Dragons produced a spirited display at altitude in Bloemfontein - but the long-awaited wait for a Guinness PRO14 away win continued as Cheetahs wrapped up a bonus point victory.
Dragons had led after an hour at the Toyota Stadium after well drilled and resilient display in South Africa.
But a late flurry of tries from the hosts – including three in the final cruel six minutes – saw them wrap up maximum points.
Dragons made four changes from the side that drew with Isuzu Southern Kings, with Eliot Dee coming in as captain while Ryan Bevington, Lewis Evans and Jordan Williams were also called up.
It was the free-running Cheetahs who started the encounter on the front foot with two penalties inside five minutes at the breakdown allowing them to kick deep into visiting territory.
A third offence then allowed home fly half Tian Schoeman to slot a simple three points for the lead.
The home side dominated territory and possession in the opening 15 minutes, but Dragons were defensively proving a tough nut to crack as they fanned out and did not over-commit at the breakdown.
And when they got quick ball, a counter-attack from Hallam Amos and Aaron Wainwright secured a penalty.
Josh Lewis, though, saw a monster attempt drift narrowly wide left from halfway.
The fly half was on target soon afterwards – after side entry at the breakdown – and his kick was reward for a patient opening half hour from Dragons.
Cheetahs continued to look menacing with ball in hand, but more home pressure was halted when the all-action Taine Basham won a huge turnover in the shadow of his own posts.
Ross Moriarty produced a shuddering tackle on his opposite number and Bevington leapt on the loose ball as Drgaons battled for any possession.
But the waves of home attack finally told with less than 60 seconds left in the half as home Number Eight Henco Venter found a gap to and Schoeman added the extras for a 10-3 lead at the break.
Dragons needed a response and they got it in the opening five minutes of the second period as they cranked up the intensity and pace.
A pin-point cross-field kick from Lewis found a marauding Zane Kirchner and he fed Amos to take the ball on at pace.
Prop Leon Brown was inches away from the line as the forwards rumbled on before a penalty was taken quickly by Dee and the alert Basham smashed over. Lewis added the extras.
Cheetahs looked to hit back only to spill the ball close to the try line.
A penalty at the scrum – one of many on the night - saw home prop Aranos Coetzee yellow carded by referee Gallagher and Lewis stepped up to put Dragons ahead for the first time.
The lead, though, lasted only four minutes as a neat show and go from scrum half Shaun Venter allowed him burst through tackles and score for the 14 men.
Dragons were now having to dig deep to withstand mounting pressure from the South Africans and tempers threatened to flare up in the closing stages of a heated battle.
Two quick-fire penalties saw Dragons pinned right back before neat footwork from fly half Schoeman saw him fly over and his conversion extended the lead to 11 points.
Late tries from Louis Fouche and Ranz Maxwane – the league’s top try scorer – put a gloss on the performance for Cheetahs and ensured they wrapped up maximum points.
06m Schoeman p 3-0
30m Lewis p 3-3
40m H Venter t Schoeman c 10-3
45m Basham t Lewis c 10-10
59m Lewis p 10-13
63m S Venter t Schoeman c 17-13
74m Schoeman t Schoeman c 24-13
78m Fouche t Schoeman c 31-13
80m Maxwane t Schoeman c 38-13
Toyota Cheetahs: Malcolm Jaer (Fouche 63), Tian Meyer, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Dries Swanepoel (Adonis 78), Rabz Maxwane, Tian Schoeman, Shaun Venter (Paige 74); Charles Marais (Coetzee 45), Joseph Dweba (van der Merwe 45), Luan de Bruin (Marais 74), Walt Steenkamp (Manjezi 63), JP du Preez, Gerhard Olivier (Wiese 45), Abongile Nonkontwana (R Venter 67), Henco Venter
Replacements: Marnus van der Merwe, Aranos Coetzee, Reinach Venter, Sintu Manjezi, Jasper Wiese, Rudy Paige, Louis Fouche, Darron Adonis
Dragons Rugby: Jordan Williams, Zane Kirchner (Talbot-Davies 78), Adam Warren, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos, Josh Lewis (Tovey 75), Rhodri Williams (Knoyle 49); Ryan Bevington (Harris 49), Elliot Dee, Leon Brown (Fairbrother 51), Matthew Screech, Lewis Evans (M. Williams 68), Aaron Wainwright, Taine Basham (Taylor 68), Ross Moriarty
Replacements: Rhys Lawrence, Brok Harris, Lloyd Fairbrother, Max Williams, Huw Taylor, Tavis Knoyle, Jason Tovey, Will Talbot-Davies
Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)