2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport S: 2020 Pickup Truck of the Year Contender
Making Compromises in the Name of Fun
Right off the bat, let's get one thing out of the way: You cannot be the least bit self-conscious when driving something as distinctive (read: ugly) as the 2020 Jeep Gladiator. In fact, the only acceptable soundtrack in a truck like this is totally carefree music ("Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift, "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by Scorpion, and "California Soul" by Marlena Shaw are fine candidates), preferably with the doors and roof off and the stereo cranked up. Like some of those songs, think of the Gladiator as a "guiltless pleasure"—deeply flawed, but you can't help but love it anyway, and damned if anyone's gonna make you feel bad about it.
Now that you're in the appropriate frame of mind, allow us to shed some light on why we feel that way about the Gladiator.
In its first days with us, it was impossible not to loathe the Gladiator just a little bit. Its long wheelbase made it a fine towing companion—aided further by the Max Tow Package that's available only on Sport and Sport S models. Including heavier-duty front and rear axles, a shorter axle ratio, all-terrain tires, and heavy-duty engine cooling, this feature really should just be standard on every Gladiator. But in most other on-road activities, the Jeep faltered.
Its steering is vague and imprecise at freeway speeds, requiring lots of constant correction. The removable (and uninsulated) hardtop lets in a whole lotta road noise. The front seats are a bit short on legroom, and the narrow body means rear-seat passengers will be spending a fair amount of time shoulder to shoulder with their neighbors.
Most distressingly, in our closed-course emergency-lane-change exercise, the Gladiator was downright unstable, allowing for too much oversteer while lifting the inside front wheel completely off the ground. Every truck should be treated with respect when it comes to aggressive maneuvers, but the Jeep is the only machine we've experienced in our six years of annual testing that made us feel legitimately endangered.
Luckily, almost all was forgiven when we got off the highway and into the countryside. At lower speeds and with the optional hardtop's Freedom Panels removed, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator is much more pleasant to drive, and our tester's well-equipped interior meant a heated steering wheel and seats, excellent active safety features, and CarPlay/Android Auto integration.
However, at more than $50,000 all-in, those features certainly make their presence known in the finance department.
Still, all our complaints disappeared completely when the road did.
Once we entered Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area for off-road testing, the first thing we did was jettison the hardtop and doors, turning the Gladiator into the world's most capable UTV. In this environment, the Jeep was more fun than any other truck in the test, even if its unfavorable breakover angle and lack of a limited-slip or locking differential gave up some outright capability. Really, have you ever driven through a mud bog at speed in an open Jeep, then spent the next several hours picking dirt out of your hair and teeth? If you have, then you understand why these vehicles are so dang charming and fun.
If Pickup Truck of the Year had a Miss Congeniality award, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator would win it. It was a personality-filled companion in the mud and an attention-grabbing daily driver everywhere else. For the pickup buyer who needs a truck to haul, tow, and drive carpool, the Gladiator is flawed. But for someone who's just looking to have a whole lot of fun in the dirt, it's hard to beat a doorless, topless Jeep, and the Gladiator is no exception. Crank the Cyndi Lauper or Van Halen and have a blast.