The right rear wheel of the 2019 Ford Ranger lifted high into the air as the truck gingerly made its way down the most treacherous part of the Mojave Road. One wrong move and the Ranger could flip. Instead, the front axle twisted to maintain traction. A spotter directed the driver to safety. Crisis averted.
The truck, equipped with the off-road FX4 package, was the least hardcore of the three vehicles in a group traversing the Mojave National Preserve. It featured chrome wheels and the thinnest tire sidewall. Yet, its electronic locking differential, hill-descent control and 1-inch suspension lift made the Ranger capable on this overlanding adventure.
The success of the 2019 Ranger FX4 proved the off-road worthiness of trucks off the showroom floor today. In its path, a 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro and a 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon followed. If the Ranger could do it, so could they.
The Tacoma and Gladiator shrugged off the steep descent and continued on their way. But the journey in its entirety presented a grueling desert challenge with tough road conditions, steep elevation changes and 100-degree temperatures for the majority of the three-day trip.
MIDSIZE PICKUPS’ NEW AGE
The route is known as the Mojave Road, a 140-mile dirt trail beginning near the border of California and Nevada and heading west across the vast Mojave National Preserve. The participants camped in the foothills of the New York Mountains on the first night and at an old mining site on the second.
The Ranger, Tacoma and Gladiator were chosen because they represent the new age of the midsize pickup. The Ranger is a carryover from global markets, lightly updated to capitalize on new interest from U.S. buyers. The Tacoma is the reigning sales champion. And the Gladiator is a moonshot for the segment, an all-new model packed with overbuilt components and impressive technology.
Each truck carried more than its fair share of equipment. The Ranger held a Yakima rooftop tent and two 58-quart Orca coolers, packed to the brim, in its bed. The Tacoma hauled a Traeger grill and Hi-Lift Jack. The Gladiator carried an assortment of smaller items like lanterns, air compressors and medical supplies under its tonneau cover. Each truck had a set of Magnapull recovery ropes, just in case.
The group set off, rolling over washed-out trails to reach abandoned Fort Piute and passing miles of Joshua trees to reach camp. An ARB tire pressure gauge helped reduce the air to about 25 psi in each vehicle. There was even an endangered wildlife sighting, when the trucks screeched to a halt to wait for a young desert tortoise to cross the road at its glacial pace.
MOUNTAIN PASSES AND LAKE BEDS
The second day featured tall mountain passes and a visit to ancient volcanic lava tubes, which provided the only glimpse of other humans on the trip. The third day included the crossing of vast dry lake beds to reach Traveler’s Monument, a man-made hill of rocks with a secret plaque to mark the end of the journey. In all, more than 140 miles of overlanding adventure with the mud, dirt and dings to prove it.
The trucks held up well. The only casualties were the side steps on two of the vehicles. Leaving camp on the morning of the third day, a large hole in the road scraped the Ranger and Tacoma. The former’s chrome running board jammed up against the door, while the latter’s aggressive metal-spiked step twisted out of place. The Gladiator, with its high ground clearance and rock sliders, went unharmed.
All three pickups had plenty of power. The difference lay in how they applied it. The Ranger, always in the lead, put down clean and easy muscle thanks to its advanced 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and 10-speed transmission. If anything, the Ranger always seemed to want to go faster.
The Tacoma offered a more traditional drive, with a gutsy V6 engine and direct steering feedback. Its slow-shifting six-speed automatic transmission sent the power reliably to the ground, but the thick, all-terrain tires did noticeably more work getting the Taco up inclines.
The Gladiator and its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, however, made short work of everything in their path. The truck glided over sharp rocks and ruts that required careful navigation in the other vehicles. The Rubicon trim’s 35-inch tires, impressive Fox shocks and powerful Dana 44 axles were unfazed.
MAKING THE TOUGH LOOK EASY
Overlanding in such extreme weather can be tricky. But these trucks made the trip look easy. Each had comfortable interiors and strong air conditioning that never threatened to overheat.
And all three trucks had advanced off-roading equipment such as locking differentials and low-speed cruise control that proved unnecessary. The Ranger and Tacoma only entered low gear once. The Gladiator never needed it.
Midsize trucks are not cheap. The most affordable of the bunch, the Ranger FX4 in supercab configuration with a 6-foot bed, has a starting price of $36,210 and came to $42,085 with options before a $1,095 destination fee.
The much-hyped Gladiator Rubicon, available only as a crew cab with 5-foot bed, is actually not the most expensive to start. Its $43,545 base price is nearly $2,000 cheaper than the Tacoma TRD Pro, with the same configuration and bed, at $45,365. It’s surprising that a stock Gladiator Rubicon is better bang for the buck than the aging Tacoma TRD Pro.
Its options quickly add up, however. The Gladiator Rubicon tested came to $59,180 with options before $1,495 destination. The Tacoma TRD Pro, loaded with options, only totals $49,755 before $1,045 destination.
THE TOP OF THE HEAP
The Tacoma offers proven reliability, and the Gladiator brings unprecedented capability at a surprising base price. But it may be the Ranger, with the ability to cross Mojave Road with a bigger bed and far better fuel economy, that offers the best overall value. On the highway to and from the preserve, its range and superb ride quality were miles ahead of the others.
Midsize trucks have changed drastically from previous generations. They are physically larger, and in many cases, no longer affordable to the masses. But they are also packed with more rugged capability and comfortable amenities. Without any modifications they can survive conditions that would have broken their stock predecessors. It may be proof that midsize trucks are entering a new heyday. Adventurers should take note.