THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Iconic design, legendary off-road capability.
- What’s Bad: Fuel-efficiency, on-road dynamics.
Mid-size trucks are popular again. While GM never stopped selling the Colorado and Canyon twins, Ford pulled the Ranger out of the North American market due to sagging sales nearly a decade ago.
But the Ranger is back for 2019 and Jeep has finally answered their customer’s incessant cries for a pickup truck.
This isn’t the first time they’ve dabbled. Jeep’s history with pickups can be traced back to the Willys-Overland Jeep Truck from 1947, an attempt to broaden the brand’s horizons. But the last time we saw a Jeep with a bed on the back it was on the Cherokee-based Commanche, discontinued in the early 90s. Half unibody and half body-on-frame the Commanche, neat as it was, failed to generate any real success for the brand at the time.
And now there’s this. The all-new 2020 Jeep Gladiator. If it looks to you like a Wrangler that’s been stretched you wouldn’t be wrong. Fundamentally that is what it is, but it actually employs a lot more engineering and know-how from FCA’s Ram truck division than might initially meet the eye. It’s 31 inches longer than a 4-door Wrangler with a significant 19.4 inches added to the wheelbase in order to accommodate the 5-foot bed.
Pick-ups are first-and-foremost built to work hard and that requires reinforcements to the frame and mechanicals. The prop-shaft, brake lines, fuel lines, and exhaust all had to be lengthened to accommodate the bed whose centerline sits just aft of the rear axle. Subtle changes like widened grille slots allow more air to flow through the radiator for increased cooling when pulling a load.
A unique to Gladiator 5-link rear suspension is designed for supporting heavy loads but is still tuned to deliver a comfortable ride. The front suspension uses the Wrangler’s proven design. The bed itself uses 4 steel cross-members for support and gets a power-locking and damped 3-position aluminum tailgate.
Aluminum is also used for the doors and hinges, windshield frame, hood, and fender flares which help keep weight down for better fuel economy and increased capability.
And being a Jeep there’s no shortage of said capability. Equipped with the max tow package the Gladiator can haul 7650 lbs and has a payload capacity rated at 1600 lbs, both figures being best-in-class.
Approach and departure angles of 43.6 degrees and 26 degrees, respectively, along with an ability to wade in up to 30-inches of water allow the Gladiator to go almost anywhere. Like most trail-rated Jeep products the Gladiator was put through the full rigours of the Rubicon trail before earning its merit badge.
While all versions of the Gladiator promise real off-road cred, the Rubicon models like my tester take things further with a more robust Rock-Track 4×4 system employing a 4:1 low-range gear ratio, front and rear locking differentials, and the innovative driver-controlled electronic sway-bar disconnect, which will decouple the sway bars for increased wheel articulation and suspension travel when tackling truly challenging terrain. There’s also a grille-mounted camera with its own washer nozzle to keep the lens free of dirt and mud, useful when trying to avoid obstacles in the rough.
A full complement of underbody skid plates shield vital components while Rubicon models get heavy duty rock rails that extend over to the bed corners and will help prevent expensive body damage when out on the trails. Rubicons also get standard Fox performance off-road shocks and surprisingly quiet Falken Wildpeak 33-inch off-road tires mounted on 17-inch wheels. Jeep knows that many of their customers will immediately chuck those 33s and fit even bigger tires on it so they designed the spare tire holder, under the bed on the Gladiator, to accommodate a tire up to 35-inches in diameter.
The iconic Wrangler is incredibly popular, sells in large numbers, and enjoys some of the best resale values out there, while the Gladiator is new to the market and comes at a significant premium.
Starting at just under $47,000 (Rubicons start at $53,995) it is over $13,000 dearer than the cheapest Wrangler and offers about the same experience behind the wheel. How many FCA is able to push depends on how much customers value the added utility of a bed behind the rear seats. But initially, at least, the latest Jeep toy has been flying off the lots faster than dealers can order them.
The Gladiator I drove around for a week was fitted with a slew of optional extras and packages like the cold weather group (heated steering wheel, heated front seats, remote starter), the Nav & Sound group (8.4-inch UConnect system, Alpine stereo), LED lighting group, SafetyTec Group (rear park assist, blind-spot monitors), keyless entry, and the Freedom hardtop among other a la carte options inflating the price to a wallet-breaking $68,050 plus tax.
A manual transmission is standard equipment but most customers will probably spring for the 8-speed automatic like the one my tester. Unique to the Gladiator is an available rugged Bluetooth speaker that docks behind the rear seat and a lockable storage box accessible by lifting the rear seat bottom. The latter becomes especially useful for securing personal items when parking the Gladiator sans roof or doors.
Just like the Wrangler, the Gladiator comes with a removable soft-top or optional Freedom hardtop, removable doors, and a fold-down windshield, making this just about the most unique vehicle on the market today. Seen any other convertible pickups lately?
On the inside you’ll find a carbon copy of the Wrangler’s interior with the upright windshield, dash, and seating position. It offers a commanding view of your surroundings, more so in the lifted Rubicon.
Rather flat and unsupportive seats aren’t the most comfortable thrones out there, more so for long-legged folks, and road trips will probably require a longer stretch during rest stops. But by lengthening the wheelbase the Gladiator gains a much smoother ride than its Wrangler sibling and feels more stable at speed. A Wrangler-driving buddy of mine noticed this ride quality improvement almost immediately. As well, the off-road tuned shocks do a commendable job of softening impacts from potholes and broken pavement, which was about the most abuse I put this Firecracker Red Gladiator through during my week with it.
The upgraded Uconnect system is, as always, a joy to use and chunky knobs and buttons work with gloves on and don’t require you to use the screen for things like activating the heated seats or switching the A/C on and off. Bravo!
For now, there is one engine choice: a 3.6-L Pentastar V6 that doles 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Tasked with moving 2300 kg of truck, acceleration is leisurely but it will still get you up to speed without too much effort. It is, however, a smooth motor that doesn’t feel overly taxed when pressing on, and a Gladiator isn’t exactly the type of vehicle you buy for on-road performance. Average fuel consumption of 14.4 litres per 100 km was the best I could muster split fairly evenly between city and highway driving. Given the brick-like aerodynamics, that number didn’t come as much of surprise. Coming next year the 3-L Ecodiesel V6 engine from the RAM will be available as an option and will undoubtedly improve economy. And with 442 lb-ft of torque capability will go up too.
Introducing the Gladiator to a corner reveals vague steering feel with a large on-centre dead spot, exacerbated by those big off-road tires. The amount of lock required to make turns is done largely by guess and tracking straight on the highway required constant little steering corrections. You get used to it but it’s a reminder that as popular as these adventure vehicles are their on-road dynamics are still quite truck-like, more so than its competitors.
The Gladiator was a head-turner, attracting about as much attention as an exotic car. One guy felt compelled to stick half his body out the window of a moving vehicle waving and yelping with approval. Another stopped me at a gas station wondering if the roof came off like it did on his Wrangler as he proceeded to do a slow walk around soaking in all the details.
While the truck bed adds practicality, the Gladiator is still a rather compromised vehicle with antiquated on-road dynamics and lackluster efficiency. It certainly isn’t the best mid-size pickup out there as those are basically tools to get a job done, bought with sound reasoning and a logical thought process. A Gladiator is not that type of vehicle. You don’t use logic or reasonable thinking when you decide to get one. You buy it with aspirations of adventure, and the notion of being able to reach places previously inaccessible even though deep down you know there’s a good chance you might never leave paved roads. The Gladiator is a vehicle that will pull at your heartstrings and you’ll buy one not out of necessity but desire. It’s a toy that can haul your other toys, and there’s no cooler way to do that.