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2020 Gladiator First Drive: Jeep’s pickup is worth the wait

by Patrick Rall on

It seems like the Jeep community has been calling for a midsized pickup since the day after the Comanche went out of production in the early 1990s and with the introduction of the 2020 Gladiator, the Trail Rated midsized pickup is finally here. Last week, I had a chance to spend a day driving the new Gladiator on- and off-road around Sacramento, California and I am here to tell you that it was worth the wait.

Gladiator

The people wanted a Wrangler pickup and the Gladiator is just that – combining the attributes of the Wrangler with the capabilities of a midsized pickup. Jeep officials are quick to point out that the Gladiator isn’t just a Wrangler with a bed, as a tremendous amount of engineering went into making this the best midsized truck on the market. For the buyer who wants a truck that is comfortable on the road, unstoppable off-road and capable of pulling most popular trailers, the Gladiator is the perfect option.

Of course, it is also the only pickup in American with a removable top, so in addition to being the most capable truck in the segment, it is the only one to offer open-air cruising. However, even if you never plan to remove the hard top, the new Gladiator is truly the Jeep pickup that the world has been waiting for.

Gladiator

Gladiator on the Road

My day driving the new Jeep Gladiator began in a Firecracker Red Overland model with the 8-speed automatic transmission. The first stretch of driving was in a fairly rural area with smooth, slightly twisty roads and it felt a great deal like the Wrangler. The longer wheelbase smooths out the ride a bit, especially at higher speeds, but the Gladiator offers the same stiff, upright ride that you get with the Wrangler and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Honestly, it is probably a bit stiffer than your average midsized pickup, but being a Jeep, it sits a little higher and rides a little stiffer than an average truck.

Gladiator

 

When it came to scooting through the sweeping corners, the Gladiator continued its impression of the Wrangler, with a stiff-yet-comfortable ride that is exactly what I expected. I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t handle well, but it handles like a Wrangler and if you have driven a new Wrangler, it is not a vehicle that you are going to take to the local autocross track. If you think that the basic Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma or Chevy Colorado rides too soft and you love the feel of the modern Wrangler, the odds are good that you will love the driving dynamics of the Gladiator.

Not surprisingly, acceleration effort of the Gladiator is similar to that of the Wrangler Unlimited, with the same 3.6-liter Pentastar and automatic transmission making for a solid pull from a stop. The 283-horsepower V6 doesn’t make the Gladiator particularly quick, but it provides enough power to make for a fun-to-drive midsized truck that will also pull an impressive amount of weight (which I will discuss later on in this piece). I also logged a few miles in a Gladiator with the manual transmission, and in both the clutch pedal and the shifter, the 6-speed feels just like the unit in the JL.

Gladiator

Finally, what surprised me the most about my road drive was how quiet the new Gladiator is with both the hard and soft top. I would spent time in trucks with each design and while I was concerned that the easily-removed tops would lead to wind noise, both were very quiet at highway speeds. Mind you, there is more interior noise than you will get from a truck with a fixed roof, but as convertibles go, the Gladiator is quieter than you would expect with the top on. Sadly, the gross weather, with temperatures in the 40s, hard rains and periods of hail, I didn’t get to enjoy the new Jeep pickup with the top off, but the Gladiator performed perfectly on the paved roads.

Playing in the Mud

The mid-point of my day with the 2020 Jeep Gladiator was some farmland outside of Sacramento, where the landowner had recently dug new trails. Unfortunately, a week of hard rain turned those dirt trails into muddy paths and as time went on, they became deep trenches. Just getting to the off-road area required a Gladiator, Wrangler or some other high-riding vehicle that could deal with mud that was a couple feet deep at points – and that was just the road leading into the off-road area.

Gladiator

Once in the off-road area, I switched from the red Overland to a red Rubicon and we headed onto the actual off-road area. It was comprised of a series of deep, muddy paths that were often filled with a few feet of water, particularly at the low-points in the field. The paths were a mucky mess and if you didn’t pay attention to the spotters, you risked getting stuck, but I was able to conquer every obstacle with the Gladiator Rubicon.

On the muddy paths, the Gladiator had plenty of ground clearance and when we got to some huge rock piles, the underbody skid plates earned their keep as I carefully worked up and over the slick rocks. As the day went on, not only was the rain making the rocks slippery, but we were tracking mud from the path onto the rocks. As a result, the rocks were incredibly slick, but the Trail Rated Jeep pickup was unstoppable. Using the front and rear locking differentials, the electronic disconnecting swap bar and the advanced four-wheel-drive system, I powered through the mud and carefully climbed the rocks, making it back to our base camp without a problem.

Gladiator

I will admit that I was a bit concerned that the added length of the Gladiator would compromise the Wrangler’s off-roading abilities, but I would say that the off-road course last week was one of the roughest on which I have tested an off-road vehicle, and the Jeep pickup didn’t miss a beat. Sure, there might be some particularly tight situations where the slightly smaller Wrangler Unlimited would be more capable, but the odds are good that most Gladiator owners will never come close to getting it stuck without seeking out extremely poor conditions.

Gladitor

The bottom line here is that the Gladiator is just as capable off-road as the Wrangler, so when coupled with the on-road feel, this is the Wrangler pickup that so many people wanted. In every driving situation, the Gladiator performs similarly to the Wrangler and that is a beautiful thing, but that isn’t all. The Gladiator is also a great truck and to test that, I spent some time pulling a 5,000-pound boat trailer.

Pulling the Boat

Before heading back to the hotel, I climbed into a 2020 Gladiator Sport with the max towing package, hooked to a boat trailer that weighed 5,000 pounds. When I was pulling the trailer, it was raining hard and the dirt parking lot in which the vehicle was parked was a muddy mess. A rear-drive truck would have had a hard time getting onto the paved road, but the Gladiator got up and out of the mud with any problem.

Gladiator

Out on the open road, the Gladiator handles the weight of the trailer nicely, both in handling and in braking. The V6 engine does sound like it is working pretty hard on steep hills, but in normal situations, the Jeep pickup moved the weight without any issue. I also found that the Gladiator was easy to maneuver in tight quarters with the boat out back, so this is most certainly a truck that I would recommend to someone who wants a midsized truck that can play in the mud and pull most trailers. I would recommend getting the available Mopar trailer brake controller box, as the boat trailer in my towing test only had surge brakes and I really don’t like them, but until the surge brakes caught, the standard stoppers of the Gladiator controlled the weight nicely.

Gladiator

The Gladiator can pull over 7,600 pounds when properly equipped, but if you really plan to tow near that much with any frequency, I would recommend going with a Ram 1500, as the bigger, heavier truck just plain handles that heavier loads better. That being said, the most common trailers (non-automotive) in the USA weight between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds, and the Gladiator comfortably handles loads of that weight in pretty unpleasant conditions.

Gladiator

The Final Word

Some Jeep fans were concerned that the “Wrangler pickup” would be softened up too much to fit into the midsized segment, but the engineers have done a beautiful job of creating a truck that rides, looks, feels and performs like the legendary sport utility vehicle. The 2020 Gladiator is everything that I expected from a Wrangler-based pickup and while this truck is far more than a Wrangler with a bed, it is a fantastic vehicle to get Jeep and FCA back into the midsized truck game.

Gladiator

The higher starting price and lack of a true barebones model might lead the Gladiator to post lower sales numbers than the midsized competition, but when anyone who truly wants a truck that personifies the Wrangler in every way – the new  Gladiator is just about flawless.

Gladitor

Patrick Rall was raised a Mopar boy, spending years racing a Dodge Mirada while working his way through college. After spending a few years post-college in the tax accounting field, Patrick made the jump to the world of journalism and his work has been published in magazines and websites around the world.

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