We take Jeeps pretty seriously in my family; a quick check of our recent ownership history shows eleven of them, from a small-block-conversion ‘93 YJ to a brand-new 2018 Unlimited and back to the red stick-shift ‘97 TJ that I drive every day. We use them on two-track trails, up and down rocks, across the Michigan dunes, and as conveyances for our kayaks. Jeeps are a big part of how we interact with the world—and how we disconnect from it, when we have the chance. As you might expect, I have a pretty settled idea of what a Jeep is, and what it should be.
For all of the above reasons, I was excited about getting the chance to drive the new-for-2020 Gladiator… but I was also nervous. Would it match the capabilities of my old Wrangler off-road? Wouldn’t the additional size and weight change the vehicle’s essential character? Most importantly, would this be a Jeep that just happened to have a truck bed, or would it be a truck posing as a Jeep?
Let’s start with the pricing, because it’s a bit of a surprise. As you’d expect, the Gladiator is the most expensive Wrangler bodystyle, but the premium over the four-door is just $2000. Given that you pay about $3500 to turn a two-door Wrangler Sport into a four-door model, this seems like a bargain. The trim levels range from Sport ($33,545 plus $1495 destination) to Rubicon ($43,545 plus destination). There will be a special edition at launch, although the details on that are still fuzzy. There’s no Moab variant, and “Overland” replaces the Sahara trim level.
What about that other cost associated with a pickup bed—namely, off-road capability? Well, the departure angles are significantly lower than the approach angles, but ground clearance stays between ten and eleven inches depending on model. Jeep placed the axle in the center of the bed to optimize cargo-weight distribution, making this a long-wheelbase truck and then some. The Gladiator is simply going to occupy more space off-road than the four-door Wrangler, but if that’s your primary concern then Jeep really has you covered with the two-door model.
Speaking of off-road: The Gladiator will crawl up a trail if you want it to, with manual-transmission Rubicons offering an 84.2:1 ratio. I took it through fairly deep mud but never got it stuck, even when the chassis was bottomed-out against the surface. There’s an available front-mounted off-road camera to help you see the obstacles directly in front of you; between than and the off-road assist software for throttle and traction control, it’s possible to easily negotiate steep grades where all you can see through the windshield is blue sky. If the camera gets dirty, you can activate a spray washer. Alternately, you can just drive across a stream, as long as it’s less than 31 inches deep.
Off-road, the Gladiator feels just like the rest of the Wrangler family, even during the uphill mud test. (I should apologize to the spotter who agreed to stand behind my truck for that one; he’s probably still cleaning himself off.) The manual-transmission Pentastar V-6 variant is particularly good, scampering up rocks and hills without stalling. You’ll want the Rubicon variant for this kind of work. It replaces the “Command-Trac” system of the lesser models with a “Rock-Trac” system featuring a 4:1 low range, electronic locking differentials, and a super-trick electronic disconnect option for the front swaybar.
Like it or not, most off-road adventures begin with quite a bit of on-road driving, and the Gladiator shines there as well. Here, too, the Gladiator is more Jeep than pickup, with light steering and very little sense of size. As you might expect, there are a few blind spots thanks to thick pillars all the way around. Take the top off and you’ll see more. That’s the Gladiator’s “killer app” in a nutshell: it’s both pickup and convertible.
About those tops: As with the other Wranglers, you have several options, from a body-color solid hardtop to a “sunrider” soft top. I’d choose the soft top; it’s quiet enough, warm enough, and relatively easy to remove. All of them are easy to remove and install by Jeep standards, and they feature designated places to store the bolts. This is a huge improvement; it takes a few people to get these tops off in a hurry and losing the bolts is a Jeep owner’s recurring nightmare. When folded, the soft top fits in the second-row area, not the bed. That’s a brilliant idea as well. The presence of lockable storage is also welcome. The rear seat folds up, as is the usual pickup-truck practice, but it also folds down.
Jeep is claiming a 1600-pound payload and a trailer-tow capability of 7650 pounds. These are best-in-class numbers for compact pickups. As with the rest of the current Wrangler lineup, the Gladiator offers a wide variety of infotainment and interior options.
Given the considerable increase in capability over the four-door Wrangler and the modest increase in price, this is almost certain to be a big hit with the general public, but what about the traditional Jeep buyers? Will they accept it? Three of the four Wranglers I saw during my road drive gave me the traditional “Jeep wave”, which seems to indicate that Gladiator drivers won’t be snubbed the way Harley riders like to ignore people on Japanese “metric cruisers”.
Going into this test, I had some serious concerns as to whether or not the Gladiator would be “Jeep-like” enough for me and my family. I think those concerns have been put to rest. It’s good on the road, it’s better than good off-road, and it offers big improvements in capacity. It would be worth buying just for its improved ability to carry kayaks and the associated gear. I’ll admit that I wound up falling in love with the idea of a pickup bed on a Jeep. Could it replace all the Wranglers, and all the different uses for those Wranglers, we have today? Of course not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it became our overall favorite in daily use. Yes, the Gladiator is a pickup truck, but it’s also a genuine Jeep.