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Rock of ages: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave challenges the 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro in a gravel pit

April 16, 2020

It’s a story as old as time, of young upstarts ranging from Oedipus Rex to Lightning McQueen, aiming to unseat the wily but fading veteran. So it is with the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and the 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro.

Launched for 2020, the Jeep Gladiator brings off-road bona fides with convertible flair to the mid-size pickup truck market to compete with the Chevy Colorado Bison ZR2 and the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. The Bison pales in comparison to both, even though it is much newer than the Tacoma, which hasn’t been redesigned since 2005. The Tacoma TRD Pro keeps getting incrementally better, and incrementally more expensive. 

For 2020, the Tacoma TRD Pro comes with LED headlights, smartphone compatibility, and retuned Fox 2.5-inch internal bypass shocks that keep the on-roading soft and the off-roading firm enough to go fast. My tester, with its excellent new Army Green paint, came in at $47,760 (including $1,095 destination) before options like the $725 desert air intake (or snorkel) brought it to $49,708.

Debuting in February, the Gladiator Mojave is Jeep’s first desert-rated truck. It’s not just marketing spin; the Mojave is essentially a Rubicon with the same Fox 2.5-inch internal bypass shocks but with jounce bumpers for even more damping. It’s raised by an inch, comes with an Off-Road+ magic button, and rides on 17-inch wheels wrapped with knobby 33-inch Falken Wildpeak All-Terrain tires. It starts less than the TRD Pro at $45,370 (including $1,495 destination), but once the $2,000 8-speed automatic transmission is added, it is nearly the same as the TRD Pro. Funny how that works. But the Mojave tester came with enough options to make a German luxury sedan blush. It topped out at $62,410.   

A simple by-the-numbers comparison might favor the TRD Pro, but that would be dull. We took these two dune stompers out to a gravel quarry turned off-road park to test their capabilities in the mud and the much of a glorious Midwestern spring day.

But first we had to get to the Badlands Off-Road Park in Attica, Ind. 

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

On-road

We had wind, rain, sleet, snow, and even a little sunshine in our 300-mile round trip. Both vehicles averaged less than 15 mpg on the highway, which is far less than the EPA-rated 22 mpg highway for both. Blame it on the rain, like Milli Vanilli. Or the gale force winds.

The Gladiator was roomier than the Tacoma’s double cab, though our passenger napped both ways in both trucks. The Tacoma’s 6-speed automatic makes its V-6 rev higher, so more engine noise entered the cabin. However, the Gladiator’s 3-piece removable hard top roof ($2,295) let in plenty of road noise. The Gladiator’s ride was softer and smoother as the TRD tuning makes the Tacoma’s suspension firmer overall. 

The seats in each made for an interesting debate. The Gladiator’s leather-trimmed buckets ($1,495) were padded and plush, and the significant side-bolstering was wide enough to accommodate American frames. The Tacoma also comes with leather seats that benefit from power adjustments. Our napper preferred their broader, more sculpted large truck feel.  

From a stop, the 285-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 with the 8-speed automatic transmission in the Gladiator Mojave spat gravel and consistently beat the TRD Pro off the line. The Tacoma uses a 278-hp 3.5-liter V-6 is almost as powerful, but doesn’t feel as strong.

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Off-road

The TRD Pro gets the torque edge by 265 pound-feet to 260 lb-ft in the Gladiator. That’s similar enough to be a draw, and out in the old quarry, the trucks felt equally capable. The secondary jounce bumpers on the Gladiator made it a little easier to speed over the undulations in the gravely dunes. When the shocks compressed to full travel, the jounce bumpers provided a release of pressure and the front end leveled quicker before it hit the next bump. The Tacoma felt more like a back breaker in repeated undulations.  

Pressing the Off-Road+ button in the Gladiator turns off the traction control and delays the shift points while making the throttle more sensitive. This proved ideal when climbing the steep gravel dunes. To be clear, these weren’t sand dunes, but crushed gravel mixed with rain-soaked sand. In the recesses, it was more quicksand than sand. Climbing these 50- to 70-foot gravel dunes required choosing the 4Hi four-wheel drive mode in both vehicles and building sufficient speed. 

The Mojave had another trick under its skid plate. It was made for sand, which is one reason why Jeep equipped it with the Command-Trac 4WD system instead of the 4:1 Rock Trac 4WD system on the Rubicon. You can go faster in 4Lo in the Mojave. 

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Without speed on the ascent the TRD Pro struggled for purchase more than the Mojave. Ultimately the knobbier Falken tires (285/70R17C) on the Gladiator Mojave provided more grip and confidence than the Goodyear Wranglers (265/70R16) on the TRD Pro. Before we splashed about, the tires on the TRD Pro were caked like a cinnamon-powdered donut. You could still make out the grooves and treads on the Mojave. 

In fording deep ponds and creek crawling, both trucks proved capable, though the Gladiator’s 11.6-inch ground clearance had at 2.2-inch edge over the Taco. 

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave and 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

When it came to crawling over limestone rocks and shouldering our way through the woods, the dimensional differences played as much a role as the mechanical ones. The Taco is 1.4 inches wider but about half a foot shorter; the Gladiator’s wheelbase is 10 inches longer, which makes for a breakover angle that forced us into more-conservative calculations over rocks. The somewhat longer overhang of the Gladiator’s 5-foot bed also made for more delicate departure angles, though with both trucks packing trailer hitch receivers it was a draw. 

In 4Lo, the Gladiator descended with a kind of Wrangler ease while the Tacoma felt a little stiffer, like how I walk down stairs the day after I play basketball. 

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave

The technology in the Gladiator was especially helpful, including the front camera view on the 8.4-inch touchscreen, as well as pitch and roll monitors in the vehicle info display. The Tacoma trusts in the driver’s instinct and ability to avoid such hazards.  

Overall, the Gladiator Mojave made off-roading easier and more confident, as expected, but it was surprising how well the TRD Pro kept the pace. The Gladiator is a better all-around truck in terms of interior comfort, technological sophistication, off-road capability, and any day versatility. 

For the seasoned off-roader, though, the veteran TRD Pro handles most needs without the technological conveniences and advancements of the Gladiator Mojave. “Out with the old” is an adage that does not yet apply to the Tacoma TRD Pro, and you can save a few bucks ignoring the newfangled doodads and gizmos of the young buck.


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