First Drive: 2020 Jeep Gladiator

First Drive: 2020 Jeep Gladiator

Story and photos by Dan Heyman

Imagine yourself in the boardroom at FCA five or so years ago. The plans for the Jeep Wrangler redesign have just been finalized, and it’s time to see what can be done to add even more cachet to one of the most beloved and well-recognized vehicles available today, and that’s before we even consider its historical significance.

So, what to do, then? Well, as more and more households go the one-vehicle route, more and more car and truck buyers are asking for more from their vehicles. So it goes that a pickup truck today can get pretty far from the workaday roots they once had. It’s taken some time, but it’s to the point now that manufacturers are actually touting the lifestyle aspects of their pickups as opposed to their rock-moving, equipment-towing, crew-hauling aspects; see the Toyota Tacoma or new Ford Ranger.

I would imagine, then, that the folks in that FCA boardroom probably saw this coming and so it was decided to ensure that Jeep – and parent brand FCA – wouldn’t be without an entrant in this burgeoning segment. So it goes that it was time to add a pickup bed – a proper pickup bed – to the Wrangler, and the Gladiator was born. We were dispatched to Sacramento, CA to find out what it was all about.

Of course, “proper” is a subjective term; the Gladiator is offered with just a single, five-foot bed option (and four-door cab), so right away you can see how Jeep was positioning the Gladiator not to haul wood, perhaps, but dirt bikes or downhill bikes instead; there are even some “tread marks” punched into the back of the box. That would make it so much easier to haul dirt bikes, you see. In a nod to the wood-movers, however, they have made it so you can lock the rear tailgate at a 45-degree angle, allowing for easier fitment of longer objects.

The cab itself gets a few added practicality pieces as well; the rear seats either fold flat or flip-up, stadium style, to allow for a little more space. There are also lockable storage areas beneath the seats for valuables (or wet items), but no flat load floor so you’ll have to get a little creative there.

Otherwise, inside it’s all Wrangler – the dash is a direct lift, as are the climate controls, vents and so forth. Essentially, from the B-pillar forward, the Gladiator is all Wrangler Unlimited except for one important caveat: the Gladiator gets Dana 44 front and rear axles on all three trims (Sport S: $45,495, Overland: $49,495, Rubicon: $52,496), whereas the Wrangler only gets these on the Rubicon trim. Jeep says that in order for the Gladiator to perform like a proper pickup, the Danas were required at all levels. It also has the track bar and steel control arms from the Ram 1500. The result is a best-in-class tow rating of 3,470 kg and best-in-class 760 kg payload rating. These figures drop a little when you move to the Rubicon but if we’re honest, that’s not really what the Rubicon’s all about.

Indeed, the Rubicon is called as such because it’s built to conquer the famous 4×4 trail of the same name in California; it’s a trim meant to excel in all things off-road, and all things off-road we would try during the test. There was the scramble up and down jagged rock faces made completely greasy by recent rain in the area. Or the rutted grass trail that wasn’t even a trail until we showed up in our Gladiators. Or the sharp-as-shale dirt roads we had to take in order to get to the ranch where we sampled all of that other stuff.

Turns out Jeep probably couldn’t have asked for better conditions in which to launch the Gladiator. While I thought that longer wheelbase (+ 480 mm on the Wrangler Unlimited) and longer overall length (+ 752 mm) would make it almost impossible to judge my progress over these slick, narrow roads, the beauty of the Gladiator – like so many Jeeps before it – is its squared-off corners. This makes it so much easier to pace in narrow spots even if you do have extra length, which I can’t say I really felt. Instead, I engaged 4L, off-road + mode (this automatically adjusts throttle and traction control to better suit the conditions) and felt the Gladiator scratch and claw (it’s got either rear-locking or full-locking mechanical diffs, activated by a toggle switch at the base of the centre stack) to a blemish-free traverse over all of this.

While the diffs do their mechanical work, bigger 33-in. tires (35-in. items would also fit) do the physical work, spewing mud to the heavens and squelching over sharp rocks like a good pair of hiking boots. This is off-roading at its finest, the Gladiator’s added hauling capabilities not affecting its overlanding capabilities one iota. Oh, it can also crawl through up to 30 inches of water, and while we didn’t get to test this, I have little reason to doubt it.

Power at this juncture comes from a single engine choice: a 3.6L Pentastar V6 good for 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque; a 442 lb-ft turbodiesel 6 is also on the way, but we won’t be getting the gas turbo-four found in the Wrangler. The capabilities required by the Gladiator simply wouldn’t allow for it. Transmission duties are handled by a six-speed manual at all levels; upgrading to an 8-speed auto like our tester had will cost an additional $1,595 regardless of trim.

The Pentastar has worked well in most any application in which it’s been used, and it continues to do the yeoman’s job here – pleasant enough while cruising, but with good low-end torque when climbing or splashing through gripless, muddy fields. Unlike FCA’s 9-speed auto that has gotten many a nose out of joint, the 8-speed here works in unison with the V6 to provide ample forward progress. It gets a little loud, but some would say “that’s a Jeep thing” and in this case, I agree with them. I want a little bit of a growl from my truck, which is a feeling I felt when I sampled the new Ford Ranger, as well.  It just provides an added layer of immersion that I think any truck manufacturer with an entry in this segment would be loathe to miss out on.

Of course, one of the places you’ll really hear that powertrain make its feelings felt is when towing; we were given the opportunity to put that towing capacity to work by towing a boat and trailer weighing about 2,300 kilos. Indeed, it was a rather loud experience that had me switching to manual mode for a spell just to make my forward progress that much smoother.

Once up to speed, everything is kept in check, but since the Gladiator lacks a trailer blind spot monitor or trailer brake as standard (a trailer brake control will soon be made available), I’m not sure if towing loads like this are the right fit. I’d say a trailer with an ATV or maybe some Sea Doos would be better, which is fine considering those are the kind of lifestyle loads people that Jeep’s aiming at would want. Then again, the same could probably be said for most trucks at this level.

Once out on the open road and free of said trailer, the Gladiator drives, sounds and feels pretty much exactly like a Wrangler. That is to say it’s not really what you’d call “civilized,” but a step in the right direction away from what it’s traditionally been thanks to certain subtle changes such as the grille and body panels shaped to decrease drag, that eight-speed transmission and extensive use of aluminum to save weight, putting less stress on the engine and making for quieter progress.

This makes it a little easier to enjoy the creature comforts the Gladiator has; yes, you can still take off the doors and either fold a soft top or remove hard top panels, but you’ve also got two levels of Uconnect infotainment (a 7-in. or 8.4-in. screen), optional leather seating (but you’ve got to pay on top of that to get heated seats, and only on Rubicon trims), Apple CarPlay/Android Auto support and even a built-in WiFi hotspot.

“WiFi hotspot”? “CarPlay”? Not really things you’d normally associate with anything based on a Wrangler, but there you go. The Jeep reps kept separating the Gladiator from the Wrangler during the launch; a bit of a strange paradox, but one you can understand if you see that the pickup game is very different than whichever game the Wrangler is in. The Gladiator has to walk the line a little, here, but it’s surely got the shoes for it.