First Drive – 2020 Jeep Gladiator
A Truck In Jeep’s Clothing
It seems like the four-wheel drive world has been waiting for a Jeep pickup ever since the XJ Cherokee–based MJ Comanche ceased production in 1992. Over the ensuing decades, visions of what a modern Willys pickup, J-truck, or even Scrambler could be danced through our collective heads. Jeep came close a few times, but never pulled the trigger, only teasing us with what-could-be-concepts, like the show-stopping ‘05 Jeep Gladiator, the nostalgic ‘10 Jeep NuKaiser 715, the half-hearted ‘11 JK-8 Independence, the awe-inspiring ‘11 Mighty FC, the vintage ‘11 J-12, and the ambitious ’16 Red Rock Responder.
A JK-based Jeep pickup from the factory came close to happening in the later years of the JK platform, but Jeep decided to move the development so that the JL and JT could be engineered concurrently, and we had to learn patience. Meanwhile, companies such as Bruiser Conversions and American Expedition Vehicles were busy filling the silence with Wrangler-based pickups for those who couldn’t wait. We even have it on good authority that one of the very last AEV Brutes was purchased by a company with the letters “FCA” in its initials. We suppose it’s not hard to imagine why, since AEV had clearly gotten the Jeep pickup formula so right with their second-gen JK-based Brute.
Enter the 2020 Jeep Gladiator.
So, has Jeep gotten the Jeep pickup formula, more right? The biggest question we’ve encountered so far is whether the Gladiator is just a JL Wrangler with a bed, or if it is a real truck. We can tell you that Jeep refers to it as 100-percent truck and 100-percent Jeep. With best-in-class 4x4 payload at 1,650 pounds and best-in-class 4x4 towing of 7,650 pounds, Jeep is clearly emphasizing the truck aspect, but does it come at the expense of Jeep qualities?
First off, let’s start with the basics of what is shared between the JL and the JT. Essentially everything from the B-pillar forward is that same, save for a few minor differences we’ll discuss in a moment. So, like the Wrangler, the Gladiator gets aluminum doors, hinges, hood, fenders, windshield frame and tailgate help to reduce weight. The windshield folds, doors and top (both hard and soft) are removeable, and the front row of the cab is shared. A Wrangler Rubicon is about 4,500 pounds, while a similarly equipped Gladiator Rubicon will be around 5,100 pounds, so figure model for model the Gladiator is about 500-600 pounds heftier.
Also, like the Wrangler, the Gladiator will be available in four trims (not counting special or limited editions); Sport, Sport S, Overland (equivalent to the Sahara trim on the wagon), and of course the Rubicon. Two engines will be offered, instead of the three on the Wrangler. Those are the familiar 3.6L Pentastar V-6 with either a D478 six-speed manual or 850RE eight-speed automatic and the upcoming 3.0L EcoDiesel V-6 with an eight-speed auto that we assume will be the excellent 8HP70. The Pentastar carries the same rating of 285 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, while the EcoDiesel will join the party with 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque. The 2.0L mild hybrid eTorque engine will remain an option on the Wrangler only.
All Gladiators are 4x4s and the four-wheel drive systems are also shared with the Wrangler and include the 2.72:1 Command-Trac system and the Rubicon’s 4:1 Rock-Trac. Curiously, it doesn’t appear that the Sahara’s Selec-Trac with 4-Hi Auto will be offered. A Trac-Lok limited slip is an option on non-Rubicons, while the Rubicon gets electronic front and rear Tru-Lok lockers, as well as the disconnecting front sway bar. Crawl Ratio on the Rubicon, no matter what transmission is selected, is impressive. Thanks to the 8-speed’s low 4.71:1 first gear, autos can crawl to the tune of 77.2:1, nearly matching the manual’s incredible 84.2:1 - numbers that were insane when achieved in the aftermarket just a generation ago.
With so much the same, is the Gladiator really all that different than the Wrangler? While the Gladiator also uses a fully boxed high-strength steel frame underslung with solid axles, the differences begin with a JT frame that is 31-inches longer. The wheelbase grows by 18.9 inches from the JL Unlimited’s 118.4 inches, up to 137.3 inches for the Gladiator. While that sounds long, keep in mind that the AEV Brute came in at 139 inches, the’ 05 Power Wagon was 140 inches, and the current Toyota Tacoma and Chevy Colorado short beds come in at 127.4 and 128.3 inches respectively, while their long bed counterparts are 140.6 and 140.5 inches. The extra length of the JT comes from the fact that the distance from the A-pillar to the front axle is greater with solid axles (in order to clear the oil pan and improve articulation and approach angle) versus an independent suspension truck. It’s a tradeoff we gladly support.
Speaking of axles, the JT comes standard with third-gen, Advantek-based Dana 44s. Front axles are shared with the JL, but the rears are beefed up with a stronger ring and pinion, 10mm thicker axles tubes, and up to 5-percent-larger brakes to handle the increased payload (almost double the JL in some trims) and towing numbers (as much as 4,150 pounds more) over the JL and to meet the J2807 towing specification. Gladiator Rubicons can tow 7,000 pounds with the eight-speed automatic and 4,500 pounds with the six-speed manual and support both 4- and 7-pin trailer plugs. A trick integrated trailer brake controller is optional, but a two-inch Class IV receiver is standard, as is a higher wattage fan and larger grille slat openings to support increased cooling.
Also nodding to the truck nature of the JT, the Gladiator uses some Ram parts in the completely revamped five-link rear suspension. The JT’s forged steel upper and lower control arms are shared with the 2019 Ram (DT), shocks are forward-tilted for better control under load, a different sway bar design is used, and dual-rate coils replace the JL’s linear rate coils for superior ride and load control. Full width forged-steel trackbars are used on both ends. As measured on a hoist, the stock Rubicon Gladiator has 8.5 inches of front and 9.5 inches of rear travel. All Gladiator Rubicons come standard with Fox 2.0 smooth body shocks, however we were told the shock mounts were designed to accommodate up to a 3.0-inch shock in the stock locations. Like the JL, the JT Rubicon comes with 33-inch LT285/70R17 tires, but switches from the BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A to either Falken Wildpeak A/T or a Falken Wildpeak M/T tires.
Inside the Gladiator cab, it’s all Wrangler up front, which is a good thing. Great fit and finish, fantastic ergonomics, quality switchgear, and tons of little storage cubbies make the jump from JL to JT. From the available 8.4-inch fourth generation Uconnect touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to the 7-inch driver’s information center with more than 100 personalized options, there is no lack of technology in the JT. Some of the luxury touches include soft touch materials, dual-zone climate control with vents in the console for rear seat passengers, multiple USB ports, and trim with real metal. Rear seat passengers are treated to exceptionally comfortable accommodations.
Those rear seats differ from the Wrangler in their operation. In the JT, the seatbacks can be folded down to reveal concealed storage and the optional removeable and waterproof Bluetooth speaker. This cool speaker has a smart charging dock in the JT and is always ready for the campsite with a battery that lasts up to 12 hours on a charge. The seats can also be locked in the upright position to protect any contents stored behind them. In addition to folding down, the seat cushions fold up stadium style to reveal an under seat storage bin that can be ordered with a lockable lid to increase the secure storage areas when the top is off and to provide more cargo versatility. The bin is also home to the molded bolt organizer that gives you a place to store any bolt that comes off to fold the windshield or remove the doors.
Of course, the Gladiator wouldn’t be a truck without a bed, and the Gladiator’s five-foot steel box (Jeep looked at all of the materials available and decided steel was the best choice in terms of strength, durability, and cost), supported by four crossmembers, is well thought out and functional. With a low bedrail height and only 18-inches of depth, an average-sized person can palm the bed floor. This means the entire bed is easily accessible, no matter where you choose to load your cargo from. However, it is worth noting that a standard 50qt ARB fridge and most coolers are too tall to fit under the bedsides of the 18-inch-deep bed, one drawback to the short bedsides. Fortunately, the optional soft tonneau is easily rolled up and out of the way. The damped tailgate also has a 45-degree position, which allows for two-tiered loading, as the tailgate in this position is at the same height as the 2x4 detents in the wheelhouses. Jeep says the Gladiator can carry 20 4x8 sheets of plywood in this configuration. The Gladiator also features LED lighting, 115-volt power, D-rings, and adjustable tie downs on the rails and head of the bed. A spray-in bed liner is optional.
Other items that are unique to the Gladiator are the JT-specific grille and a forward-facing trail camera with dynamic grid lines and integrated washer and cool bed corner rock rails that are rated to carry a full third of the Gladiator’s GVWR. Even the Sunrider soft top has been designed to slide back and stow at the back of the roof, and not behind the cab, in order to ensure you can go open-air without intruding on cargo space in the bed. Jeep also engineered an underbed spare tire carrier that will comfortably fit a 35-inch tire, and we are told even some 37s.
So now you know what the Gladiator is, but what about how the Gladiator drives? We can tell you from our several days behind the wheel that this might be the best riding and handling solid-axled vehicle we’ve ever tested. Jeep was so confident in the Gladiators on-road manners that we were routed through the coastal hill country of Northern California on a drive route that included tight and twisty two-lane roads, where the Gladiator was as good or better than every other pickup in its class. Steering was communicative and the brakes were strong with good pedal feel. Through potholes and broken pavement, the chassis was unflappable without any of the hard-edged impacts transferring through to the cabin. The shock tuning is spot on and the rear suspension geometry and extended wheelbase gives the Gladiator a feel of stability. Interior comfort is Wrangler-like, and road and wind noise are well controlled. Even with the soft top, hands-free phone calls were possible without shouting “what!?!” constantly.
A suite of safety technologies are available and will be welcomed by those who plan on using the Gladiator as a daily driver. The ParkView rear backup camera with dynamic grid lines makes hooking up a trailer or backing out of a parking spot a simple affair, while rear cross path detection will keep neighborhood dog walkers safe when you can’t see what is lurking behind that thick C-pillar. Commuters will appreciate blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning, and adaptive cruise control.
Okay, so enough about how great the Gladiator is on the road, because we all know the real question is what happens when you turn off the road and yank that manual transfer case lever into four-wheel drive. Well, what we can tell you is that it is every bit a Jeep as you would hope for. Full skid plating, rocker protection, 30-inch water fording ability means there is very little that will slow the Gladiator down. The Rubicon features the JL’s high fenders, and like the Wrangler, the JT is package protected for 35s, which means no mods required to run bigger tires. The long wheelbase makes it even more stable in rocks and on side slopes. And like the Wrangler, optional steel bumpers with removeable wings allow for winch mounting in the front. And in case you were wondering, Jeep says the Gladiator Rubicon was designed to have best-in-class approach (43.3 degrees), breakover (20.3 degrees), departure (26 degrees), and ground clearance (11.1 inches).
For those new to wheeling, Jeep included a couple of technologies that will make any novice look like a seasoned vet in technical driving. Hill Decent Control keeps the Gladiator from over speeding down steep slopes, while the new Selectable Speed Control acts like cruise control in the dirt, letting the driver concentrate on steering while the JT handles the throttle. We also like the Selectable Tire Fill Alert feature that flashes the lights and honks the horn when you air back up to let you know when you are back to street pressure without needing a gauge.
Experienced wheelers will love the new Off-Road Plus button, which assumes high friction and low speed in 4-Lo and high speed and low friction in 4-Hi, adjusting ESC, accelerator sensitivity, and responsiveness (more in 4-Hi, less in 4-Lo). In low range Off Road Plus adjusts the shift strategy to favor slow speed drivability and provides enhanced brake lock differential (BLD) control to maximized traction in slow-speed rock crawling. In 4-Hi, the trans calibration maximizes the powerband for more responsiveness while ESC has a lower threshold for traction control intervention to enable wheel slip at speed and the ability to drift through loose terrain, such as sand. In addition, drivers can hold down the traction control button for 5-seconds in Off-Road Plus and eliminate the ESC intervention altogether. We imagine this little nanny-defeating nugget should trickle over to the JL within the next couple model years.
There is so much to love about the Gladiator, it might sound like we were blind to any drawbacks. The truth is Jeep’s pickup is fantastic, but it’s not without criticism. For one, we are incredibly disappointed to report that the six-speed manual transmission is a total letdown. As fans and advocates of saving the manual transmission, the Gladiator isn’t doing our cause any favors. With absolutely no feel in the clutch friction zone, it is difficult to modulate in technical terrain and takes some time to drive it smoothly on the street. Couple that to the fact that the eight-speed’s first gear is a low 4.7:1, and automatic-equipped Rubicons won’t require a re-gear from the factory 4.10s to run 35s, and we are starting to think that we might have seen the last of the good manuals.
We also think Jeep missed an opportunity to add externally accessible and lockable storage in the dead space behind the rear doors. Jeep tells us they looked into it, but the body structure would have had to have been modified. Another item on our short list of critiques is the awkward interface between the front of the rear fender flare and the cab, as the flare is at a slightly different angle than that of the body stamping on the early Gladiators we experienced.
Lastly, we’d ditch the tiny and useless rear sliding window on the hard top for a lift-up and removeable rear window that would allow more open air, give dogs a place to stick their wet noses in the breeze, and allow longer, more awkward cargo, like surfboards and 8-foot ladders to be carried more easily and we have to admit we are bummed that there aren’t any other body styles planned at this time, because we’d love to see what a regular cab JT would look like built for the trail.
Those criticisms aside, the Gladiator is going to be an unmitigated success for Jeep and with good reason. With a starting price of just $33,545, the Gladiator is more affordable than what most people were expecting. Overland models start at $40,395 and Rubicons at $43,545, an across the board increase of approximately $2,000 over a similarly equipped Wrangler. Fuel economy is also reasonable with a city rating of 16-17 mpg and 22-23 mpg on the highway depending on the transmission behind the 3.6L gas engine. Diesel numbers will be out later this year.
If there is one thing our brief time with the Gladiator has proven, it’s that this truck is so much more than a Wrangler with a bed and quite possibly the new standard in the midsize pickup class. With so much function, so many features, and all of the capability you’d expect from a Jeep, it’s hard to see where a Gladiator wouldn’t be an attractive option for someone who needs a pickup and loves the trail. If you happen to come across the men and women of the 248 and 419, please let them know that we said they should be proud of this one, real proud.