2020 Jeep Gladiator First Drive - Getting What You Asked For

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Jeep engineers and PR folks wasted no time in telling media, assembled in Sacramento to drive the all-new 2020 Jeep Gladiator mid-size pickup, that this truck is more than just a Wrangler with a pickup bed slapped on the back.

Technically speaking, it’s true — there are key mechanical and structural differences. So no one who uttered this assertion was lying.

But while those mechanical differences are important, they don’t change the fact that the Gladiator still feels just like a Wrangler with a bed. No matter what anyone from Jeep tells you, the Gladiator is, in a way, a Wrangler with a bed.

And that will be a good thing for many, if not most, potential buyers.

(Full disclosure: Jeep flew me out to Sacramento, put me in a nice hotel, and fed me several nice meals. The company offered a hat I didn’t take.)

While a diesel will be available in 2020, the only engine available at launch is a 3.6-liter V6 making 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Regardless of trim, you can row your own via a six-speed manual transmission or opt for an eight-speed automatic.

On road, the Gladiator’s manners are what you’d expect. The V6 offers adequate pep at best, with a lack of low-end torque forcing drivers of manual examples into frequent downshifts.

Shifting the stick is a mixed bag – the clutch is abrupt and grabby with an oddly high engagement point. You’ll be as smooth as a day-one driver’s ed student, at least until you get used to it. The shifter itself has long throws, yet it’s easy to find the correct gate. When you do, there’s a satisfying “snick.” The automatic may make it easier to tap into low-end torque, but the manual is a tad more fun to drive, even with the clutch’s crankiness.

Constant steering corrections are needed to keep the truck from wandering, and tight corners are taken slowly, as the truck’s handling doesn’t much inspire confidence. The ride is smoother than that of a Wrangler thanks to the longer wheelbase (although there is some float and wallow), but even that is relative – it’s still truckish.

And yet, with just about any other truck, all of those qualities would likely be considered negative. For Jeep buyers, however, they can be written off as quirks. Or the trade-offs one must make for off-road capability – such as solid front and rear axles.

Ah, yes. That. Here’s the good news: The Gladiator plays in the dirt as well as any Wrangler. Yes, the increased length may be an issue on some trails, but with that aside, the Gladiator got through a muddy off-road course that included a few rock piles, and it did so without exhibiting any sweat. I did bang against the skidplates here and there, but that’s what they’re there for.

Sure, Jeep wasn’t going to build a trail we couldn’t get through, but the off-road course wasn’t easy. I’m not sure all of the mid-size trucks on the market could make it through, although I’d bet the more off-road-oriented Toyota Tacomas and the Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison would have a reasonable shot.

Jeep’s off-road wizardry depends in part on modern tech. A switch in the cockpit on Rubicon models allows you to disconnect the front swaybar, and the front and rear differentials on the Rubicon are also electronically locking. An available Off Road + mode can further adjust powertrain, shifting, and chassis settings for certain applications.

Heavy-duty Dana 44 axles are part of the equation, and non-Rubicon models have a 2.72:1 low-range ratio with the two-speed transfer case and 3.73 axle ratio. On the Rubicon, the numbers are 4.0:1 and 4.10.

You can equip your Gladiator with 17- or 18-inch wheels, and the Rubicon gets 33-inch tires. The Rubicon is also available with a camera that can help guide you around obstacles.

Other key numbers include a payload of 1,600 pounds, the ability to tow up to 7,650 pounds, and the ability to ford water up to 30 inches deep. Ground clearance is 10 inches on Sports and Overlands, and 11.1 on Rubicons. The approach angle is 40.8 degrees on the Sport and Overland, and 43.4 on the Rubicon.

Breakover angle is 18.4 degrees on the lower trims and 20.3 on the Rubicon, and departure angle is 25 degrees (26 on Rubicon).

Trucks aren’t just meant to be off-road tools. The Gladiator’s Wrangler-esque cabin includes storage behind the rear seats, and those same seats can fold flat to accommodate larger items via access to the five-foot-long cargo bed. The seat benches can be raised, stadium-style, to unveil under-seat storage bins.

Speaking of the rear seat – I had no issues getting my long legs back there. Space was a little tight, but adequate for most taller adults in most situations. The available running boards are awkwardly placed, however, and even in their absence one risks dirtying their pants by sliding them against the bottoms of the doors. Entry and exit must be handled carefully during inclement weather or while off-roading.

As befits Jeep, you can remove the top, whether its soft or one of the two available hardtops (black or body color), and you can of course remove the doors. And yes, the windshield folds down – though the rearview mirror stays put. Opt for a hardtop and you’ll get a manual sliding rear window.

Removable doors and roof and off-road tires mean the Gladiator is loud on-road. So loud that I couldn’t separate wind and tire noise – it all blurred together.

The Gladiator certainly looks cool – the cargo box seems a natural fit, and it’s safe to say we turned some heads on the freeway. The interior is more or less the same as what’s found on the current Wrangler, and that’s a good thing, since Jeep finally modernized Wrangler cabins with the most recent redesign. It’s not perfect – some of the materials are way too hard – but controls are laid out logically and the availability of 5-, 7-, or 8.4-inch touchscreens is nice. Fiat Chrysler’s UConnect infotaiment system is available, and one cool available app is the “off-road pages.” This app displays things like pitch and roll or altitude.

Available features are many. Among them, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, push-button start, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, five USB ports, subwoofer, wireless speaker, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, satellite radio, and forward-collision warning. Off-road-oriented features include skid plates, front and rear tow hooks, heavy-duty bumper (Rubicon), and winch-ready front bumper (Rubicon).

The cargo box is steel but the tailgate is aluminum, and the screws you see in the cabin are real metal. You can fold the soft-top up for easy access to the sky, and as always with Jeep, there’s plenty of hidden Easter eggs (logos and the like).

The biggest differences from the Wrangler include the payload and towing numbers, a wider grille for better cooling, increased in-cabin storage, and the rear suspension. That last change sees the control arms relocate beneath the frame rails; Jeep also borrowed the track bar from the Ram 1500.

Fuel economy for the V6 is listed 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway/19 mpg combined with the automatic transmission and 16/23/19 for the stick.

You can have your Gladiator as soon as May, and Mopar already has 200 aftermarket parts on ready. For the Sport trim, you’ll fork over $33,545, and a Sport S will run you $36,745. Step to the Overland, and the sticker jumps to $40,395. A Rubicon will start at $43,545. All trims get hit with a destination fee of $1,495.

Jeep has offered buyers the opportunity to spend more, however. A Launch Edition, limited to 4,190 units (a reference to the Toledo area code), rings the register at $60,815. Orders open on April 4th (National Off-Road Day, since it’s 4×4). This version will come in five colors, don a body-color hardtop and fender flares, add gloss black 17-inch wheels with 33-inch off-road tires, and check all the Rubicon option boxes. One Launch Edition buyer who enters Jeep’s “Find Your Freedom Contest” will win $100,000.

Jeep staffers told me over lunch that the brand is targeting all potential mid-size truck buyers, not just Jeep fans or hardcore off-roaders. I don’t believe they’ll be successful in this mission, but I do believe that there are enough Jeep partisans out there that it won’t matter.

Consider that the Honda Ridgeline has impressive on-road manners. So does the “new” Ford Ranger (new to America, that is) – Jeep had one on hand for on-road testing, and I was surprised how good it is on pavement. Now consider that the Gladiator, like the Wrangler, trades on-road comportment for off-road prowess. I have a hard time picturing a buyer who’s shopping for the most well-rounded rig selecting the Gladiator.

Which, again, would normally be problematic, but not in this case. Jeeps are supposed to be challenging on-road so that they can conquer the off-road. Not only that, but some Jeep buyers will line up for this truck simply because it looks so damn cool. They may never venture off paved surfaces, but they’ll tool around town sans doors and top. They’ll festoon the tailgate with “it’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand” bumper stickers. They won’t moan about how hard it is to keep the truck tracking on-center, or how loud it is on the freeway. It will make them smile, and that’s all that matters.

Some vehicles are popular despite not being particularly well-mannered. Indeed, sometimes they’re popular because of that. The Wrangler is one of those vehicles, so it follows that the truck version of the Wrangler also would be, despite the under-skin changes.

Sure — mechanically, it’s more than just a Wrangler with a pickup bed slapped on. But it’s still a Jeep truck, for better or for worse.

That’s all it really needs to be. That’s just what the people want, after all.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Rudiger Rudiger on Apr 02, 2019

    I don't see this as appealing to anyone other than the Jeep faithful. And that could be a problem as it will just cannibalize Unlimited sales. No one is going to cross-shop a Gladiator against a Ridgeline, and few will choose it over a Tacoma, Colorado, or Ranger. Other than the off-road prowess (something not many actually need), there's little to recommend it. Frankly, after the initial hoopla dies down, I wouldn't look for the Gladiator to be around after, say, 2025.

    • Hummer Hummer on Apr 02, 2019

      People actually shop for Ridgelines? I thought dealers just played a game of switcheroo on people buying Pilots and tricked them into a useless minivan-Ute half way through signing paperwork.

  • JD-Shifty JD-Shifty on Apr 02, 2019

    These things are awesome. needs an extended cab version, but the market only seems to support crew cabs It would be nice if these didn't rust out in the cab corners and wheel arches like domestics do

  • Bd2 Jaguar's problem was chasing the Germans into the mid size and then entry-level/compact segments for volume, and cheapening their interiors while at it.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Aja8888 I expected that issue with my F150 starting at 52,000mi. luckily I had an extended warranty and it saved me almost $8,000. No more Fords for me, only Toyota.
  • Lou_BC I saw a news article on this got a different read on it. Ford wants to increase production of HD trucks AND develop hybrid and EV variants of the SuperDuty. They aren't scaling back EV production. Just building more HD's and EV variants of HD's .
  • Lou_BC Backing up accidents are one of the most common causes of low speed accidents. You'd think sensors and cameras would help.
  • Jpolicke Jaguar started making cars that were dead ringers for Kia Optimas, but less reliable. They now look like everything and nothing; certainly nothing to aspire to.