Wrangler Capability, Now With More Practicality

2020 Jeep Gladiator Review: a Historic Nameplate Makes a Remarkable Return


March 30, 2019 Cars By
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When was the last time you saw a Jeep pickup truck? For younger generations, probably never. After all, the last was built in 1992 — the Cherokee-based Comanche — meaning the mere idea of one is almost 30 years old. As a result, most of those who see the new Jeep Gladiator, which is based on the newly redesigned Wrangler, might be startled by the fact that such a thing even exists. Elder enthusiasts and true aficionados of any age, however, will feel pangs of nostalgia and even delight. Both a Wrangler and a pickup? Wondrous indeed.

What’s Good: The Gladiator retains almost all the Wrangler’s off-road capability save for slightly diminished breakover and departure angles, and comes in four different configurations: Sport, Sport S, Overland and Rubicon. So it’s a fully legitimate trail-basher, with the added bonus of the utility bed out back. As with the Wrangler, the details throughout the vehicle are truly marvelous. It’s got all of its donor model’s coolest features, including the fold-down windscreen and readily removable doors, but also a few tricks of its own, like rear seats that flip up to reveal a voluminous storage bin that looks suspiciously like a built-in rifle case but in fact can be partitioned however you like.

Who it’s for: Folks who like to haul stuff and explore, or explore and haul stuff. The new midsized pickup, about to enter showrooms, is 31 inches longer than the longest Wrangler, the four-door, and its wheelbase stretches 20 inches. This makes room for a full five-foot bed that can carry whatever you need—topsoil, camping gear, lumber—though not quite enough space to haul sheets of plywood or drywall. Leave that to the full-size pickups. Besides, while those guys are refinishing their basements, you’ll be out conquering trails and scrambling over rock beds.

Watch out for: Road handling. While it’s absolutely a beneficiary of the improved ride qualities that debuted in the new Wrangler, it’s still a Jeep riding high on large tires with a suspension optimized for off-roading. This becomes particularly noticeable in the turns, where the Gladiator’s extra length further hampers handling. In the end, it’s fine in a straight line and of course brilliant off-road, but once you’re into a twisty stretch, your stomach might struggle with the extra body roll.

Review: Gladiator revives a fabled nameplate used in a Wagoneer-based pickup between 1963 and 1972. But while, as a Jeep, it’s obligated to live up to its heritage, more important is the truck’s appeal to modern users. In that sense, the Gladiator delivers, both in modern metrics like connectivity and baseline comfort and the nuances that make Jeeps, Jeeps. Out of the gate, it comes powered by a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that delivers 285 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. (A diesel V6 will arrive next year.) Those numbers might feel low by current truck standards, but they more than deliver at the midsize level, particularly given that the powertrain is optimized for low-end torque and slow-and-steady rock crawling. To help fuel economy, it features engine stop-start and a smooth eight-speed transmission. The manual six-speed option, though, is a joy to drive, especially with gear ratios that allow for stress-free low-speed maneuvering without the constant threat of stalling.

I drove the Gladiator across a stretch of northern California that included substantial coastal cruising. It did fine in the straights, with only modest tire roar from the 33-inch tires and the kind of wind noise you’d expect from the boxy design. As with the Wrangler, neither were significant enough to impede conversation or strain your senses. In the twistier parts of the drive, the longer wheelbase and the general off-road-oriented geometry made for greater degrees of body roll than might be comfortable. Trundle through at modest speeds and you’ll hardly notice it; put any energy into your drive, though, and you might start to feel it as the miles, and curves, stack up.

By far the best part of the drive was the off-road portion, which included the kind of scrambling that makes beginners go pale. The stiff, body-on-frame Gladiator managed significant boulder fields, mud-slogging, and extreme angles with ease, making the mission exceptionally fun. Credit, of course, goes to the Wrangler-derived engineering, which in the Rubicon trim includes a Rock-Trac 4×4 system with heavy-duty Dana 44 axles with a 4LO ratio of 4:1, with locking differentials. An electronic sway-bar disconnect improves wheel travel, and rock rails will protect the body panels from dings and dents. Sport and Overland trims come with the Command-Trac 4×4 system, including a two-speed transfer case with a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio and limited-slip rear differential for better torque and grip in low-traction environments.

In the real world, all this means the Gladiator can get you out of virtually any jam you can think of, and in my trials it proved no less confidence-inspiring than the new Wrangler. It does this while also throwing in details both clever and thoughtful for the die-hard Jeep community, including a full-size spare tire mounted under the bed, in a space that’s also capable of holding up to a 35-inch tire, given that so many owners make upgrades of that sort as soon as they get hold of their machines. (The fenders can also accommodate 35-inch tires.) There’s also pickup-specific features, including under-rail bed lighting, integrated tie-downs and Jeep’s Trail Rail Cargo Management System, which enhances customizability of cargo storage and anchor points. You can opt, as well, for a spray-in bed liner and a tonneau cover.

Inside again echoes much of the Wrangler’s design and organization, which are exemplary and functional, including large buttons usable even while wearing gloves and a center stack that neatly consolidates key functions. Standard and optional safety features include blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection, cameras for improved off-road situational awareness, and even adaptive cruise control. The fourth-gen Uconnect system offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as navigation and assorted streaming apps.

This keeps the retro-feeling Gladiator decidedly modern, making it usable on a daily basis even if some of that stuff ceases to matter when you leave the pavement. Yes, the Gladiator is a pickup truck, and a good one at that, but even the most cursory glance tells you it has a greater, muddier mission in mind.

Verdict: For all its successes as both an off-roader and a truly useful pickup truck, one of the greatest things about the Gladiator has to be its utterly unique look. It’s got both the retro panache of the Wrangler and the distinction of being the only pickup truck on the market that doesn’t essentially look like all the other pickup trucks on the market. That’s a huge differentiator, and will make those who drive this to dinner or the Depot the center of attention in a way that will make them the envy of those thundering around in F-150s or Rangers, Silverados or Colorados, Tundras or Tacomas.

That seals the deal: the Gladiator rocks.

Specs:
Year / Make / Model: 2020 Jeep Gladiator
Purchase URL: www.jeep.com
Price: Sport $33,545; Sport S $36,745; Overland $40,395; Rubicon $43,545
Engine: 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6
Transmission: 8-speed Automatic or 6-speed Manual
Horsepower: 285 hp
Torque: 260 lb-ft
Fuel Economy (City / Highway / Combined): 17 / 22 / 19
Towing / payload: Up to 7,650/1,600 pounds
Ground clearance: 11.1 inches
Fording depth: 30 inches

Jeep hosted us and provided this product for review.

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