Take one look at the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, and it’s clear the new midsize truck means business.
The Gladiator boasts unmistakable Jeep styling, a short 5-foot pickup bed and oversized fenders and bumpers that look best drenched in freshly splashed mud.
The 2020 Gladiator holds to its Wrangler SUV roots, while also branching out into new areas. It offers unmatched off-road guts and the highest maximum towing capacity for a gasoline truck in the segment. It makes an immediate impression on both mountain trails and spec sheets.
The Gladiator is a lifestyle truck, said Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep brand. It aims to provide customers with freedom and glamorous exploration. This isn’t a work truck. Think of sports cars compared with economy sedans. That also means the company can charge more for it.
Its styling and unique character add a welcome choice to the increasingly crowded midsize pickup truck segment, a class that nearly died in the last recession. But with General Motors, Ford, Honda and Jeep all launching new midsize pickups in recent years, there are now seven models to pick from.
But the Gladiator does come at a price. Starting cost for a base Gladiator Sport is $35,040 including the $1,495 destination charge, much higher than the base price of its Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma competitors in the low- to mid-$20,000 range.
The base price of a 2020 Gladiator is also higher than the $32,788 average price paid for a midsize truck in 2018, according to J.D. Power.
But at the top end, the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon presents an attractive deal. Compared with crew cab versions of other off-road trucks, its starting price of $45,040 is close to the $43,775 of the Tacoma TRD Pro. It slots below the Colorado ZR2 Bison at $49,645.
All Jeep Gladiators are built in the same configuration – a four-door, crew cab style with standard four-wheel-drive and the 5-foot bed. Compared with a four-door Wrangler Unlimited, the Gladiator has 19 more inches of wheelbase and 31 more inches in total length.
The lone powertrain is an upgraded version of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Buyers can choose between a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic made by German supplier ZF Friedrichshafen.
Later this year Jeep will also offer a 3.0-liter turbodiesel engine with 216 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque.
The Gladiator is more than a Wrangler with a bed. Jeep engineers modified several components and swapped in some entirely new ones to enhance its truck credentials. The front grille slats are wider for better airflow and cooling to a larger engine block fan. At the rear is a five-link coil suspension with parts borrowed from the full-size Ram 1500 pickup.
As a result, the 2020 Gladiator has a maximum payload capacity of 1,600 pounds. Its maximum towing capacity is more than double that of the Wrangler Unlimited, jumping from 3,500 pounds to 7,650 with the optional tow package. Trailer sway control is included.
But it’s off-road where the Gladiator shines compared with other trucks in this segment.
Its 40.8-degree approach, 25-degree departure and 18.4-degree breakover angles on Sport and Overland models are all tops in the midsize pickup segment.
“We knew we had a leg up when it came to off-roading,” said Pete Milosavlevski, chief engineer for Gladiator.
The Gladiator has standard Fox shocks, a 10-inch ground clearance and the same Dana 44 solid axles as its Wrangler sibling. Sport and Overland trims come with skid plates, recovery hooks and an advanced 4×4 system called Command-Trac.
The range-topping Rubicon takes things a step further. It comes with a standard steel front bumper, 33-inch Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires and a different 4×4 system called Rock-Trac.
Approach, departure and breakover angles are all increased on the Rubicon. Ground clearance increases to 11.1 inches. It has more hooks and skid plates, plus rocker rails along the side and rear corners. Locking front and rear differentials are standard.
Rubicon also has a front-facing camera to give the driver visibility of the road or trail ahead. There is an Off-Road Plus mode that improves throttle response and eases traction control. Gladiator Rubicon is the only model in the segment that offers a disconnecting electronic sway-bar.
On an off-road course outside Sacramento, Calif., the Gladiator proved its mettle in the mud. The truck transitioned easily from deep, wet trails to steep, rocky declines. The Falken tires, aired down to 20 psi, provided grip for the robust axles to do their work in difficult conditions.
Even as the Gladiator lurched down jagged rocks at 35-degree angles, its ground clearance kept the skid plates from scraping and risking potential damage. Its strong crawl ratio helped the truck traverse slippery hills. Off-Road Plus provided enough momentum to finish an uphill run through muddy slop.
Due to its size, the Gladiator cannot avoid certain concessions. Because it’s a truck, it is not as off-road-worthy as a Wrangler. Because it’s a small truck, it cannot tow like a Ram 1500 – without a Tow or Haul mode the V6 works very hard to pull a 5,000-pound boat. The interior is cramped, and some may find the standard cloth seats uncomfortable.
Fuel economy isn’t a strong point. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the 2020 Gladiator at 16 mpg in city, 23 mpg on the highway and 19 mpg combined with the six-speed manual transmission. It gets 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined with the eight-speed automatic. Four-wheel-drive models from Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota all are rated at least 20 mpg or more combined.
But overall the Gladiator walks the tightrope nicely. Sport and Overland models have acceptable ride quality and noise levels for a truck with solid axles. The steering is floaty at speed, but its high-strength steel frame stays taut in corners.
And there is good technology on board. The Gladiator has an available 8.4-inch infotainment touch screen, and its rearview camera provides an exceptional picture. The adaptive cruise control developed by FCA handles acceleration and braking transitions better than those of other midsize trucks.
Rubicon models come with Selectable Speed Control, similar to Ford’s Trail Control and Toyota’s Crawl Control, that allows the driver to pick a set speed up to 5 mph for off-roading.
In addition to its pickup bed with four fixed tie-downs, the Gladiator offers a range of storage options. The rear seats fold down flat to reveal handy pockets and netting against the back of the cabin. The bench also flips up, and buyers can add a lockable and portable case that fits underneath.
Many customers will be drawn to the Gladiator for its hardcore design. Those who look deeper will find a midsize truck with nifty attention to detail and practicality. Off-road ability is over the top.
It may not be the cheapest truck on the market. But the 2020 Jeep Gladiator is like nothing else.
“Our mission was 100 percent truck, 100 percent Jeep,” Tallon said.
Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, Trucks.com attended an event at which Fiat Chrysler Automobiles hosted travel and lodging.