Plenty of people want a Jeep Wrangler, the ultimate go-anywhere off-road vehicle. But many buyers consistently vote with their pocketbooks that they need a pickup truck of some description. It's ridiculous to think that it took this long for Jeep to realize that the Venn diagram of these two groups might just overlap. But here we are with a Jeep pickup, the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator.
2020 Jeep Gladiator First Drive
The Intersection of Want and Need
Now, there have been Jeep pickups before. The most recent example was the Cherokee-based Comanche that quietly disappeared in 1992. You have to reach back to 1985 to find the CJ-8 Scrambler, the most authentic attempt at marrying the iconic Jeep look with a truck bed. Alas, it wasn't a particularly good pickup.
Nevertheless, this image of what we'd now call a Wrangler truck got stuck in everyone's mind. Today's blueprint deviates slightly because a clear majority of both Jeep Wrangler and pickup truck buyers alike prefer four doors — a nod to multipurpose practicality over single-minded specialization. It's therefore no surprise that the midsize 2020 Jeep Gladiator is essentially a four-door Wrangler with a pickup bed grafted on. The obvious question is this: Will buyers sitting at the intersection of Want and Need get what they want out of the new Jeep Gladiator?
Tweaked Wrangler Recipe
You won't spot many differences between the Gladiator and the Wrangler Unlimited if you stand just behind either rear door and gaze forward. From that vantage point, the doors, cab, fenders, hood and even the optional hardtop's removable roof panels are identical. The same is true if you climb into the back seat and look ahead. Except for some different vehicle-shaped icons and an extra switch or two, the forward half of the Gladiator's interior is indistinguishable from a Wrangler Unlimited.
Of course, the view is entirely different if you spin around and face aft. The Gladiator's abbreviated cab is completely walled off, and behind it is a detached 5-foot (60.3 inches, to be precise) pickup bed. A big reason why the Scrambler didn't fare well as a truck — and perhaps why Jeep avoided the Scrambler name here — is that its cab and bed were a shared tub with no fixed wall to separate people from payload.
The resulting Gladiator is a legitimate midsize pickup that takes direct aim at the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. The Gladiator's most basic difference is that it comes in just one configuration: a crew cab with the short bed and four-wheel drive. There are no extended-cab, long-bed or two-wheel-drive variants. That's fine as far as we're concerned.
Not a Pickup Pretender
The Gladiator shares the Wrangler's solid front axle and short front overhang, and this extreme forward-axle placement results in a wheelbase that is between 9 and 10.5 inches longer than its main rival pickups and a full 18.9 inches longer than a four-door Wrangler. Even then, the rear axle crowds the cab somewhat because Jeep made the under-bed space for the spare tire big enough to hold not only the 33-inch tire that comes on a Gladiator Rubicon but also the inevitable 35-inch aftermarket upgrade some owners will retrofit.
Jeep didn't take a half-swing at making this truck functional. The Gladiator Sport has a maximum payload rating of 1,600 pounds and a maximum tow rating of 7,650 pounds. Both of these figures are best-in-class if you confine the comparison to like-minded crew-cab 4WD versions (though the Ranger's extended-cab and RWD variants can shoulder more payload). As for the Gladiator Rubicon, it can tow 7,000 pounds and carry 1,160 pounds, both of which compare favorably to the specs for the Colorado ZR2 and the Tacoma TRD Pro.
The 5-foot cargo bed also matches up well to the competition. The load floor is not overly high, and it's easy to reach in over the bed sides, which is a refreshing counterpoint to the too-tall sides of the Ranger and the Colorado. The tailgate is broad and damped, and the tailgate lock is tied into the central locking system. It also has a clever half-open position that lines up with the fender tops to better haul plywood. The Gladiator's bed comes with four tie-downs (two of which are big D-rings), and you can get a system of movable cleats or a 120-volt outlet as a factory option.
Jeep did make several changes to pull this off. Most obvious is the specialized frame, which is longer and more robust than the Wrangler's. The layout of the Gladiator's rear-axle locating links has more in common with the full-size Ram 1500 than the Wrangler, and its shock absorbers lean forward to connect to the meatiest part of the frame instead of back toward the less rigid ends. The Gladiator has larger rear disc brakes and ventilated rotors, too.
Familiar V6 Powertrain
What's not different is the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, which makes the same 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque it does in the Wrangler. The hard-working Gladiator does have a more robust cooling system and a more open grille, but the external clues are easy to miss. We had to park a Wrangler alongside to pick out what are subtle differences in Jeep's trademark seven-slot grille and its mesh. The Wrangler's 2.0-liter eTorque turbo-four is not available here, but a much torquier 3.0-liter EcoDiesel is expected within a year.
The Gladiator's transmission choices are pure Wrangler: A six-speed manual is standard across the board, and the eight-speed automatic is a $2,000 option. Rated fuel economy for a Gladiator V6 automatic is 19 mpg combined (17 city/22 highway), which is 2 mpg worse than the Wrangler and puts the Gladiator near the bottom of the midsize 4x4 pickup spectrum. As for the manual, it is also rated at 19 mpg combined (16 city/23 highway.) Get it for the fun factor and a lower buy-in, not fuel savings over the long haul.
We brought a Gladiator Rubicon to our test track to shed some light on this and see how it stacked up to a similar Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. The Gladiator tipped the scales at 5,117 pounds, a full 572 pounds more than the Wrangler. A subsequent 0-60 mph acceleration run took 8.5 seconds, which is a half-second slower than the Wrangler. Still, the beefier Gladiator felt willing and able. As for stopping from 60 mph, the Gladiator's upgraded braking system made its extra mass disappear. Its 138-foot stop bested the Wrangler Unlimited by 3 feet.
Drives Like You'd Expect, Only Better
Out on the road, the Gladiator's solid front axle and recirculating-ball steering result in a sometimes obstinate reaction to bumps. This traditional design also results in indistinct straight-line steering that worsens when there are ruts and crosswinds. It's familiar Wrangler behavior that won't bother Jeep people, but it may rankle those coming out of other midsize trucks with more modern independent front suspensions and rack-and-pinion steering.
Still, the Gladiator tracks through corners nicely, and its rear end is more settled than the Wrangler's when driving over bumps. It also excels when tackling washboard dirt roads and desert whoops. The longer wheelbase certainly has a calming effect, but the lion's share can be put down to its stiffer frame and reconfigured coil-spring rear suspension. It also doesn't hurt that the Gladiator Rubicon has aluminum-bodied Fox monotube shocks, something the Wrangler Rubicon lacks.
When the going gets really rough, that long wheelbase does demand a careful approach to breakover obstacles and tight off-road switchbacks. The Gladiator's dimensions will ultimately keep it from venturing everywhere a Wrangler can go, but we found that the practical limit is well within the expectations of a 4WD pickup. High ground clearance and an expansive central skid plate protect the important bits, and the trailing end of the bed is rimmed with rock rails that are stout enough to be used as jack points.
The Right Size for Trail Duty
Compared to other pickups, it's much easier to avoid obstacles in the Gladiator. You can readily see the trail ahead thanks to Wrangler elements such as the upright seating position, close-set windshield, and narrow hood with separate low-set fenders. The body's overall narrowness also makes it far less susceptible to scraping up against brush and trailside rocks. There's also an available forward-facing trail camera that helps you spot obstacles below the hoodline.
Of course, that narrowness does reduce potential cabin space, but the overall feel is one of coziness instead of confinement. The cockpit's logically arranged and comprehensive switchgear is close at hand, and headroom and legroom are plentiful. The back seat provides far more legroom and headroom than any of its rivals, and it folds in useful ways to haul gear. And if you ever want the feeling of infinite space, this is a true Jeep convertible. You can fold the top, detach it altogether, and even remove the doors and fold the windshield.
With the optional hardtop in place, we found the Gladiator's cabin to be unexpectedly quiet. Sure, it's not as hushed as the cabins of its permanently enclosed pickup rivals, but the difference isn't dramatic. Moreover, the Gladiator's smaller cabin enclosure isn't nearly as boomy or resonant as that of a Wrangler Unlimited. Chatting with passengers is easier, the stereo sounds crisper, and the climate control system feels more effective.
Jeep Gladiator Pricing and Availability
With one exception, the Gladiator trim strategy mirrors that of the Wrangler. The Sport and the Sport S are entry-level, and the Rubicon sits at the top. But the Wrangler's midlevel Sahara is called Overland here, which seems fair because the Gladiator is sure to be a hit with the overlanding community. Ironically, those folks will likely gravitate toward the Rubicon for its lifted suspension, taller 33-inch tires, more accommodating fenders, disconnectable front stabilizer bar, 4-to-1 low-range gearing, and lockable 4:10-to-1 front and rear differentials.
A lot of engineering and new parts went into making the 2020 Jeep Gladiator pickup, but the inevitable price increase is more affordable than expected. Add $2,000 to any 2019 Wrangler Unlimited, and you can have a comparable Gladiator. Including destination charges, a Sport starts at $35,040 and the Rubicon begins at $45,040, with the Sport S and the Overland sprinkled evenly in between. Don't forget the $2,000 it costs for the automatic, and you'll surely add even more by dipping into the familiar (and numerous) option packages.
The Gladiator will start arriving at dealerships this spring, but eager buyers can put in an online reservation for the Gladiator Launch Edition starting April 4 — also known as 4x4 Day. This special limited edition is essentially a Rubicon equipped with every available option, along with unique interior trim and badging. The price for this thoroughly loaded special edition is $62,310, including destination.
The 2020 Jeep Gladiator's extra length will surely filter out hardcore Jeep purists, but it retains more off-road capability than we expected while adding real pickup functionality. As for midsize-truck owners who always wanted a Jeep, they stand to gain more turnkey off-road performance plus a back seat that can carry actual adults. In the end, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator looks to be a runaway success when it finally lands at dealerships. Expect a traffic pileup at the corner of Want Avenue and Need Street.