2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave First Drive Review: The Jeep That Jumps

A Ford Raptor-fighter this ain't, but a trip to the actual Mojave shows this Jeep can still get down (and up) in the desert.

gladiator mojave
Bradley Iger

Last year, when Fiat Chrysler finally answered the eternal howls for a factory-built Jeep pickup, the Jeep Gladiator proved the brand's new midsized machine could deliver the practicality truck owners needed while offering the same charm and off-road abilities as the Wrangler it's based on.

For would-be owners coveting the latter above all, the Gladiator Rubicon’s list of standard equipment reads like a dirt enthusiast’s wish list: heavy-duty Dana 44 front and rear axles, electronically disconnecting sway bars, Fox monotube shocks, rock rails and 33-inch all-terrain rubber. The Gladiator Sport and Overland models are great off-roaders in their own right, but it's the Rubicon that takes the brand's mantra to its logical extreme and delivers what most people picture as the ultimate Jeep. 

As such, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave for a glorified appearance package on the Rubicon at first.

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There’s no shortage of commonality between the two trims, certainly, but the Mojave is the first Jeep model ever to earn the brand’s newly-minted Desert Rated badge. It’s a designation standing apart from Jeep’s well-known Trail Rated marker, with mechanical tweaks to meet the specific demands of dispatching desert terrain, cresting sand dunes and blasting over whoops at pace. And on the unofficial side, jumps.

A Gladiator Rubicon is certainly capable of all the above. But the Mojave's mechanical and software tweaks dial the truck in for this sort of work specifically, resulting in an off-road Jeep pickup of a different feather. To see just how different, I grabbed one and struck out for the very place that gave the truck its name: the Mojave Desert, a cruel and punishing expanse of the American Southwest known for its harsh extremes and endless opportunities for off-road shenanigans.

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave, By The Numbers

  • Base Price: $43,875
  • Powertrain: 3.6-liter V6 | six-speed manual transmission (eight-speed automatic optional) | rear-wheel drive/four-wheel drive with low range
  • Horsepower: 285 hp
  • Torque: 260 lb-ft
  • Ground Clearance: 11.6 inches
  • Off-Road Angles: 44.7° approach | 20.9° breakover | 25.5° departure
  • Max Towing Capacity: 6,000 pounds
  • Max Payload Capacity: 1,200 pounds
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 16/23/19 mpg city/highway/combined (manual transmission) | 17/22/19 mpg city/highway/combined (automatic transmission)
  • The promise: Jeep’s answer to the F-150 Raptor
  • The delivery: A desert runner that makes up for its lackluster powertrain with sheer capability

A Baja Spin On A Proven Formula

While the Mojave gets some unique exterior cues, like a hood scoop, orange tow hooks and exclusive 17-inch wheels (in-cabin changes come down to more aggressively bolstered front seats and orange accents, basically), the bulk of what sets it apart from other Gladiators can be found in the suspension and chassis.

To handle the undulations of a desert dirt trail at speed as well as any airtime that might result, Jeep outfitted the Mojave with a set of Fox 2.5-inch internal bypass shocks with remote reservoirs at all four corners, added Fox hydraulic jounce bumpers up front and a 1-inch front suspension lift for more travel. The Fox setup is an industry first, designed to provide ride compliance during normal use both on-road and off. Meanwhile, the hydraulic jounce bumpers effectively function as a secondary pair of shocks for additional damping force to prevent the front end from bottoming out when things start to get rowdy.

Jeep clearly expects that owners will put them to the test, so along with a switch to cast-iron steering knuckles, they’ve also upgraded the axles and reinforced the frame to handle the abuse. The Mojave also gets Jeep’s Command-Trac four-wheel drive system and 2.72:1 transfer case, rather than the Rubicon’s 4.0:1 Rock-Trac system, which prioritizes speed and response over outright rock crawling prowess. 

The upshot is that the Mojave can operate in 4-Low at up to 50 mph, whereas the Rubicon tops out at 30. But even with the less aggressive gear, the Mojave’s crawl ratio (52.6:1 or 57.3:1, depending on transmission choice) still tops that of its gasoline-powered competition from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.

A locking rear differential is also standard equipment here, along with Off Road+ mode, which dials in the throttle response, transmission shift points and the traction control system for more agreeable behavior while mucking around. Jeep’s naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 carries over from the standard Gladiator as the sole power plant on offer for the time being, and it can paired with either an eight-speed automatic or six-speed manual gearbox.

Off-Roading the Gladiator Mojave in... the Mojave

To see if the Gladiator Mojave really lives up to its name, I figured I'd take advantage of living close enough to the actual Mojave Desert to be one of the few reviewers actually testing it in the very place it was intended to dominate. I headed out from central Los Angeles to a network of trails in Victor Valley, in the desert's southwestern corner, to find a good mix of varied terrain.

Bradley Iger

The test truck was outfitted with the much-desired manual gearbox, and despite my general penchant for three-pedal setups, there’s a compelling case to be made for the eight-speed here. Clutch uptake is pretty vague and fairly high on the pedal stroke, and considering the fact that the Mojave weighs roughly 5,000 pounds, the V6 is tasked with propelling quite a bit of mass in this application.

Unladen at highway cruising speed in sixth gear, the truck will lose pace on moderate inclines even with the throttle pressed to the floorboard, making downshifts a recurring necessity in order to keep up with the rest of traffic. Tall overdrive gears aside, on the road the Gladiator Mojave is as civil as the Rubicon, which ostensibly boils down to surprisingly good ride quality but steering that tends to wander with a noticeable dead spot on center. Part of that can be attributed to the 33-inch Falken Wildpeak all-terrains—a necessary compromise—and part of it is the old-school recirculating-ball steering setup that its solid front axle requires. Still, cradled in the leather buckets with the Alpine audio system cranked and Apple CarPlay at the ready, piloting this tester in everyday use hardly feels like roughing it.

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Uconnect with a 7.0-inch touchscreen is standard here, and the 8.4-inch system with GPS navigation and satellite radio comes as part of premium audio package. As with other implementations of Uconnect we’ve seen in recent years, the system is intuitive, useful and generally responsive. The exception to the rule is found in Jeep's Off-Road Pages that provide realtime info about powertrain vitals and quick access to the front-facing trail camera. Here, surprisingly long load times will prove frustrating.

But the flaws quickly fade into the background once you get this thing into its natural environment. Despite being tuned for desert sprints, it’s still stunningly capable in the slower stuff, with ground clearance, approach and breakover angles that exceed those of the Rubicon. It’s a bit more work to maintain adequate torque during slow rock climbs with the Mojave’s tuning, particularly with the manual gearbox when you find yourself suddenly caught out in the wrong four-wheel drive settings for the situation.

In 4-Low with Off Road+ mode engaged and the rear diff locked, though, the Mojave feels like it could match the Rubicon’s capability in all but the most extreme low-speed endeavors.

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And that baseline capability is kind of a bonus. While tooling around in the trails, I eventually found some extended high-speed sections that spoke to what the Mojave is really all about and spent a lot of time running loops, gathering more pace each time around. It comes as little surprise that this is where the Mojave’s tuning truly shines. The faster I went the more settled the truck became, with the suspension working to keep the body level as it dispatched whoops and absorbed impacts with very little drama any time the tires left the ground.

The Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator may have nigh-unmatched off-road capabilities, but anyone who's ever driven one fast down a dirt road (let alone a desert wash) knows how jarring it can be. You're not exactly isolated from the chaos below. Here, it's the opposite: the Gladiator Mojave feels like the first Jeep that's happier with more speed through frankly harrowing stuff. 

Where a Gladiator Rubicon would rattle your teeth out over washboard sections, the Mojave’s unique damper setup is tuned for this kind of work. That made for a far more stable experience, coaxing me to dip deeper into the throttle with every pass, and boosting my courage each time I squared up for the one man-made dirt ramp along the impromptu course.

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Jumps can be a tricky proposition out in the wild, where approach speed and the given result is largely hypothesis until it isn’t. But the Mojave tolerated this exploratory research without complaint, the hydraulic jounce bumpers dutifully keeping the front end suspension travel in check when I returned to terra firma during even my most ham-fisted attempts.

Though the Gladiator Mojave follows in the footsteps of the Ford F-150 Raptor and Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 in its core mission, the Mojave experience is fairly unique. The availability of a manual transmission is an obvious differentiator, here making the Jeep more involving and also more challenging at times, but it goes deeper than that. 

Stacked up against the Ford, the Mojave’s powertrain is handily outmatched, down 165 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. Yeah, the Raptor weighs in at more than 5500 pounds, but the Mojave isn’t exactly a featherweight either. Paired with Ford’s quick-shifting and short-geared 10-speed automatic, the Raptor can power through tough sections and recover speed with far less effort, lending more to the high-winding prerunner vibe than the Mojave’s naturally aspirated V6 can hope to muster. But you’re also not going to get that windshield to fold down without a Sawzall.

The Colorado ZR2 is a closer match in terms of size and power-to-weight, though it too out-muscles the Gladiator. And with the ability to essentially change its valving characteristics on the fly, the Chevy’s sophisticated Multimatic DSSV dampers also provide a more elegant solution to the challenge of striking a balance between on-road ride quality and off-road capability. But the Gladiator Mojave scores points for offering a much nicer cabin despite the fact that it’s a more earnestly designed off-road pickup in general. Plus, removable doors are always worth a few bonus points. Just ask Ford.

The Gladiator Mojave starts at a base price of $43,875 before destination, putting it within a few grand of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. But if you load one up like our tester, which boasted the Dual Top Group (for those who want a three-piece hard kit and the removable soft top), heated leather seats, LED lighting, heavy duty rock sliders, upgraded infotainment and a few other goodies, the price can climb to the $60,000 range and beyond, and that’s venturing into Raptor money.

However, both the Ford and the Chevy lack one of the Mojave’s intrinsic advantages: neither is a Jeep, a name that evokes no small measure of capability and charm. Fortunately for the Mopar faithful, and anyone else looking to join up, the Gladiator Mojave has both in spades.

Bradley Iger

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