained Sriram Pakkam, head of F1 and EV demonstrators at Ford.

To allow for 37-inch off-road tires, RTR fabricated custom control arms. “You got to do that on your front and your rear to get you the travel and the track width that you need to get you more stability at speed when you’re doing Baja-style racing,” Pakkam told us. New carbon fiber fenders provide the clearance for those wheels to move up and down, and the underbody has gained some protection from rocks and mud. But the frame remained unmodified thanks to particularly good stiffness already (due partly to the battery pack).

“This truck was actually inspired by the Ultimate Fun-Haver that we debuted with an EcoBoost F-150 in 2015. Now, 10 years later, we’ve got way greater technology,” said Gittin. The Lightning Switchgear started life as a regular F-150 Lightning XLT, and as far as the powertrain goes, it remains identical. “The way [the power] comes out, the control that we have with putting the grip down, it’s just really phenomenal and being able to add the track width, add the suspension travel—we got three-inch Fox shocks there—it’s very similar travel to a Raptor,” Gittin said.

In its street configuration, the Lightning Switchgear has 7 inches (178 mm) of front ride height and 5 inches (127 mm) of rear ride height, but in an off-road setup, that increases to 13.5 inches (343 mm) at the front and 11 inches at the rear. The front wheels have 11 inches of travel, and the rears have 13 inches (330 mm).

From the passenger seat of the Lightning Switchgear, on a chilly morning around an off-road course next to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the degree of body control was remarkable, soaking up the bumps and cushioning our landings over several jumps. I was also very impressed with how nimble the Lightning Switchgear proved in Gittin’s hands; using very quick applications of the brakes with his left foot to transfer weight to the nose resulted in a very positive turn-in despite the tight turns.

Pakkam refused to be drawn on whether an electric Raptor was taking place in Ford’s future product plans, and for now, the Lightning Switchgear is just a demonstrator. But the modifications RTR made are “the same stuff that almost all offroad companies could make,” Gittin said.

The Lightning Switchgear’s next stop is at the King of the Hammers off-road event later this month.

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