Jeep has lots of history with pickup trucks, having first introduced the Willys-Overland Pickup way back in 1947. The Forward Control followed in 1957, but it wasn't until the 1963 J-Series Gladiator that the brand truly had a proper pickup to compete with the likes of Ford and General Motors. Jeep's last truck, the Comanche, sold more than 190,000 units over its eight-year lifespan, but the image that the majority of Jeep's most ardent fans conjure up when they think of a seven-slotted pickup truck isn't the newer unibody Comanche, it's the older body-on-frame Scrambler. Such is the power of the iconic grille and round headlights.
So it's no surprise that it's the CJ-8 that Jeep seeks to mimic with its new Gladiator, following a similar recipe of lengthening the frame of its best-selling Wrangler by 31 inches and grafting on a bed. Jeep drew on the experience of corporate cousin Ram, borrowing the 1500's rear suspension design for use in the Gladiator. Fortunately, the end result doesn't feel like a parts-bin special assembled solely to fill a marketplace need. This is an honest-to-goodness pickup truck competitor entering a super-hot midsize market.
And it's doing so with a seriously unique sense of style. Of course it's got the Wrangler's grille, modified with larger openings to let in more air to fulfill the cooling needs of a pickup truck. The rest of the bodywork back through the front doors is cribbed straight from the Wrangler. Only one configuration is available, a four-door model with a five-foot truck bed.
While all of its competitors, including the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger, offer similar four-door utility – and importantly also offer an extra foot via their long-bed options — nobody but Jeep offers a pickup truck with a removable roof, let alone a fold-down windshield or doors that can be left behind in the garage. An optional portable Bluetooth speaker sits in a charging cradle behind the rear seatback, and flipping up the rear seat bottom reveals a bin that is optionally available with a locking cover. Jeep mentioned the possibility of filling these up with ice to keep drinks cool on a hot day.
There's ample space inside the Gladiator for four adults to sit comfortably. At 38.3 inches, there are a couple more inches of rear seat legroom in the Jeep than in any of its competitors. We had no trouble putting one six-footer in the rear seat behind another similarly tall person in a comfortable driving position. Front and rear headroom are also class-leading.
A 5.0-inch touchscreen comes standard with the Gladiator Sport, with larger 7.0- and 8.4-inch options available. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are available on the up-level Uconnect systems. A rear backup camera is standard, and a front-view camera with an integrated cleaning nozzle that provides a close-up view of the terrain ahead is optional for those who plan on doing serious off-roading.
At launch, all 2020 Jeep Gladiator models will be powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine that spins out 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It's not a powerhouse by any means, and the Gladiator's base curb weight of 4,650 pounds — 680 pounds heavier than a two-door Wrangler that uses the same powertrain — contributes to the truck's sluggish acceleration. All four doors, the hood, fenders, windshield frame and tailgate are aluminum, while the rest of the cab and bed are stamped from steel.
A Rubicon equipped with an automatic transmission bumps the weight up to 5,072 pounds. Not coincidentally, the Gladiator's maximum 1,600-pound payload and 7,650-pound tow rating is achieved with the base (and lightest) Sport trim level while the Rubicon maxes out at 7,000 pounds. By way of comparison, a four-door Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro weighs in at 4,445 pounds and can tow 6,400 pounds.
In regular driving on surface streets and highways, the Gladiator's V6 engine feels sufficient. A six-speed manual transmission comes standard across the board. There isn't a whole lot of joy in the art of shifting the Gladiator's manual gearbox, but somehow a clutch pedal in a Wrangler-based vehicle just feels right.
In reality, nearly everyone is going to opt for the eight-speed automatic, which adds $2,000 to the price of any Gladiator. It's a good transmission that doesn't unnecessarily hunt for gears and mostly disappears into the background, pairing well with the Gladiator's standard V6. A 3.0-liter diesel V6 engine is promised soon, but isn't expected to show up in dealerships until the 2020 calendar year. That engine will probably score significantly better fuel mileage than the gas V6 automatic's EPA ratings of 17 city, 22 highway and 19 combined (the manual gets 16/23/19 ratings).
The Gladiator drives a lot like the Wrangler Unlimited. No surprise there. The ride is a bit less busy due to the truck's much longer wheelbase and additional weight, and it would likely further improve with some weight in the bed. Base Sport models get 17-inch wheels shod in 245/75 tires, and so equipped, the Gladiator's power steering feels very light and overboosted, requiring a lot of small corrections to keep the truck pointed straight ahead at highway speeds. In Rubicon trim, the Gladiator gets 33-inch all-terrain tires with soft sidewalls, with blockier mud-terrain tires optional. It sounds strange, but those heavier tires dampen some of the lightness from the steering, and that offers a driving experience that we prefer over the base model.
Jeep representatives told us that a large percentage of Sport buyers will accessorize their Gladiators with new wheels and tires directly after taking delivery, so tuning the steering for off-road-spec tires makes sense. And those who venture into the mud and rocks will find that the Gladiator, particularly in Rubicon trim, is extremely capable.
An approach angle of 43.4 degrees, a departure angle of 26 degrees, and 11.1 inches of ground clearance are all class-leading figures. The Gladiator is also capable of fording water to a depth of 30 inches. If there's a limitation, it's the Gladiator Rubicon's 20.3-degree breakover angle, a result of the long wheelbase and super short front overhang that's made possible by the front wheels being pushed as far forward as possible. A Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro has a breakover angle of 26 degrees, and the Chevy Colorado ZR2's breakover is also better at 23.5 degrees. Hardcore off-roaders will definitely be thankful for the Rubicon's heavy-duty steel rock rails, which protect the lower bodywork from dents, dings, and scratches when scrambling over large obstacles.
Four-wheel drive comes standard, with Sport and Overland models getting an on-demand system called Command Trac. Gladiator Rubicon models get an upgraded Rock-Trac system that includes electronic locking differentials and sway bar disconnect. Heavy duty Dana 44 solid axles front and rear are standard across the board. With a manual transmission, the Rubicon boasts a super low 84.2:1 crawl ratio (77.2:1 with the automatic), meaning the driver can precisely modulate forward momentum using the gas pedal, easily inching across uneven terrain at a walking pace.
We towed a 5,500-pound Airstream trailer for several miles using a Gladiator Sport equipped with an automatic transmission and all the requisite towing gear, including a Mopar-branded trailer brake controller. Buyers who plan on regularly hauling anything that heavy will likely want to opt for a fullsize pickup, but we can confirm that the Gladiator will handle the load just as well as any of its midsize competitors. The engine feels a little stressed as it pushes the Gladiator and trailer up to highway speed, but its transmission holds gears well with no intervention from the driver, and appropriately adapts to uphill and downhill grades.
Pricing for the base Gladiator Sport starts at $35,040 including a hefty $1,495 destination charge. A bump up the ladder to Sport S trim brings power windows and door locks, keyless entry, a 7-inch touchscreen, and a 115-volt power outlet in the truck bed for $38,250. The luxurious Overland trim level gets unique 18-inch wheels, side steps, body-color fender flares, an 8.4-inch Uconnect screen, and access to a host of options including a leather interior and adaptive cruise control for $41,890. At the top of the lineup sits the Rubicon for $45,040.
Jeep says a fully loaded Gladiator Rubicon with everything the factory can throw at it will cost right around $60,000. That's a lot of money for a midsize pickup truck, even one with the unique capabilities of the Gladiator. On top of that, a full catalog of more than 200 Mopar-branded accessories are filling dealerships even before the trucks themselves.
Despite its undeniably high price, we expect the Gladiator to positively fly off dealer lots and for the Toledo-built truck to shoot straight to the top of the Moparization charts. This is America, after all, land of the free, home of the brave, and mass consumer of pickup trucks of every shape, size, and color. Which leaves us asking one important question: Do you prefer Firecracker Red, Bright White, or Hydro Blue Pearl Coat?