Jeep’s new Gladiator truck has been a long time coming. The-based pickup had been rumored and teased ad nauseam before finally — finally! — debuting at the Los Angeles Auto Show last year.
Fortunately, after a lengthy test both on- and off-road in Northern California, I can tell you this $33,545 (and up) truck was definitely worth the wait.
More than just a Wrangler with a bed
The 2020 Gladiator uses a completely different frame than the Wrangler, and while the front suspension hardware carries over unchanged, a more sophisticated five-link setup is fitted at the rear for better on-road handling and drivability. You can only buy a Gladiator with four doors — unlike the Wrangler, which can be had with just two — and there’s only one, 5-foot bed option available.
Jeep will initially offer the Gladiator in base Sport, Sport S, Overland and Rubicon trims, all of which come standard with four-wheel drive. There’s even a model, limited to 4,190 units (for 419, the area code of Toledo, Ohio, where the Gladiator is built). Taking a cue from Tesla’s launches of late, like the , these limited, fully loaded early-edition vehicles are becoming more and more common. But if you want one of these, you’d better act fast.
All Gladiators will initially be available with Jeep’s tried-and-true, 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A 3.0-liter diesel engine will come online later, but Jeep won’t offer the Wrangler’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4 engine in the Gladiator. Not a problem — the V6 works just fine, and you can get it with a six-speed manual transmission (woot!).
Off-roads like a Jeep
The Gladiator off-roads like a Wrangler should, with only a few minor compromises. On a Jeep-designed off-road course, full of thick, clay mud, the 33-inch Falken Wildpeak tires on the Rubicon model are getting a real workout. But the Gladiator easily gets up and over rocks, can ford deep puddles and generally gives off that “we can go absolutely anywhere” vibe — just like a Jeep should.
The Gladiator Rubicon retains the same 44-degree approach angle as the Wrangler, so I can easily attack steep hills without worry of scraping the front end. However, the truck’s long, 138-inch wheelbase reduces my breakover angle a bit — down to 20 degrees, from 22.6 in a four-door Wrangler Unlimited. It’s easier to get high-centered in the Gladiator if you’re doing serious off-roading, though the Rubicon’s rock rails help keep damage to a minimum. At the back, the Gladiator’s bed takes away a bit of rear-end clearance, with a 26-degree departure angle compared to the Wrangler Unlimited’s 37, but Jeep protects the bed with its very own, smaller rock rail.
Make no mistake, the Gladiator should still out-climb and out-crawl every other midsize pickup available today.
All the other Wrangler-spec off-road goodies carry over to the Gladiator Rubicon, like a two-speed transfer case, locking front and rear differentials, a disconnecting front sway bar and a super-low 77.2:1 crawl ratio for slow-speed maneuvering. Heck, the crawl ratio goes even lower with the manual transmission, to 84:1. You can pretty much get up and over anything without batting an eye.
A new Off-Road+ mode can adjust the throttle, transmission and stability control for different situations. When the truck is in 4WD high, the parameters are changed for higher-speed performance, say while running through sand. In 4WD low, it works in the opposite direction, dialing everything back to better traverse the rougher, more technical stuff at lower speeds.
The Rubicon is obviously the Gladiator you’ll want if you routinely tackle tough off-road situations, but other versions of Jeep’s truck can still handle the rough stuff just fine. Following my thorough test of the Rubicon on Jeep’s course, I took a Gladiator Overland up to an isolated cabin on a snowy mountain and bombed around without a hitch. Even with its less aggressive, 32-inch tires, and non-lockable differentials, the Gladiator Overland got me through two miles of 1-foot-deep snow with no issues.
Civilized on-road manners
On the road back to civilization, the Gladiator’s 3.6-liter V6 is as good here as it is in the Wrangler, nicely mated to the Jeep’s eight-speed automatic transmission. The V6 gets the truck up to speed quickly, and there’s enough midrange power to pass slow-moving semis without much drama. By and large, the eight-speed transmission fades into the background, shifting smoothly and unobtrusively.
It used to be that Jeeps kept to the slow lane on the pavement, bouncing along at 55 mph with riders shouting at each other to be heard over road and wind noise. No more, my friends. The Gladiator is happy to cruise at 70 or 75 mph without wandering all over the road. The Rubicon’s Falken tires make a bit of noise, yes, but in the less aggressive Overland, I can talk to my passengers at a normal volume.
The Gladiator certainly isn’t going to win any handling competitions, thanks to its relatively soft suspension, but it holds its own just fine. Like in the Wrangler, the steering offers adequate weight but lacks feedback, and the ride quality is comfortable enough for cruising, but still appropriately trucky.
The Gladiator is a techy truck, too, with available driving aids like blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control. No, the 3.6-liter V6 engine doesn’t have the 48-volt mild-hybrid system of the 2.0-liter turbo, but it does have stop-start that should help with fuel economy.
With the automatic transmission, Jeep estimates the Gladiator should see fuel economy ratings of 17 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined. With the six-speed manual, those numbers change to 16, 23 and 19, respectively. Over my week of driving the automatic-equipped Gladiator Overland, I saw 20 mpg. Not bad.
At its best, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon can tow 3,500 pounds, which is good enough for a small camper or maybe a side-by-side or two. But thanks to its redesigned frame, the Gladiator ups towing capability to 7,650 pounds, which bests every other midsize truck on sale today.
Jeep brought a 22-foot boat to its media drive program in order to test towing, weighing 5,700 pounds, including its trailer. The Gladiator’s Tow/Haul mode engages at the push of a button, and while driving uphill at a 6% grade, the transmission keeps the engine’s revs high in order to send plenty of power to the pavement. That said, the Gladiator’s mirrors aren’t very wide, so visibility isn’t the best, and the truck’s blind-spot monitoring does not cover the length of the trailer as it does on other trucks. For in-bed hauling, Jeep says the Gladiator can handle up to 1,600 pounds of payload.
However, do note that these maximum towing/hauling ratings only apply to the Gladiator Sport S with the eight-speed automatic transmission. If you step up to a Rubicon, for example, towing drops to 7,000 pounds and payload is reduced to 1,160. Get a manual transmission on your Rubicon, and towing drops to 4,500 pounds, though payload increases slightly to 1,200.
Techy and topless, if that’s your thing
Inside, the Gladiator is basically identical to the Wrangler. It even comes with a soft-top option, like the Wrangler, for open-air motoring. Yes, you can fold the windshield down, too. Go full wind-in-your-face and there’s an Ikea-inspired bolt box for all the hardware that neatly fits under your seat, so you won’t lose any of the necessary parts when it comes time to close the Jeep back up.
Jeep’s excellent Uconnect tech handles infotainment duties, with a 5-inch screen standard on the Sport, 7-inch screen on Sport S, and an 8.4-inch touchscreen optional on Overland and standard on Rubicon, the latter of which offers, Android Auto and a Wi-Fi hotspot standard. Uconnect is one of our favorite infotainment setups here at Roadshow, thanks to its nicely organized menus and robust set of features. In the Gladiator specifically, I love that the navigation can show exact longitude, latitude and altitude of my current location, which is super helpful when reading maps. The gauge cluster can display pitch and roll data, as well as information about steering angle and power delivery, so I know exactly how precisely to push the Jeep.
The Gladiator Rubicon ads a forward-facing camera to navigate obstacles like rocks — it’s great to know exactly where you’re putting your tires.
The base Sport model gets two USB Type-A outlets and one 12-volt port, but higher trims add a smaller USB Type-C connection up front, as well as an additional 115-volt outlet, and Type-A and C ports in the rear. A 400-watt, 115-volt outlet is optional in the truck’s bed, as well. There’s even an optional Bluetooth speaker that’s placed behind the rear seat, to kick out your jams.
Worth the wait
The 2020 Jeep Gladiator costs just $2,100 more than a base Wrangler, which seems like a heck of a deal considering all the extra utility you get. The base Gladiator Sport starts at $33,545, and the top-end Rubicon comes in at $43,545, not including $1,495 for destination.
That’s a bit more money than you’ll pay for similarly equipped versions of the, or , but remember, the Gladiator offers the best off-road capability, no to mention the best tow rating of any midsize truck. Off-road enthusiasts could certainly check out a or a , and the Ford Ranger offers a lot of capability with a zippy, turbocharged powertrain, but none of these trucks quite match the cool factor of the Gladiator.
The Wrangler is an absolutely iconic SUV, and all of its great attributes make their way to the Gladiator pickup. It’s definitely the truck I — and so many others — have been waiting for.
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