If you wanted a relatively affordable vehicle that could tackle off-road conditions or just show the world that it can, you have two main options: a pickup truck or a Jeep.
Now, with the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, you can have both at the same time. The new Gladiator, which is just hitting dealerships, brings the brand’s classic face and famously hardy suspension to the midsize pickup truck class. This version of the Gladiator is ready to compete against models like the Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado.
Think of the Gladiator as a Jeep Wrangler four-door with a five-foot pickup bed stuck on the back in place of an enclosed cargo hold. In fact, despite some suspension changes, that’s almost exactly what the Gladiator is.
What this means is that the Gladiator brings unique Wrangler strengths to the world of pickup trucks. In addition to legendary off-road capability, it lets you create a unique open-air experience by removing the convertible top (a fabric roof or hardtop panels), taking off the side doors and even folding down the windshield.
Even if you stay sealed inside with the air conditioner blasting, you would not feel like you are in anything but a classic Jeep.
The Wrangler SUV has always been infused with character, which has stood out in increasingly sharp relief to mild-mannered crossovers. That means looser steering and handling, a bouncier ride and a louder engine. It means sitting up close to the windshield, with only a narrow vertical dashboard. It means no power-operated seats, to protect against electrical damage when you drive through streams. And it means mediocre fuel economy.
Based on a preview drive at a recent media event, the Gladiator has a similar character to the Wrangler. What’s different, though, is the context in which it competes.
You see, the Wrangler is the only smallish SUV on the market with its flavor of off-road toughness over on-road gentility. But that’s also the flavor you get from the best-selling Toyota Tacoma midsize pickup. It’s a truck you buy because you like its rough-edged character, not in spite of it.
In some ways, the Gladiator is even a sensible choice in its segment, rather than just an emotional one. This Jeep has more legroom and headroom than the sometimes-cramped Tacoma, more up-to-date infotainment and even a smoother ride. It can handle a maximum payload of up to 1,600 pounds (depending on the version) and can tow up to 7,650 pounds. And its EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon in mixed driving is class-competitive for a pickup.
Prices start at $35,040 for a Gladiator with a manual transmission, crank windows and manual door locks. It does come standard with a powerful 3.6-liter V6 engine, a four-wheel-drive system and four full-size doors with a roomy rear seat, which cost extra on most competitors. However, you are paying a healthy premium for the off-road suspension, the removable doors and the round-eyed Jeep face.
A Gladiator’s prices can exceed $50,000 in a hurry, which is steep for a small truck. For less money, you can get a full-size model like a Ford F-150 or, if you pick Jeep’s sister brand, a Ram 1500.
One bright spot is you can expect high resale values on your Gladiator unless you wreck it on the trail or spoil it with aftermarket modifications. These resale values also bring favorable lease rates, as long as you’re confident you’ll never scratch up your truck.
Meanwhile, if you’re coming from a Wrangler, be aware that like its competitors, the Gladiator is pretty bulky. When you fit a pickup bed behind an adult-friendly rear seat, the result is a long vehicle. At 218 inches, the Gladiator is some 2.5 feet longer than the four-door Wrangler and more than four feet longer than the Wrangler’s two-door version. (There is no two-door Gladiator, which some enthusiasts will lament.)
But as with the Wrangler, the new Gladiator pickup truck will win fans who see more than just numbers on a spec sheet. If you want a truck whose looks hearken back to World War II, you won’t find another pickup. If you want a truck with an open top, you won’t find another pickup.
The fact that it can haul, too, is the icing on the cake.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-gladiator to see more photos of the tested 2020 Jeep Gladiator.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.