Payne: High-speed Jeep Gladiator Mojave conquers the Mounds

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

There are two kinds of auto enthusiasts: those who get their thrills on-road, and those who get them off-road.

A sports car racer for decades, I’m an on-roader. But the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave pickup could convert me.

The Mojave is the latest variation of the tree-chewing, midsize Gladiator pickup designed for folks who want to explore the far corners of the earth. In this case, especially those with a need for speed. Unlike the Gladiator Rubicon which is built for rock-crawling, the Mojave wants to run. For a track rat like me, that sounds awfully appealing.

I’ve been hustling performance cars to Hell, Michigan, and back in the COVID-19 lockdown to test their limits. But for the Gladiator Mojave, I headed north from my coronavirus hideout to the Mounds off-road vehicle park near Flint. The Mounds has everything an off-road rebel needs: rock piles, swamp trails, sandy hills, high-speed dirt flats.

The bed tonneau cover can be rolled up out of the way on the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave.

The Mounds is thick with Jeep Wranglers exploring every inch of its 118-acre playground. They mingle with giant, jacked pickups and swarms of ATVs and dirt bikes crawling over its hills and gullies. With its detachable front sway bars and front-and-rear locking axles, the Gladiator Rubicon — like the Wrangler Rubicon — loves the tight, uneven stuff.

The Gladiator Mojave, on the other hand, dreams of being a Ford Raptor. Ford’s high-speed, Baja-desert-friendly F-150 is a singular warhorse. In the saddle with 450 horsepower under the hood and sophisticated Fox shocks under the fenders, I conquered the Borrego desert in Southern California a few years back, hitting triple-digit speeds on the sandy flats.

It was extraordinary. But like a killer whale, the Raptor needs a lot of ocean to feed, and southern California — or the Baja peninsula — is a long way to go to stretch the big Ford’s legs. Gladiator Mojave aims to bring those pleasures closer to home. Like Flint.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave is advertised at 19 mpg -but working hard off-road makes it thirsty.

Unlike the Raptor, the new Gladiator doesn’t have a new engine or get-outta-the-way bodywork. But it did feature Jeep’s throaty 285-horse V-6 and a unique hood scoop that sets it apart from brother Rubicon pickup. More important, it is raised an inch above Rubicon with trusty Fox performance shocks.

I shifted the Mojave’s transfer case to four-wheel drive, turned traction-control off and nailed the V-6 across the Mounds’ open, northwest trails. This is terrain where the dirt bikers like to open it up, and I picked up speed quickly, the Fox shocks absorbing the trail's imperfections.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave trim is new for 2020.

This might be hairy stuff in the ginormous Raptor, but the Mojave was in its element. A 75-degree left-hander loomed, and I slowed — then slewed it sideways across a water-filled dip. Gladiator’s dimensions allowed me to rotate the pickup beautifully, then I was back on the throttle as the big, 33-inch knobby tires sprayed the cabin with water.

Good thing I kept the doors on.

When you’re not splashing through Mother Nature at high speed, you can remove the doors and roof of the Mojave just like the Rubicon to get closer to nature. Just don’t wear your dinner clothes.

With the pickup bed out back, the panels are easy to stow. Of course, the dirt bikers I was riding with were eyeballing that bed as potential bike transport. They had arrived in regular, light-duty pickups, but the Mojave adds the tantalizing twin possibility: When you’re tired of running the hills in isolation on your bikes, you can pile into the Mojave for some communal dirt-kicking on the trails.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave is available with a bed cover to help keep luggage/cargo out of the elements.

“Hey, can we come with you?” said one of the bikers who had already figured this out.

The Mojave is happy at low speeds, too. The Mounds has a number of tight scramble areas that favor Jeeps over big trucks. With the transfer case in four-wheel low, I flipped a console switch to lock the rear axle and gain better traction. The Gladiator Rubicon takes this capability one step further with twin locking axles and decoupling sway-bars for serious rock-crawling, if that’s your thing.

Naturally, all of this scene-chewing hardware doesn’t come cheap. The base Gladiator starts at $35,000 and the base Mojave at $45,000. My tester was an eye-watering $60,945, just $7,500 cheaper than the Ford Raptor I tested a couple of years ago.

What you get for that coin is a unique vehicle that is good at addition as well as subtraction. Subtract the doors and hood for that unique outdoors experience. Then ogle the additions that Jeep has brought to its console.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave out to play Flint's Mounds off-road park.

The Uconnect infotainment system is one of the industry’s best, with easy-to-use menus so you can blast your favorite Sirius XM station while pulverizing trails in the middle of nowhere. Where Uconnect is shy of the industry’s best is in the navigation department, Jeep has thoughtfully made Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard on the Mojave.

Leaving the house for my off-road adventure, I plugged my Samsung phone into a USB port in a dash festooned with connectivity. The infotainment screen now duplicated my phone screen. A long hold on the steering wheel awakened Google Assistant. I asked her to chart a course to the Mounds. We were off.

Like my performance car trips to Hell, the hour drive to the Mounds gave me a chance to assess the Mojave’s livability on a long trip. I hope you like loud.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave is powered by a 285-horse engine.

With all those removable panels, roll bar and cloth roof, the Jeep is hardly equipped for sound insulation like some of its mid-size truck peers. A Ford Ranger is a sealed tomb by comparison. Go topless on your ride and good luck hearing Google Assistant’s directions (fortunately the instrument display graphics are fine). The big, knobby tire howl adds its own soundtrack.

But the advantage of those high-tech, multi-valve Fox shocks is the Gladiator Mojave rides more smoothly on the road than the Rubicon. Smooth as in mattress smooth. The Mojave does tend to wander in lane thanks to its high ride height, but the overall experience is good for your backside when you arrive at your destination.

If that destination is a metropolitan area, you’ll find the Gladiator easier to maneuver than a huge, full-size truck. Then, like a sports car, it can transform into a weekend off-road thrill ride. Which this on-road racer finds very appealing.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave is like its rugged Rubicon brother - except that its built for speed with Fox shocks and a higher ride height.

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, 5-passenger pickup

Price: $45,370, including $1,495 destination charge ($60,945 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.3 seconds (Car and Driver est.);

Weight: 4,974 pounds (automatic as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 mpg city/22 highway/19 combined 

Report card

Highs: Comfortable ride on road; carries dirt bikes or hits the dirt itself

Lows: Noisy on-road; gets pricey with add-ons

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.