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2020 Jeep Gladiator Test Drive Review
Able to tow up to 7,650 pounds of trailer, haul up to 1,600 pounds of payload, and go places other midsize pickup trucks can’t, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator earns the right to use the company’s legendary nameplate.
There were rumors that this new Jeep pickup would be called the Scrambler. But "Scrambler" sounds like a breakfast special you order at Denny’s. Gladiator, the name chosen, conveys strength, focus, purpose, and survival. Based on my experience with the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator—hundreds of miles of driving that included crumbling urban infrastructure, terrifying rock-strewn trails, mobbed beach roads, and long stretches of highway—this new midsize pickup truck is wearing the right name.
Look and Feel
On the day we shot the Gladiator's video review, the temperature in Los Angeles eclipsed 80 degrees for the first time in months. Beaches in Malibu were packed with people. In places, traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway was more like the notorious 405 freeway. And people were going wild for our Firecracker Red 2020 Jeep Gladiator Overland.
I’d driven it down to Los Angeles from the media introduction event near Sacramento. Nobody had seen one on the road yet. The Gladiator sparked conversation at every stop during that trip. The rest of the time, people gawked, pointed, and raised their smartphones to photograph or film it. It was quite the uncomfortable spectacle, and the reaction on Pacific Coast Highway along crowded Zuma Beach was unreal.
But not everybody loves the new Gladiator. After returning the Gladiator to Jeep, someone in my neighborhood stopped in front of the house while I was outside. From the open window of his white Chevy Silverado, he asked: “Hey, how much is that Jeep truck you had parked here? I mean, it was ugly, but I’m just curious.”
The answer, as always, depends on which trim and option packages you want. Four versions of the Gladiator are available: Sport, Sport S, Overland, and Rubicon. They all have 4-wheel drive, they all have a 3.6-liter V6 engine, and they all have a 6-speed manual gearbox.
The base price for the Gladiator Sport is $33,545, while the Rubicon goes for $43,545 (and that’s before adding $1,495 for destination charges). In between, the Sport S is available for $36,745 while the Overland runs $40,395. Jeep also sold, within 24 hours, 4,190 examples of the Gladiator Launch Edition, based on the Rubicon and priced at a lofty $60,815.
You want an automatic transmission? Add $2,000. You want to replace the fabric convertible top with a more secure hardtop? Based on what Jeep charges for one on a Wrangler, you’re looking at another $1,200 or so. Clearly, prices rise fast.
My test truck had Overland trim and nearly every upgrade, coming to $52,920 (including the destination charge). The main things missing were a roll-up bed tonneau cover and leather seats.
Unlike my neighbor, I think the new Gladiator looks terrific. From the front doors forward, it is nearly identical to a Wrangler. Wider grille slots and unique wheel designs are the main differences. From the front doors back, the Gladiator is new; Jeep preserved backseat space while adding a high-strength steel 5-foot cargo bed.
The Gladiator sits on a frame that is 80% new, the wheelbase stretched to accommodate the roomy cab and the bed while retaining the departure angle necessary for Trail Rated adventures.
As a result, while it competes against midsize trucks like the Chevy Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Toyota Tacoma, the Gladiator is quite long. This negatively impacts the truck’s breakover angle and maneuverability compared to a Wrangler, but those are the prices to be paid for the cargo bed and crew-size cab.
Speaking of the cab, it’s pulled from the Wrangler with a few minor modifications. That means it is designed to get dirty. And wet. My test truck had the optional slush mats (complete with removable drain plugs), and I highly recommend them if snow, mud, and dirt are in your Gladiator’s future.
Refinement is not the name of the Gladiator’s game, and you should know that before you buy one. It’s loud inside, and it's designed to literally get hosed out after hard use. If you’re not cool with that, consider a different truck.
Interstate 5 runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. In California, it passes through the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, some of the most verdant farmland in the U.S.
Crossing this region with the cruise control set to 75 mph, huge bugs splattered like egg yolks on the Gladiator’s nearly vertical windshield. Wind and road and engine roar was a constant companion only partially quelled by the Alpine premium speakers embedded into the overhead sound bar. I had plenty of time to reflect on the truck’s performance.
Big surprise: This thing drives like a long Wrangler.
Geared to best leverage the 3.6-liter V6 engine’s 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, the 8-speed automatic transmission shifts flawlessly and delivers unexpectedly speedy acceleration. With 5,000 pounds of trailer and ski boat attached, the Gladiator does labor a bit, especially climbing hills, but it eventually reaches cruising speed with a minimum of bucking.
Off-road, the Rubicon’s Rock-Trac 4WD system provides an 84:1 crawl ratio in 4-Lo. Disconnect the sway bars, activate the front and rear locking differentials, engage the new Off-Road+ traction system’s Rock mode, remove the front bumper ends, and upgrade to the Falken mud-terrain tires, and the Gladiator Rubicon is seemingly unstoppable. For really rough terrain, you’ll be glad to have the Rubicon’s standard rock rails, which protect the truck’s cab and bed.
The Gladiator Overland has less intense P255/70R18 rubber, but that didn’t prevent me from scrambling up a rocky and rutted trail after shifting on the fly into the Command-Trac 4WD system’s 4-Hi.
Coming back down, I engaged the Selectable Speed Control, which Jeep says works like cruise control for off-roading. Basically, you engage the system and choose a speed between 1 and 5 mph. From there, the drivetrain manages speed and braking while you choose the best line. Unfortunately, the Overland does not include the especially useful forward-view camera that you can get with the Rubicon.
When you’re not towing or hauling or exploring, the Gladiator is agreeable to drive, assuming you’re expecting to drive a truck. The steering is rather slow and vague, the live-axle suspension pounds bad pavement into submission while clearly communicating imperfect road surfaces, and gas mileage isn’t great.
Regardless of transmission choice, the Gladiator is rated to return 19 mpg in combined driving. I averaged 20.3 mpg over the course of my travel with the truck, but remember, most of the 600 miles I drove were on the highway.
Nevertheless, the Gladiator is just as much fun to tool around in as a Wrangler. Take the top off, remove the doors, and fold the windshield down, and you’ve got a pickup-truck driving experience unlike any other.
Just be careful about getting bugs in your teeth.
Form and Function
Jeep says that with the tailgate down the Gladiator’s cargo bed is designed to hold 95% of motorcycle designs. Maximum payload, depending on the truck’s configuration, measures 1,600 pounds, and the tailgate’s step load rating is 1,800 pounds (yes, more than the truck's payload capacity). The rear bumper’s step load rating is 500 pounds.
The bed is shallow. If you’re tall, you can reach over the side and put your hand on the floor of it. While overall volume isn’t generous, you can make the most of it using the various cargo tie-downs or by putting the tailgate into a middle mode that lines the lip of it up with the wheel wells inside the bed. This makes it easy to haul up to 19 sheets of plywood or drywall, according to Jeep.
My Gladiator Overland test truck had heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. Durable black cloth upholstery covered the front and rear seats, and the optional body-color hardtop had the extra-cost headliner panels, which I assume help keep the cabin quieter and less susceptible to cold and heat.
Getting in and out of a Gladiator is easy if you’ve got long legs and you get any trim level except the Overland. The Overland has side steps that get in the way and get your pants or legs dirty. They’re optional on other versions of the truck. At the same time, though, my wife and kids needed them for more graceful entry and exit.
Once everyone is aboard, there is plenty of room inside the Gladiator’s cab. The front seats sit high with a clear view over the hood, and adults fit into the back seat without any trouble. Three people will, however, be a squeeze unless they’re all children.
Various bins and nets are ready to accept whatever you need to store in them, and the dashboard has a grab handle for the front passenger if the trail becomes turbulent. Rear occupants enjoy air vents and USB charging ports, and Jeep supplies storage both behind and underneath the back seat.
If you plan to frequently use the Gladiator as a convertible, stick with the soft top. The plastic rear window easily stores behind the back seat, while the hard rear roof pillar corners will fit underneath it. You can run the truck bimini-top style to keep some sun out, or you can fold back just the front portion over the front seats. The top peels all the way back to drench occupants in UV radiation, stacking like an old Volkswagen Beetle convertible’s roof over the rearmost portion of the roll cage.
You can fully remove the optional hardtop, but you’ll need to store it somewhere. And if you didn’t get the available dual-top group, which includes both a soft and a hard top, and it starts to rain, you’re going to get really wet. Alternately, you can keep the hard top in place and simply remove the panels over the front seats to enjoy the Gladiator’s convertible driving effect.
Aside from the Gladiator’s impressive drivetrain technologies, especially with Rubicon trim, this truck is fairly basic. You can get remote start, a passive entry system, a removable Bluetooth speaker, and an upgraded infotainment system with an Alpine premium sound system.
Bluetooth is standard with all Gladiators, while Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and satellite radio come with the mid-level Uconnect 4 system with a 7-inch display screen. My Overland test truck had the top infotainment system, which included those features plus a larger 8.4-inch touchscreen display, a navigation system, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and the Alpine speakers with an all-weather subwoofer.
This top infotainment system also includes SiriusXM Guardian connected services, including an SOS emergency call button. The free trial period is one year, and the package also provides remote access to certain vehicle functions via a smartphone, stolen vehicle assistance, quick access to roadside assistance, and more.
I find Jeep’s latest Uconnect infotainment systems easy to use. They respond quickly to inputs, the on-screen buttons are large enough to touch with a degree of accuracy (harder in a bouncy Gladiator, though), and the voice-control technology impresses. There’s even an Off-Road Pages real-time performance tracking system that shows plenty of pertinent information while you’re in the back country.
Jeep confirmed for me that it does not, however, offer a breadcrumb function to trace the Gladiator's path, which strikes me as a mistake given its off-roading capability. Make sure you don’t get lost while you’re exploring parts unknown, as they'll remain unmapped in Uconnect’s navigation database.
An exclusive feature for the Gladiator is a removable Bluetooth speaker that stores in a charging dock behind the truck’s back seat. Take it with you to the beach, to the campsite, or to watch a sunset from a remote outpost with the love of your life.
In addition to SiriusXM Guardian services, the Gladiator offers an Active Safety Group and an Advanced Safety Group as optional extras.
The Active Safety Group installs a blind-spot monitoring system, rear parking-assist sensors, and LED taillights. The Advanced Safety Group adds adaptive cruise control and a forward-collision warning system. Look for the Advanced Safety Group on the 2020 Wrangler, too, once Jeep announces changes for that model.
My Gladiator Overland had both of these packages, and I truly enjoyed using the adaptive cruise control on the long slog south to Los Angeles. Better yet, Jeep offers both standard and adaptive cruise systems, so you have the luxury of choosing which type you’d like to use. That’s unusual.
Historically, crash protection has not been a Jeep Wrangler strength, especially with regard to side-impact protection. Since the redesigned Wrangler JL hasn’t been tested as this review is written, it is impossible to know if it has improved upon the old JK generation’s scores.
Furthermore, since the new Gladiator has a much different and stronger frame engineered for pickup-truck duty, any new Wrangler data might not be applicable to the Gladiator.
I guess we’ll just need to wait and see. In the meantime, due to the lack of data and the Gladiator’s lack of automatic emergency braking, this truck has earned a conservative score for overall safety.
You are going to pay a premium for the privilege of driving a Jeep Gladiator—at first, anyway.
Priced higher than other midsize trucks to start with, once you add desirable options like an automatic transmission and a hardtop, a Gladiator Sport amounts to nearly $40,000. And don’t forget that the loaded Rubicon Launch Edition stickered for over $60,000.
Value is not the Jeep Gladiator’s strong suit, though an argument could be made that it should retain plenty of its worth over time, just like the Wrangler does.
Once the initial demand is satisfied, Jeep will probably start discounting Gladiators just like it has Wranglers. You’ll just need to be patient and wait. Or you can go ahead and get a Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison or Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro right away.
Personally, I’d wait. But I’ve always wanted a Wrangler of my own for its top-down sense of freedom and its ability to go just about anywhere and do just about anything. Adding a cargo box just makes the idea more appealing.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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