Winds ripped across the plains of the Mojave Desert, my 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon buffeting in the breeze. I was exhausted. Our overland convoy had been battling scorching heat, freezing mountain air, and 60-mph wind gusts over more than 150 miles off-road.
Ahead of us, a sea of greens, blues, and yellows break out of the desert scrub. The Mojave River, fed by California’s record rains, flowed mightily. On the other side—the end. Pavement. A warm hotel bed. I pulled up to the lapping water’s edge, said a prayer, and started inching forward …
About 30 hours earlier, we were filled with gas station burritos and optimism, ready to put the Gladiator, 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 AEV Bison, and 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro through their paces on one of the most spectacular overlanding trails in America: the Mojave Road.
The Mojave Road is the closest we’ll get to a time machine in my lifetime. The road is an old footpath that linked the Mojave tribe’s homeland near modern Fort Mohave, Arizona, to Serrano, Cahuilla, and Tongva tribes in California’s San Bernardino Valley, just outside Los Angeles. If I could distill hundreds of years of history into just a sentence, with Mojave help, the trail later allowed Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans to explore and immigrate across the Southwest.
Today its 150-ish miles of rock, sand dunes, mountain passes, and salt flats still look much like what the Army, wagon trains, Mexicans, Spanish, and Mojaves would have experienced hundreds of years ago. It’s also one of the best overlanding trails in the country. That’s why we’re here.
The Colorado ZR2 Bison, Gladiator Rubicon, and Tacoma TRD Pro are perhaps the most capable factory off-roaders ever offered. All offer midsize V-6s (308, 285, and 278 hp, respectively) paired with automatic transmissions (eight speeds for the Americans, six speeds for the Japanese) and four-wheel drive. All have ever-important lockable differentials, too—the Chevy and Jeep can lock both front and rear differentials, while the Toyota has just a solo rear locker. Each also has its own unique off-road trick up its sleeve.
The Colorado ZR2 Bison, for instance, gets a trick Multimatic Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve suspension aimed to make it better on-road, while rock crawling at low speeds, and while desert running at high speeds. Overland masters American Expedition Vehicles also provides some unique body armor to make it even tougher, such as boron steel bumpers and skidplates.
The Tacoma TRD Pro is built in a similar mold as the ZR2. Toyota’s TRD team outfits it for desert duty with Fox Racing Shox and a “Desert Air Intake,” which Toyota is very quick to point out is not a snorkel.
The Gladiator Rubicon follows a different path than the Bison and Taco. Although it, too, gets Fox Shox, it’s designed more around low-speed rock crawling than racing across the desert. It has an electronically disconnecting front anti-roll bar for more suspension articulation, massive 33-inch tires, and the expected assortment of skidplates and rock rails.
Literally loaded to their roofs with camping gear, tires, gas, and recovery equipment, we’re looking to determine which one of these midsize off-road pickups is the most adventure-friendly—the one capable of carrying us away from modern civilization and eventually find it again, too. We care about off-road capability over all else here, but we’ll also take on-road dynamics, features, and price into consideration.
Sharing Is Cairn
Finding the trailhead was easy. Our overland convoy of four trucks—our three mid-sizers with the MT Garage 2018 Ram 2500 Power Wagon along as a support rig—left L.A. early and were now at a nondescript pull-off just over a mile east of the banks of the Colorado River.
I always get a little anxious the first time I head out onto a new trail, but thankfully I wouldn’t be navigating alone. Dennis G. Casebier’s Mojave Road Guide: An Adventure Through Time is an indispensable mile-by-mile guide of the trail. Casebier is responsible for rediscovering the trail, and starting in the ’80s, he and a group of volunteers laid out rock cairns on confusing stretches of the trail in an effort to make navigation easier.
As the clock ticked past 2 p.m., we set out. With three days budgeted for the trail, we figured we had till dark to cover 40 miles at a minimum before setting up camp and prepping for another 60 miles or so tomorrow.
Book in hand, I hopped in the Colorado, with the Gladiator and Tacoma falling in line behind me. The trail starts easy as it climbs up and away from the Colorado River. I was pretty happy to be driving the Bison. Its exceptional ride and body control made it easier for me to split my focus between the trail guide in my right hand and the “road” ahead, while on the long, sandy stretches I could put the hammer down and have a little fun.
MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina was having a good time in the Tacoma, too. “Quiet, well-balanced, and the suspension does a good job of keeping the body under control,” he reported.
Some ways behind us in the Gladiator, features editor Scott Evans was having an altogether different experience over the offset moguls the Bison and Taco were floating over until he discovered the Rubicon’s anti-roll bar disconnect. Although it’s primarily designed to help keep the Jeep’s front tires on the ground during extreme articulation, it has the added benefit of significantly softening up the Gladiator’s ride. Once the disconnect button is pressed, the anti-roll bar will stay disconnected at speeds up to 18 mph before automatically relocking. It’ll unlock again once you drop down around 10 mph. A few extra mph before the system relocks would be appreciated because the system really transforms the Jeep’s ride over undulating desert terrain. “The difference in body control and head toss is so dramatic that I want to use the disconnect the moment the trail gets rough,” Scott said.
Aside from a flat on the Power Wagon, which burned an hour we didn’t have, the trail was only moderately difficult until we hit the Piute Mountains. These hills were among the toughest obstacles wagon trains faced in the 19th century, and they’re much easier today. The cut into the hillside is steep, narrow, and littered with volcanic rock. The ride was rough as our convoy ambled up and over the mountain at a walking pace.
Clear of the Piute-provided beating, we started picking up the pace. The sun was getting low, and the light was long. The radios remained silent as we cut through thick Joshua tree forests that’d shame the national park of the same name, across narrow meandering two-tracks, and past the few privately held lands on the trail.
The sun and trucks looked like they’d hold out a bit longer, and so the 40-mile mark passed without much mention. Our new plan was to continue another 10 miles or so to Government Holes, one of the few natural watering holes on the trail.
As is usually the case when we call an audible and push on, conditions worsened. When the road disintegrated into pulverized rocks, deep sand, and moguls, we thought that was as bad as it was going to get, but then we stumbled upon the drop down into Watson Wash. “Quite steep”—how it’s described in the trail guide—doesn’t begin to do it justice. With little warning, the road literally disappears before you into a near-vertical, rutted, and washed-out track that’s difficult to walk, let alone drive down.
I dropped the Colorado into four low and inched toward the precipice. My seat belt cinched and the windshield filled with the ground as the Bison started ambling down into the wash. The axles crossed up and the suspension alternated between full compression and full extension as I looked for the easiest path down. The Chevy’s right rock rail scraped and dug into the dirt as it neared the bottom, but it didn’t get hung up. I was clear.
The Tacoma followed close behind. Miguel decided on using Toyota’s Crawl Control feature to get him down the embankment. Aside from denting the TRD Pro’s useless side steps on the passenger side, Crawl Control helped Miguel keep the Toyota in check. “I’m impressed with Crawl Control,” he said. “All I needed to do was adjust the speed with the knob on the ceiling and concentrate on steering my way down.”
The Gladiator was next. Whereas the wash’s steep decent crossed up the axles on the Chevy and Toyota and stressed their suspensions to their limits, the Jeep’s disconnecting anti-roll bar made it look easy to the rest of us—its scraped belly the exception.
We cleared the wash and raced the sun to Government Holes only to find our campsite occupied. Another 5 miles down the trail—plus a little extra because I got us lost—we pulled into a suitable campsite. We’d covered about 55 miles over the past seven hours off-road. We were proud. And exhausted. Aided by four pair of headlights, we set up our tents as best we could and crashed. Tomorrow would be longer.
Change of Plans
The wind came in fierce overnight. Half my tent pegs were bent or broken, and my tent’s rainfly fluttered like a slacked sail. Judging by everyone’s faces as I crawled out of my tent into the cruel dawn light, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get any sleep. Collapsed tents. Cold sleeping bags. The weather had taken a turn overnight.
After boil-in-bag breakfasts—about as appetizing as it sounds—we saddled up and headed out of camp. We had to cover 50 miles to set us up to finish the Mojave Road early the next morning. “Maybe we can just push and finish tonight,” Miguel joked from the Gladiator as we rolled out. “I can set my tent up in a hotel room in Barstow instead.” We laughed it off, but it turned out to be the best idea of the day.
The Tacoma I was piloting felt both similar to and wildly different than the Bison I’d driven the day before. Its V-6 fired up with a familiar roar, but the jerk as I shifted the truck into drive—like oxen picking up the slack on a wagon—was a new sensation. So were the brakes that made the Taco stand on its nose at the slightest brush.
Dropping down out of the mountains and back onto the desert floor, the Tacoma was in its element, its Fox Shox floating over whoop-de-doos and mini sand dunes with ease. Scott was enjoying himself in the Bison, too. “Best ride quality of the three,” he said. “It made the trail seem easier and higher speeds no big deal. I could do this all day.”
Miguel was less happy in the Gladiator. Over this exceptionally bumpy and beaten-up section of the trail, the Jeep’s rock crawling-oriented suspension had a tougher time cushioning the cabin—and Miguel—from the impacts.
The soft sand I’d been floating over slowly turned into crushed, skull-sized cinder as we passed Marl Springs and entered the aftermath of a prehistoric volcanic eruption. The weather was changing, too, with heavy gusts buffeting the trucks and lowering our field of vision.
Our pace had slowed significantly by the time we got to the Mojave Road Mailbox—an endearing monument of sorts to the weirdness of overlanders, complete with troll dolls, gnomes, and frog figurines. The trail conditions were predictable, but I’d begun to resent the Toyota as I fell into a familiar climb-accelerate-brake-climb routine. Despite its fantastic suspension, the Tacoma’s powertrain was about as refined as a fast food state dinner over technical terrain. Its V-6’s lack of low-end torque combined with the transmission’s tall gear ratios make it hard to be precise.
Its small cabin is almost more frustrating. Obviously, that means less space for storage and passengers when overlanding, but the bigger issue is that all three of us regularly smacked our heads on its roof when looking out for obstacles over the nose. Couple that with the Tacoma’s low, sports car-like seating position and barely telescoping steering wheel, and you’ve got an overlander that none of us really wanted to spend a lot of time in.
The sun was directly overhead by the time we’d finished signing the Mojave Road Mailbox’s guest book, so we headed out into the lava beds to find a windbreak for lunch. As we wolfed down our lunches, my phone dinged. A weather alert. Things didn’t look great ahead; the National Weather Service was predicting heavy, sustained winds with gusts up to 70 mph, dust storms, and rain overnight. If we stuck to our schedule, we’d be saving our two toughest obstacles for the next morning: Soda Lake—a dry salt lake that’s notoriously difficult to cross when wet—and the Mojave River crossing.
Turns out, Miguel had the right idea that morning.
With our new deadline looming, Scott, Miguel, and I swapped trucks and set out. The Gladiator and I had trouble keeping up once we cleared the soft sands of Willow Wash and ventured onto the cratered trace leading to Soda Lake. Although always sure-footed, the Jeep was very obviously designed around a wildly different duty cycle than the Colorado and Tacoma. I could only watch enviously as the two desert runners floated over the rough terrain at double my speed.
Entering the flats of Soda Lake was like running into a wall. Unprotected by mountains, the wasteland ahead of us blasted our trucks with the worst wind I’ve experienced this side of a hurricane. All three of our trucks buffeted violently in the turbulence, my Jeep’s tonneau cover straining against its latches.
Although the lake currently appeared dry, our guidebook said looks could be deceiving. Thankfully, our tactic of speeding across the lakebed as quickly as possible seemed to work, despite sections of slick, alkaline-infused mud that attempted to suck us in.
Clear of the lake, the next few hours were a race to the river crossing.
I’d love to tell you about the hustle to the river crossing, but the truth is I don’t remember much. I think there was a snake at one point, and I know we got lost more than a few times. But after feeling our way through dry stretches of the Mojave River, we crossed under a railroad bridge and were faced with our first sign of water. “River crossing” is probably a bit generous, but the Taco, Bison, and Gladiator splashed through the glorified puddle without skipping a beat. Filled with confidence, we straddled the railroad, hung right, and were all of a sudden faced with 60 feet of glassy green water separating us from our warm, moderately priced hotel beds down the road on the other side.
In the Tacoma, Scott volunteered to go first, reasoning that he had a snorkel (Toyota’s insistence it isn’t one aside), so it’d be easy. The white Toyota plowed into the water, forming a neat bow wave in front of it. The water rose quickly, first covering the wheel hubs, then the tires, and eventually the entire door up to the window line. The Toyota started bobbing up and down like a rubber ducky in the bathtub, its V-6 emitting a low, guttural note as it breathed out into the cool water. Its speed had dropped significantly—it was barely moving along at a walking pace. Just as we were thinking we’d have to mount a rescue, the Tacoma began to rise out of the water and onto dry land. “Traction control kept cutting power!” Scott hollered from within his damp Toyota on the other side.
I lined up next in the Jeep. I wasn’t entirely confident I’d stay dry in the Gladiator, considering its doors are literally designed to be removed with hand tools in two minutes, so I put my phone up on the dash. Reasoning that its massive tires would work like a paddle on the off chance I started to float, I dropped the Jeep into four low and locked both differentials. In I went, the water line right outside my window. Despite having about 500 pounds on the Tacoma, I could feel the Gladiator’s tires come up off the rocky river bottom as it bobbed up and down in the current—its tires, as I’d hoped, working as massive paddles, slinging water and helping me keep my speed up when they weren’t slinging sand. The Jeep and I made it to the other side, both of us surprisingly dry.
Having watched Scott and me cross, Miguel and the Bison plowed into the river confidently. “During the river crossing all I had to do was put the transfer case in four low and keep a steady speed,” he said. “The movement of the rocks on the river bottom made the Colorado feel like it was floating at times, but it handled the Mojave like a champ.”
We’d covered more than 150 miles overland over the past 29 hours. We felt a kinship with the Chevy, Jeep, and Toyota—these three trucks were as battered and bruised as we were and had helped us successfully complete one of the most remote overlanding trails in the U.S. with little in the way of drama and, surprisingly, even less in the way of damage—the Gladiator’s unlined bed, Tacoma’s side steps, and a few wet floormats the only dings worth mentioning. The amount of serious off-road capability these trucks offer from the factory is simply astounding. The only thing left was to pick a winner—but hotel showers and cold beers could come first.
Back in civilization the next morning, we sat down to hash out a ranking.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but in third place is the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. There’s a lot going for the Tacoma—good ride quality, exceptional approach and departure angles, and a relatively affordable sticker price. But its cramped cabin is an unenjoyable place to spend hundreds of miles off-road, and although well-hidden on the trail, the Tacoma’s poor transmission tuning and carlike engine are hindrances that would require owner modification to truly keep up with the Chevy or Jeep on tougher trails.
There’s a lot we like about the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, our second-place finisher. The Rubicon model’s long list of off-road hardware brings a tremendous amount of capability to the segment. We also loved the smooth power delivery from the Jeep’s V-6, its well-geared transmission, and its ridiculous low-range crawl ratio. Its massive cabin was nice, too, even if it was loud and lacked in storage cubbies up front.
Two factors held the Gladiator back from the win in this test. Armored or not, the Jeep’s propensity to drag its belly over obstacles is disconcerting when you’re a hundred miles outside of civilization; we’d want larger tires and a suspension lift to attempt to address its test-worst breakover angle. And then there’s the Gladiator’s price; when optioned up comparably to the Toyota and Chevrolet like our truck was, the Gladiator stickers for an eye-watering $60,675. The Gladiator is good, but not almost $11,000 better than our winner.
That leaves us with the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 AEV Bison. This Colorado is ridiculously versatile, blending the best attributes of the Jeep—steel armor, locking front and rear diffs, and real rock crawling capability—with the Toyota’s natural gift for high-speed desert travel. The ZR2’s shocks really are key to its versatility, giving it exceptional ride quality and body control, leaving you to focus on the terrain ahead and refreshed once you arrive at your destination. Almost as much a factor as its performance on the trail is the Colorado Bison’s bargain basement as-tested price: $49,745. The value here is simply astounding; whereas we’d likely have to modify the other two trucks somewhat for regular overlanding, the Bison is ready to go out of the box. It not only lowers the cost of entry into an admittedly expensive hobby, but it also significantly lowers the learning curve. Like its namesake, the Bison is at home in the great outdoors, but this plucky truck—this ultimate factory overlander—has versatility and manners that’ll make you want to bring it back home, too.
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