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Merc's 4x4² vs Hennessey Raptor

  1. Flight. Brief and terrifying, but for two long and silent seconds, this three-tonne truck leaves the Earth’s embrace and mimics one of the graceful and deadly avians whose name it carries. It soars, whooping supercharged V8 dying away off-throttle, peaceful in its unlikely glidepath, strangely, disturbingly beautiful.

    Unfortunately, even after the cognitive whiplash you get from seeing it get elegantly airborne, it still lands like a three-tonne truck. Which is the reason I now know what lungs taste like. Long-travel but butter-soft suspension compresses, then compresses a good deal more, regrettably allowing 35-inch off-road tyres to chew into the arches, and the skid-plate under the plutonium-density girder of a front bumper to take the rest of the impact. My shins smash into the bottom of the dash, my teeth clack together like porcelain maracas and the noise is like slamming a door six inches in front of my face. I think for a second that the airbags have gone off.

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Eventually reminded to hit the brakes by the sight of photographer Leighton arthritically throwing himself into a bush in order to avoid being comprehensively run over, I’m convinced that I’ve just destroyed the front suspension of TG’s Hennessey VelociRaptor - the very car that studiously avoided rescuing Richard Hammond from the top of a freezing mountain. A fact made worse by the sight of a mutant Mercedes G-Wagen completing the same jump and landing like a ballerina en pointe, double-damped suspension barely deforming. And yet the Raptor, after headbutting the floor like a confused bull, simply staggers a bit, huffs slightly and then carries on as if nothing has happened. If ever you needed convincing that big trucks are awesome, these two are pretty hefty arguments in favour.

  3. Now, the psychology of trucks and full-sized SUVs is not particularly complicated. They give the impression of being big and useful and functional. Their USPs chime with the hormonal imperatives of testosterone, or with anyone of either sex who values practicality and a feeling of imperious safety, even if that safety is at the expense of whomever you happen to inadvertently squash. The natural extension of this phenomenon being that the bigger or more powerful the truck, the better. The two trucks we have here are very big and very powerful. That makes them very much better. Than anything I can reliably think of.

    The yellow one is probably familiar. Basically it’s a Ford F-150, America’s bestselling pickup for the past 42 years, in what can only be described as superhero spec. First, it has been upgraded by Ford itself to create the Raptor, adding a considerably wider track than standard (now 6ft 1in between the wheels at either end), Baja-spec Fox Racing long-travel suspension and a couple of upgrades to the 6.2-litre V8 to produce 411bhp. It’s one of the most sought-after trucks in the US, a potent combination of power, presence, utility and the ability to lollop across a desert at 90mph without prolapsing a transmission.

  4. The one we have here is a version fettled by Hennessey Performance from Texas (something you can do via your local Ford dealer in the States - a bit like Mountune in the UK) and sports a nice Whipple supercharger, extra-large fuel injectors and a smidgen of extra intercooling. What you get, therefore, is a Raptor with no less than 623bhp and 627lb ft. And it’s called the VelociRaptor. Which immediately gives it the kind of macho cachet only usually achieved by a long career as a hirsute backwoods lumberjack.

    Of course it’s utterly ridiculous - a truck this size that can do 0-62mph in less than 5.5 seconds is silly, and even though in the USA a width of more than eight feet and combined average mpg of about 12 is probably seen as acceptable, nobody needs a vehicle like this. But it’s also completely self-aware and happy to be a caricature. Which makes it utterly brilliant.

  5. The black Mercedes G-Wagen, on the other hand, is a more serious and considered - and considerably more expensive - proposition. It’s called the G-Wagen G500 4x42, and is essentially a four-wheeled version of the mighty Mercedes 6x6. That means twin suspension for each wheel assembly, portal axles and more diff locks than you can shake an input shaft at. It’s also got a reworked, wet-sumped version of the new 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 from the AMG GT sports car under the bonnet, making a not-inconsiderable 416bhp. An engine whose technology makes the cast-iron 6.2-litre ‘Boss’ lugger in the Raptor look like a coal-fired power station in comparison.

  6. It’s well over a foot narrower than the HVR, but the track width between the wheels is only four inches less. It’s also a couple of feet shorter than the Ford’s 18 and a half feet, but still 6ft 8in wide and 7ft 4in high - which means it doesn’t half look chunky. And most of that visual heft is simply due to that suspension system. A portal axle basically has a little gearbox on the backside of the wheelhub that transfers torque from an axle tube some way above the centreline of the wheels. Which is good for all sorts of things, not least ground clearance, because the diff casing and axle is moved up and away from inconvenient pointy rocks/ruts/small villages. It also reduces stress on driveshafts because each mini ‘box acts as a set of reduction gears, meaning that you can get more torque down through the hubs, where it counts. The other bits are a bit more obvious, but no less delicious: monster rims (325/55 R22s) and carbon-fibre wheelarch flares the size of fruit boxes.

  7. Controlling it all is a parallel twin-damper arrangement per wheel - like the stuff used on the really serious desert racing weapons - one with set damping characteristics, the other electronically controlled, which gives the kind of flexibility a vehicle like this really should not have, both on- and off-road. It also gets three locking differentials, too many Mercedes acronyms to mention and side pipes. And everyone loves side pipes. It even comes with a proper set of beadlock off-road tyres, but to be honest, it doesn’t really need them. Because it would take the Darién Gap to stop this thing. It’s like an off-roading Death Star.

    Honestly, driving the G4x42 is possibly the most bizarre experience this side of conscious brain surgery. Inside - and bar a few extra switches - it’s just like being in a ‘normal’ super-league, super-plush G. Lots of leather and silver things, the normal amount of shoulder room and glasshouse. But you’re sitting very high. And you can’t really see the 10 inches of extra wheelarch sticking out from each corner. But it doesn’t drive like it’s on stilts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it might actually be better than a stock G-Wagen both on-road and off it.

  8. It feels expensive. Where the Raptor with its huge leaf-sprung rear axle shudders and thumps, the G-Wagen smothers. Where the lower-slung, wider-feeling Ford tips and rolls hard into a corner, the G500 stays flat and level, generating copious amounts of real-world grip. And where the Raptor always requires you to remember the geometry of approach, breakover and departure, the Merc will drive over anything short of a four-foot brick wall. Admittedly the Raptor doesn’t really care, seeing as what it can’t drive over it just drives through, but you get the idea. You also can’t make the G rear-wheel drive, lock the rear diff and drift around pretending that you’re in a Trophy Truck, but these two have different sensibilities wrapped up in the same infectious sense of damns-not-given.

    And that’s not to say that the HVR is in any way bad off-road - that very soft suspension allows for surprising axle articulation, and if you’re careful about where you put the wheels, the Raptor is actually decidedly capable. The wide track helps you stay out of ruts, the off-road mode, switchable 4x4 and low ‘box keeping momentum when all would normally be lost. For a semi Pre-Runner desert racer, it certainly copes with mud. And that grumbly V8 just thumps along at low revs, even without the supercharger adding any significant push.

  9. But following the Mercedes is a lesson. Watching the G-Wagen meter torque through the wheels and the suspension at work over really quite silly bumps is pure engineering joy. And hearing that V8 blare through those side pipes makes you want to go and gargle neat unleaded - it looks, and sounds, like a street-legal Dakar warrior. On the road it’s much the same - the Ford feels huge, and soft and heavy. It squeaks a bit. The Mercedes feels taut and controlled and - you’ll have to trust me on this - faintly sporty.

    But the Raptor has one big trick - and that’s sheer, stupid, big-hearted speed. Really press the accelerator of the Hennessey to the floor and let the V8 rev out, and the yellow truck goes into full mindwarp. The supercharger whines like a jet turbine starter motor, the exhaust chunters like a wounded NASCAR and the whole beautiful yellow houseboat just legs it into the distance. Yes, the quality of changes from the Raptor’s six-speed auto are slurred to the point of comedy and they can’t match the precision of the Mercedes paddleshift gearbox, but, crikey, the VelociRaptor can move. The Mercedes will destroy the Ford in the corners, but in a straight line, good old-fashioned horsepower has advantages.

  10. But realistically, this isn’t a competition at all. Hennessey’s VelociRaptor can be purchased for under £70k with the fun options included, and even though the G500 4x42 is officially a ‘near-series’ concept car, the word from Mercedes is that if you want one, they’ll build it. Albeit from somewhere around the quarter-of-a-million-pound mark. But really these two are more of a pointer to where we’re headed. These vehicles represent a subculture that’s got bored of performance cars you can’t really use without renting a racetrack or going to prison. The new supercars. Supercars you can have fun with at 10mph on an off-road track. Supercars you can put the family in, do practical things with and still make sure that every single person on any given street is looking at you. High performance replaced by high utility. They’re exciting, bombastic, noisy and a bit silly. Everything a supercar needs to be. And yet they’re also remarkably useful. In fact, the only thing they can’t do very well, is fly.

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