You can almost hear the cheering from far-flung outposts of off-road and truck country, welcoming the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, the famed brand’s first pickup truck in 28 years.
The original Jeep — a name derived from GP, for general purpose military vehicle, made its debut in 1941 for duty in World War II. It was originally built by Ford and the Willys-Overland vehicle manufacturers. Eventually it became the Willys Jeep and, later, was owned by American Motors and Chrysler, and now by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
From 1947 to 1992, Jeep marketed a variety of trucks, the last of which was the Comanche pickup. Now, after years of entreaties from both Jeep owners and truck enthusiasts, especially those with off-road interests, the Gladiator arrives as a complete package that can be customized for almost any motoring taste.
But the Jeep folks are not catering only to the faithful. They expect that the Gladiator will attract new customers for midsize pickup trucks like the Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado, and especially those who have gravitated toward the most popular midsize, the Toyota Tacoma.
The Gladiator slots in firmly as a competitor of the Tacoma TRD Off-Road, which comes in standard and long bed versions. It is 18 feet 2 inches long, four inches longer than the Tacoma standard bed and eight inches shorter than the long bed.
Its 3.6-liter V6 engine delivers 285 hp with 260 lb-ft of torque compared to the Tacoma’s 278 and 265. The Gladiator’s automatic transmission is an eight-speed; the Tacoma’s is a six-speed.
The new Gladiator inevitably will be compared to the four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which has become Jeep’s best-selling model. But the Gladiator is bigger, stronger and more capable in many ways with a heftier payload, towing capability and price tag.
There are four Gladiator models, each of which is available with a six-speed manual gearbox as well as the eight-speed automatic transmission. Base prices range from $35,040, including the destination charge, for the base Sport model, to $38,240 for the Sport S, $41,890 for the Overland and $45,040 for the top-line Rubicon.
But those are starting points. At the Gladiator’s national introduction, Jeep officials estimated that a Rubicon loaded with options could easily top $60,000. And that doesn’t include the many extras from the Mopar aftermarket company to tempt well-heeled enthusiasts.
Chosen for this review was the base Sport with the six-speed manual gearbox and four options: trailer towing package ($250), anti-spin rear differential ($595), SXM satellite radio ($295) and Mopar rubber slush floor mats ($150). That brought the tested price to $36,330, which is about the average price of a new car in the U.S. these days and a lot of truck for the bucks.
But don’t expect much in the way of frills. Though it had all of the fundamentals for serious off-roading, this Gladiator came with comfortable cloth upholstery but without power locks, seats, windows and mirrors, and automatic climate control. But, so what? You have to hand-crank the windows but you can remove the doors anyway. Reach out the windows to adjust the outside mirrors and fiddle with the air conditioning and heating controls to get comfortable.
Many Jeep adventurers don’t bother with that anyway. The Gladiator’s doors all can be removed and the windshield folded down for open-air adventures in the boondocks. Same for the fabric roof, which can easily be flipped back to open to the sky. The framework and truck bed are steel but the doors, fenders, hood and tailgate are aluminum.
With solid axles front and rear, and an array of off-road assists, including a grille-mounted forward camera, the Gladiator easily conquered a serious off-road course at a ranch near a town with the neat name of Cool, California. Its disadvantage is size; a two-door Jeep Wrangler would do better. The course was complicated by mud with a peanut butter consistency from heavy rains.
The Gladiator also performed admirably on paved roads, except for light steering that required frequent corrections to keep a straight line. That was the price of a compromise to handle difficult off-road maneuvers. Instead of the ubiquitous rack-and-pinion steering, the Gladiator uses a recirculating-ball setup.
The surprise was the low intrusion of mechanical and road noise with the soft top. Though there was more wind noise than in a closed truck, the Gladiator was reasonably and amiably quiet at highway speeds.
- Model: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport midsize pickup truck.
- Engine: 3.6-liter V6; 285 hp, 260 lb-ft torque.
- Transmission: Six-speed manual with four-wheel drive, high and low range.
- Overall length: 18 feet 2 inches.
- Height: 6 feet 3 inches.
- EPA passenger/cargo volume:103/36 cubic feet.
- Cargo box length: 5 feet.
- Weight: 4,650 pounds.
- Payload: 1,600 pounds.
- Towing capability: 7,650 pounds.
- EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 16/23/19 mpg.
- Base price, including destination charge: $35,040.
- Price as tested: $36,330.
Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.
Photos (c) FCA North America