We finally get the behind the wheel to review the new Jeep Gladiator.
Sacramento, CA — We hear it all the time: “It’s a Jeep thing.” We heart it quite a bit during our first contact with the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator. Mud all over the cabin? “It’s a Jeep thing.” Zero doors, zero windshield, zero wind protection? “It’s a Jeep thing.” The insatiable need to climb rocks that should only be done with a belayer and carabiners? “It’s a Jeep thing.” Usually, “Jeep thing” can be read as “Wrangler thing”, and one thing that’s never been a “Wrangler thing” is a modicum of practicality.
Well, with the release of the long-awaited Jeep Gladiator pickup, that’s all about to change. It may look like a Wrangler Unlimited with a box on the back, but there’s more to it than that.
Sure; from the b-pillars forward, it’s pretty much all Wrangler with the exception of slightly larger grille openings, required to better cool the engine. That’s required because the Gladiator is positioned to do far more than beach runs and Moab treks; see how the rear end has been reinforced with the trackbar and steel control arms from the Ram 1500 pickup, and its both longer and has a longer wheelbase than the Wrangler Unlimited.
The extra length helps make way for the single five-foot box choice (whose tailgate can be locked open at 45 degrees for a little extra space), while the rear end helps give the Gladiator a 3,470 kg tow rating and 760 kg haul rating. Those numbers, by the way, are better than what’s achieved by the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma or Chevrolet Colorado.
On paper, then, this is a not-messing-around entry into the mid-size truck market, and something Jeep’s FCA parent company hasn’t had since the Ram Dakota went away after the 2011 model year. Which, coincidentally – or perhaps not – was the same year the much-loved Ranger left North America, too. And now it’s back. Funny, that.
Not really, actually. As more an more families downsize their vehicle count – and with the onslaught of CUVs and SUVs of all shapes and sixes – even pickups are aiming at a broader, often younger, market.
Of course, when it comes to younger, the Gladiator comes well-equipped thanks to its Wrangler roots. Roots that, during the course of the launch program in the surprisingly soggy Sacramento area, were actually downplayed by the Jeep reps.
They want the Gladiator to stand on its own two feet – well, own four tires, anyway. Four knobby tires, it needs to be said, if you select the top-spec ($52,496) Rubicon version. That also provides locking central and rear diffs, while all Gladiators get the Dana 44 axle treatment both front and rear, something that the Wrangler only gets at the Rubicon level. The Rubicon also gets a Rock-Trac 4 x 4 system that provides a 4:1 low-gear ratio; the other two models (the $45,395 Sport S and $49,495 Overland) get Command Trac 4 x 4, which provides a 2.72:1 low range.
Unlike the Wrangler, however, all you get is a Pentastar V6 engine – no turbo four, although a 3.0-liter V6 diesel with 442 lb-ft of torque is on the way. The V6 makes 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque fed through a six-speed manual as standard on all trims, upgradeable to an 8-speed auto for $1,595 on any trim. That’s what our Overland and Rubicon testers had, and likely what most Gladiators sold in Canada will, too.
Power on the road comes on smoothly and a little more quietly than previous; the Gladiator, like the latest Wrangler, has been developed to be just that much more civilized than the previous, which means a slightly more aerodynamic shape to the grille and roof. Which, by the way, is either a soft top (Sport S) or removable hard top (Overland, Rubicon), just as it’s always been.
It still feels properly grunty and even somewhat fleet-of-foot, though – it’s not like all that extra reinforcement out back has made it clunky and slow.
You still get that great feeling that this particular Jeep is little more than some seats, and engine and a steering wheel even though the Overland we tested on the road does weigh in at 2,137 kilos, with aluminum being employed on the doors, fenders hood and tailgate to help scrub some weight.
Towing a 2,300 kg trailer did cause more noise from the powertrain, however, and I found myself selecting manual mode because leaving it in auto just made it too revy. A trailer brake controller, meanwhile, will not be available at launch but is on its way and there is trailer sway control.
Of course, if you want the more “all hands on deck” effect, the front windshield can be flipped down, and the doors removed. Many accessories that worked for the Wrangler, meanwhile, are compatible here, too. Of course, the folks at Mopar obviously got a look at the Gladiator before any of us did, because a whole suite of Gladiator-specific aftermarket bits will be available at launch. From special gear boxes, to mountain bike racks and more, there’ll likely be enough out there to help buyers ensure that their Gladiator is a unique one.
Of course, Jeep can talk all they want bout the Gladiator being more than a Wrangler in drag, but the bottom line is that it looks almost exactly like one both outside and in (the dash is a direct lift) and people are going to see that and assume it can do what Wranglers have always done – you, know, those “Jeep” things.
So it goes that we were dispatched to a ranch outside Sacramento to put the Gladiator Rubicon through its paces on all manner of sharp, jagged rock, steep climbs and descents, all made that much more challenging by recent heavy rains. Perfect conditions, right?
Well, I wasn’t so sure. You see, all that extra length surely would be detrimental to ease-of-use in these conditions, namely in terms of the turning radius. Especially if we were to lock the diffs, which can be done by flipping a toggle mounted to the dash. That kind of thing tends to increase a vehicle’s turning circle a little, and from what I was hearing we’d be covering some pretty gnarly, narrow paths.
We went out in a group of two, with me electing to go behind so I could more easily see what the ground ahead would do to these vehicles. And what I saw was nothing short of spectacular.
No matter what we tossed its way was talked with gumption. Just when you thought you were going to slip off that rock face (because you’re listing at 23 degrees), the diffs and tires would dig in and hold fast. With 4L selected, hills that were basically mud soup were chewed up and spit out behind us – all of a sudden, being the back car didn’t seem like such a good idea.
Turns ‘round jagged rocks that I was sure would ding a corner panel somehow didn’t, the Gladiator’s squared-off proportions making it – even with that extra length – that much easier to thread through tight spots. No doors were dented, no rocker panels creased; felt like I’d done some serious damage at one point, but all it was was my bumpstops banging for going just a little too fast. The Gladiator will scratch and claw just like any Jeep should (they’re all Trail Rated, by the way), no matter how much you want to tell yourself “it’s not a Wrangler, though.”
Also slightly less-Wrangler is the interior; two Uconnect infotainment types (one with a 7.0” screen, one with an 8.4” option, both compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), optional heated seats, leather seats on the Rubicon, rear seats that fold flat or flip up to reveal locking storage bays, and a big digital display between the gauges are all on-hand to make the Gladiator just that much more livable.
If you’re Jeep, you wouldn’t want to make it too livable, though. There may be that element that just wants the Jeep looks without all that other stuff, and I guess you could say the Sport S or Overland are for them, though that re-imagined rear end and those Dana 44s are hard to ignore no matter the trim. The Rubicon, though, is still as ground-crunchingly hardcore as its Wrangler cousin; the fact that Jeep’s already revealed customary custom variants of the Gladiator for the upcoming Moab Jeep Safari shows that there’s still plenty of “Jeep things” when it comes to the Gladiator. It’s just that now, it isn’t all about that.