Jeep enters the midsize pickup fray
The 2020 Jeep Gladiator is many things—the latest in a revitalized midsize pickup segment, the first pickup from Jeep since the early ’90s, and the only convertible truck on the market. But the one thing it isn’t, according to those responsible for creating it, is a Jeep Wrangler with a bed bolted to the back.
Given the amount of design and engineering work that went into creating the 2020 Gladiator, I get it. But the Wrangler is the MotorTrend 2019 SUV of the Year, so I don’t think being a Wrangler with a bed is really such a bad thing.
Just as much separates the Gladiator from the Wrangler as what connects it. About half of the Gladiator’s parts are shared with the Wrangler—including doors, front fenders, the front half of the cabin, its standard 285-hp 3.6-liter V-6, and the soon-to-arrive 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 with 260 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque. The Gladiator’s standard six-speed manual (gas engine only), eight-speed automatic, and Command-Trac and Rock-Trac four-wheel-drive systems are also shared. The Wrangler’s optional turbo-four engine will not migrate to the Gladiator, however.
The other half is where the Gladiator gets real interesting. The Wrangler Unlimited’s platform is stretched to make room for a 5-foot steel bed. The rear axle gets shuffled 18.9 inches rearward in a compromise Jeep says best balances looks, tow/haul performance, and off-road capability. Behind the rear axle—which Jeep says is based on the 2019 Ram 1500’s coil-link rear end—the Gladiator stretches to a total length of 218.0 inches. That makes it the longest and roomiest pickup in its class. Jeep also upped the diameter of the solid front and rear Dana 44 axles and fit a higher-wattage fan behind the slightly larger front grille to increase the Gladiator’s cooling capability.
Pickup truck marketing lives and dies by towing and payload numbers, and the Gladiator should deliver there; payload ranges from a minimum of 1,105 pounds (501 kg) on certain automatic-equipped Gladiator Sports to a max of 1,600 pounds (725 kg) on the Gladiator Sport with the manual transmission. The manual Gladiator Sport has the lowest tow capacity of the range at 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg); the Gladiator Sport with the max tow package can haul 7,650 pounds (3,470 kg)—besting the 2019 Ford Ranger.
For the amount of time Jeep spent trying to ensure the Gladiator was more than a Wrangler with a pickup bed, the Gladiator drives remarkably like a Wrangler with a pickup bed.
If it weren’t for brief glimpses of the bed in the Gladiator’s mirrors, the experience is Wrangler-like in all the best ways. Like the V-6-powered Wranglers, the Gladiator’s powertrain is responsive and well tuned. The V-6 makes most of its 260 lb-ft of torque up high, but Jeep’s eight-speed auto is geared well and shifts smartly—it isn’t afraid to hold a lower gear for longer, and downshifts happen fast.
The biggest differentiator between the Gladiator and Wrangler on the road is in ride quality. This sensation can vary based on trim level, but the midlevel Gladiator Overland (and I suspect the Sport trim, too, which has the same suspension) can be a touch pitchy over poor pavement without a payload in the bed—a common pickup truck trait. The Gladiator Rubicon, which has an upgraded suspension featuring Fox Shox and cushy 33-inch tires, doesn’t have the same rear-end stiffness of the other Gladiator models. It also rides exceptionally well, though it does give up a bit in handling feel.
Test data shows there’s a bit of a difference between our Gladiator Rubicon and the last Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon we tested, too. Weighing in at 5,125 pounds—370 pounds (2,325 kg—168 kg) more than the hardtop and turbo-four-equipped Wrangler—the Gladiator accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds and runs the quarter mile in 16.1 seconds at 85.5 mph (137.6 km/h). That’s just a tenth of a second slower to 60 mph than the Wrangler, and a tenth of a second quicker through the quarter mile. (We haven’t yet tested a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon with the V-6, but a Wrangler Unlimited Sahara V-6 did 0–60 in 6.9 seconds and the quarter mile in 16.2 seconds at 83.2 mph (133.9 km/h).)
The Gladiator also manages to lap our figure eight in 29.4 seconds at 0.56 g average, and manages a 60–0 mph stop in 129 feet. Although the Gladiator bests or matches most of its midsize brethren in payload and tow capacities, the Gladiator Rubicon’s weight makes it slower than the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, previously the slowest V-6-powered midsize pickup in its class at 7.6 seconds to 60 mph and 15.9 seconds through the quarter at 89.7 mph (144.3 km/h). We suspect that the lighter, more road-focused Gladiator Sport and Overland models will make up that difference with the rest of the segment.
When it comes to efficiency, the Gladiator is middle-of-the-pack compared to four-wheel drive offerings from Chevrolet/GMC, Ford, and Toyota. Six-speed manual-equipped Gladiators achieve 16/23/19 mpg (14.7/10.2/12.4 L/100 km) city/highway/combined—besting the manual-equipped Tacoma in combined mileage—while the automatic-equipped Gladiator nets 17/22/19 mpg (13.8/10.7/12.4 L/100 km).
Few midsize pickup owners tow (automaker data says the numbers are shockingly low), but Jeep nonetheless ensured the Gladiator could handle a trailer or two. With 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg) of boat and trailer attached to a Gladiator Rubicon’s standard Class IV hitch, the Jeep was a stable tow rig and wore the weight well. Although obviously you’ll want the coming diesel engine if you plan on towing regularly, our gas V-6 tester handled the load just fine. The Jeep lacks a tow-haul mode but doesn’t appear to need it; its eight-speed shifted up late and down early, ensuring the Gladiator always had a handle on the load. The only time the Gladiator felt outmatched was pulling away from a stop on a steep 6 percent grade, where the V-6 simply doesn’t have the low-rpm torque available to get going quickly.
Ensuring the Gladiator could do Jeep things was just as important as the emphasis on truck things. Jeep PR set up an off-road course to show off the Gladiator Rubicon’s capabilities. This kind of automaker-designed four-wheel-drive course typically carries little value, as it emphasizes what a vehicle does well and hides its flaws. This time, however, heavy Northern California rain turned Jeep’s manicured off-road course into a slick, soupy, muddy mess.
Despite popular culture depicting pickups as good off-roaders, their length really works against them, ruining both breakover and departure angles. To combat this, Jeep optimized the Gladiator’s wheelbase and ride height to give it the best possible breakover angle (20.3 degrees on the Rubicon). It also tucked the spare wheel between the pickup bed’s frame rails to give the Gladiator an impressive (for a pickup) 26-degree departure angle. On Rubicon models, steel rock guards mounted to the corners of the bed can support up to a third of the Gladiator’s gross vehicle weight on the point.
It’s no surprise then that the Gladiator manages its length well. The armored underside and the Rubicon’s standard rock sliders got a real workout as the Jeep slung mud, crossed streams, and scrambled up and down slick boulders. With the front and rear differentials locked and anti-roll bar disconnected, the Gladiator capably ambled over whatever confronted it, and the new grille-mounted forward-facing camera (complete with wash nozzle) making it easy to properly place the Jeep on the trail.
The Gladiator Rubicon has a new “Off-Road +” button, too. In four high, the system changes throttle, brake, and stability control settings for sand, and in four low it functions as a rock crawling mode. I didn’t find either necessary on the Jeep-designed course, but I’m eager to try out sand mode in the deserts of Southern California.
Whether on- or off-road, Gladiator buyers ought to be thrilled with the pickup’s cabin. The front half is swiped from the Wrangler, but the rear seats are unique to the Gladiator. They flip up, revealing lockable storage underneath and a flat floor. They also fold forward and flat, functioning as a shelf and revealing both more lockable storage and an optional Bluetooth stereo system. The rear seats themselves are the roomiest in the segment, with more than enough space to seat two adults comfortably. The Gladiator joins the Honda Ridgeline as the only trucks in the class with rear HVAC vents and power ports.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to open the new soft top, though it seems simple to remove the rear panel and flip back the top. The hard top functions much like the current Wrangler’s, with two removable “freedom” panels and the back half held on by a few bolts. No matter the top, the Gladiator’s cabin seems quieter than the Wrangler’s because it separates the cabin from the cargo space.
As expected, Jeep has priced the Gladiator at a premium over the Wrangler Unlimited. Most trim levels are 200 more expensive than the comparable Wrangler Unlimited version: the Gladiator Sport starts at $35,040 USD, Gladiator Sport S at $38,240 USD, and Gladiator Overland (effectively a rebranded Wrangler Sahara) starts at $41,890 USD. The sole exception is the Gladiator Rubicon, which is a near eye-watering $2,000 USD more than the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, starting at just over $45,000 USD. Individual option prices haven’t been announced as of the time of this writing, but our near-loaded Gladiator Rubicon likely stickered for around $57,500 USD.
Jeep might have been worried about its new creation being perceived as a Wrangler with a pickup bed, but the Gladiator is all the better for it. It melds the style, cultural appeal, and off-road performance of the Wrangler with the outright capability and versatility that only a pickup truck can provide. The Chevrolet Colorado is rightfully credited with resurrecting the midsize pickup when it made its debut in 2015, but the Gladiator is going to be the truck that ensures the segment sticks around.
|2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$57,500 (MT est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck|
|ENGINE||3.6L/285-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||5,125 lb (53/47%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||218.0 x 73.8 x 74.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.1 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.1 sec @ 85.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||129 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.73 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||29.4 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||17/22/19 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||198/153 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.02 lb/mile|