If you’re one of those unique souls who frequently find themselves noodling along the Rubicon Trail in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited while towing an off-road trailer—yes, these exist—boy howdy, has Jeep got just the thing for you. Enter the 2020 Jeep Gladiator (perhaps you’ve heard of this?), the first Jeep pickup truck in more than 25 years.
We mean it. It’s real. We’ve driven it. Not just driven it, mind you. Oh, no. We drove it. Mud. Rocks. Angles. Four low. Locked diffs. Did we mention angles? What about fear? Off-roading is like that, a tiny niche of the automotive universe which has perverse angles, ridiculous articulations, and insatiable need for grip that rearrange our perspective on life every time we shift a real transfer case. Also, it’s fantastic. And in a truck like this one there’s no need for a trailer. Beds, baby: they’re not just for sleeping.
Anyway, about this Gladiator thing. It’s a real truck. And by real truck, we mean the kind with a ladder frame topped by a cab and a separate cargo bed. The kind with two live axles. It’s just not the monstrously big kind. It’s what they call a mid-size, which means next to nothing since there are no mid-size trucks. Call the Jeep what you want, but know that it’s not as big as a Ford F-150 or a Chevy Silverado. With the Gladiator, we’re talking about a truck that’s roughly the size of a Chevy Colorado, a Ford Ranger, or a Honda Ridgeline. It’s available only with four full-size doors and a five-foot bed. Every Gladiator has selectable four-wheel drive and uses a two-speed transfer case. Both hard and soft tops are available, and like its Wrangler brethren, its windshield folds down flat.
Four trims are available: Sport, Sport S, Overland, and Rubicon. Every Gladiator at launch will be powered by Fiat Chrysler’s Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, rated at 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but ZF’s eight-speed automatic is optional across the board. A turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel V-6 good for 260 horses and 442 lb-ft, paired exclusively with the eight-speed automatic, is coming in 2020.
A Simple Yet Solid Formula
Jeep is keenly aware that its bread is buttered with the anachronism of stick axles, but that, alas, is a Jeep thing, endowing the Wrangler lineup and the Gladiator with usable suspension articulation and supreme off-road capability. Those axles, however, necessarily burden the truck with recirculating-ball steering, something that departed from virtually every other production vehicle, oh, about 30 years ago. And that means the Gladiator is not blessed with laser-precise steering.
Couple that with the fact that its heavy axles compel it to do a dynamic tango on certain surfaces, and you’ve got a recipe for a modern-day Conestoga wagon. Sure, other, more contemporary suspensions might not dance so much on washboard terrain, but the truth is, if you’re a truck person, this probably is not going to matter. These are components of the Gladiator’s personality but hardly true demerits. We noticed them, sure, but in light of the Gladiator’s other virtues, they wouldn’t persuade us to avoid it. And if you’re thinking of buying a Gladiator, we aren’t going to convince you otherwise. After all, no one really needs a convertible truck with a windshield that folds flat. But we suspect lots of people will want one.
The Gladiator is not quick. We know this because we’ve driven two of them: a Rubicon, the top trim level and leader of Jeep’s off-road armada, and an Overland, which sits one step down the Gladiator trim tower. The Overland tester needed 7.2 seconds to hit 60 mph. That’s off the pace of the rest of the mid-size-truck field by at least half a second. It’s not much for cornering—0.75 g around our skidpad—but then again, neither are the rest of these trucks. Plus, if you’re measuring success in life by how quickly your Jeep accelerates or how well it turns, perhaps it’s time to revisit the Xanax. Also, we know just the thing that’ll clean that retentiveness out of your veins: How about a day slopping through mud and bulldozing over rocks in a topless Jeep pickup?
Our off-roading experience in the Gladiator combined both rocks and mud during the onset of an epic winter low-pressure system in Northern California. The relentless deluge turned Jeep’s makeshift rock-crawl course into a sloppy fiasco, one in which Gladiators found themselves sliding sideways off rocks that never posed a problem in the dry conditions for which the course was designed. Despite the slop, the Rubicon, with its locked differentials and disconnected anti-roll bars (standard fare on this trim), hauled from rock to river without divesting itself of its dignity. In fact, it didn’t care at all that everything was covered in slop.
Jeep’s Selec-Speed Control, a kind of low-speed cruise control, managed speed in crawl situations and can be trimmed in 1-mph increments using the shifter’s manual gate. Aiding the Rubicon through the muck were the optional 33-inch-tall Falken Wildpeak Mud Terrain tires. All-Terrain Wildpeaks of the same diameter are standard. It should be noted that the Gladiator’s enormous 137.3-inch wheelbase will be a liability in certain off-road and parking-garage scenarios, but what’s another cut of the wheel among the off-road faithful?
Built for Truck Stuff
Gladiators are rated to tow up to 7650 pounds, but to hit that number you’ll need the Sport trim level equipped with the Max Tow package. Rubicons are good for 7000 pounds when equipped with the automatic transmission. An Overland or Sport trim with a manual transmission (and no tow package) is good to yank only 4000 pounds. We drove a Rubicon hitched to a 6000-pound boat trailer and can say this: It was slow. And sometimes loud. And you’re certainly aware that you’re moving some weight, but it behaved itself well enough, pulling the dinghy and trailer with stability and confidence.
Equipping the Sport with the Max Tow package upgrades it to the beefier Dana 44 axles used in the Rubicon, which are 1.5 inches wider than the standard Gladiator axles and have an additional 10 mm of tube thickness versus the Dana 44 used on the JL Wrangler. They also come with a lower 4.10:1 final drive than the 3.73:1 gears in other trims. In the Rubicon, the wider stance is covered with broader and taller fenders. Sport and Overland trims can be equipped with a clutch-type limited-slip differential in the rear axle.
Also, that five-foot bed is relatively useful. Payload capacities range from 1105 to 1600 pounds depending on powertrain configuration and trim. The tailgate itself is rated to hold 1800 pounds, despite that exceeding the truck’s full payload capacity, and there’s a bumper step that can support 500 pounds.
Inside, the Gladiator is a mix of modern design and necessary function, including a waterproof start button for when you forget your truck is a roadster. Infotainment touchscreens come in either 7.0- or 8.4-inch sizes. Large secondary controls include knobs for volume and fan speed adjustments. The 60/40 split rear seatbacks fold flat, and the seat bottoms fold up. When both are deployed to make a seat, there’s more rear legroom than in any other mid-size truck.
If a convertible truck with a pair of solid axles is your bag of tricks, know that they start at $35,040 and will be available about the time you read this. Gladiator Rubicons begin at $45,040. Those might seem like precious prices because, well, they are. Witness our test truck’s $55,485 final tally. But Jeeps—even this truck—are lifestyle vehicles, the kind people buy with passion rather than purpose. That the Gladiator brings the additional utility of real payload capacity and a heavier tow rating than a Wrangler will certainly justify the cost hike among the Jeep faithful. Well, that, and they’ll not need an off-road trailer.