Hardcore off-road race machines that are built to tackle the Mojave and Baja dunes can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to build. But Jeep, with an eye on a growing market, now builds a desert racer for $44K.

Not that it’s in the same league as the 4x4 that took brothers Alan, Aaron and Rodrigo Ampudia to top honors in last year’s grueling Baja 1000. But the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave, the first to wear Jeep’s new Desert Rated badge, is specifically engineered to withstand the intense heat, sand and dust of high-speed desert racing.

While some may call the Mojave just a modified Rubicon, the enhancements are for real. The frame and axles have been reinforced, the suspension system is built for hard landings, it has a 1-inch front lift for bigger wheel wells and 33-inch Falken Wildpeak tires that enable climbing dunes at high-speeds. The Mojave also can run in 4-Low up to 50 mph, 20 more than the Rubicon.

More important for most, the top-line Mojave 4x4 does all this plus offers great ride quality for daily commutes and weekenders, too. Mojave improves on steering and is quieter than the Rubicon thanks to less aggressive tire treads designed for sand rather than mud and rocks.

No one will mistake this midsize pickup coming down the road. It has a performance hood with faux scoop, giant Mojave decal, orange tow hooks and orange accents inside. One of the available colors is Punk’n Metallic (you guessed it: orange).

Mojave gets the same engine as other Gladiators, a 3.6-liter V-6 capable of producing 285 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque. Two transmissions are available: a 6-speed automatic or 8-speed automatic. Its 4WD transfer case, however, has a taller (2.72:1) ratio to accommodate the higher speeds in 4-Low.

Push the pedal to the metal and get to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds, but that’s not what the Mojave is all about. Shift into 4-Hi and hit the Off-Road+ button on the center stack and you’re ready for sandy trails and dunes. The system automatically adjusts throttle, transmission, shift points and traction control for optimum performance.

And it’s plenty fun, even if you don’t have a desert down the street. Mojave claws its way through loose sand and ruts like a hungry lion. It is well controlled sweeping down a trail but the suspension setup is designed to handle the hard thumps, too, like after cresting a sand dune. Jeep bolstered the ladder frame at the mounts and employed special Fox short-stroke hydraulic dampers (used in dune racers) to control rough landings after the 4,720-pound beast leaves the ground.

Despite being a desert runner, Mojave can handle lumpy dirt trails and rocks, too, with its greater -than-Rubicon 11.6-inch ground clearance and more forgiving approach and departure angles. Besides a front skid plate, shields protect the transfer case, fuel tank and transmission.

For those already pondering over Rubicon vs. Mojave, know that both cost about the same (base price around $43K) and are roughly equal in payload at 1,200 pounds. The Rubicon, though, does top Mojave in towing capability at 7,000 pounds, versus 6,000. The combined mileage figure (on-road driving) is comparable, too, at around 19 mpg.

The Chevy Colorado ZR2 is another pickup to consider but can you take off the roof and doors, or fold down the windshield, like you can with the Mojave? Ah, that’s a big no.

The Mojave interior is similar to the Rubicon but the seats offer greater bolstering to accommodate faster and bouncier travel. There’s plenty of head and leg room in the front and rear rows and seats are comfortable enough for road trips, too. Rear seats offer storage versatility: They can be folded up for floor space or seat backs can fold down.

Durable cloth upholstery (leather is available) has orange contrast stitching and “Mojave” is embroidered at the top — in orange, of course. The same contrast stitching continues across the dash and steering wheel.

On the instrument panel is an analog speedometer and tachometer which flank a programmable data screen in the center. A premium audio package ($1,695) includes an 8.4-inch touchscreen with navigation and satellite radio as part of the intuitive Uconnect system, one of the best in the business.

The system includes an Off-Road Page with key powertrain data, pitch and roll degrees, and even the vehicle’s altitude when it springs off a dune. The system shows images from front and rear cameras — and there’s even a button to automatically clean the camera lenses.

Driver-assist technology features are available in a couple of options groups. For around $1,800, you can get adaptive cruise control with collision warning and emergency braking, plus blind-spot and cross-path warnings and rear park assist.

Maybe some off-roaders have crawled over enough rocks. Gladiator’s Mojave will add speed to the off-road adventures, even if there isn’t a Baja in your future.

Barry Spyker was the automotive columnist for The Miami Herald and editor of its Wheels & Waves section. Readers may send him email at spy2351@yahoo.com.

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