2020 Jeep Gladiator: A worthy addition to the Jeep lineup

(Photo: Nicholas Yekikian)

(Photo: Nicholas Yekikian)

By Nicholas Yekikian

Borrow might be an electric car company, but it’s run by people who love cars – EV or otherwise. We got the chance to drive the new Jeep Gladiator at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, CA a few weeks ago and jumped on it. So, is the newest truck in the mid-size segment a poor attempt a reusing a beloved nameplate or a well-thought-out successor to a Jeep icon?

Jeep had a Gladiator in production almost continuously from 1962 to 1988, and after a near 30 year hiatus, it’s back. To turn a Wrangler into a Gladiator Jeep’s engineers attached a five foot long, all steel truck bed, stretched the two-door Wrangler’s wheelbase by more than three feet and added more than 500 lbs to the Wrangler Unlimited’s curb weight. The solid axles and the classic squared-off Jeep design language are still there, as is the 3.5 liter pentastar V6 and the body-on-frame construction. Not what you’d call and “extreme makeover” on paper, but the Gladiator feels substantially different to the Wrangler – in a good way.

Being based on the new JL is a great start, but on the sun-soaked roads of Malibu just past Zuma Beach, the Gladiator handled better than its bedless brothers. The extra length in wheelbase does wonders for stability. While the two-door Rubicon feels like it’s a mining cart on a set of rails on the same roads – difficult to place and wobbly – the Gladiator, specified here in Overland trim, is rock solid. Gone too was the dead spot in the middle of the Wrangler’s steering. I asked director of the Jeep brand, Scott Tallon, about the dead spot in the Wrangler and he said it’s down to the ball-joint style steering rack. But, despite having the exact same setup in the Gladiator, the play in the steering was totally gone – a welcome change that made placing the truck on Malibu’s narrow roads a cinch.

Safe to say the Gladiator’s road manners both are refined and comfortable – significantly more so than the Wrangler’s. Both the Rubicon and Overland trims I drove came with the body-colored hardtop roof option Jeep calls “Freedom panels,” and on the sweeping mountain passed near Malibu they helped do away with almost all of the road and wind noise that defines the driving experience in the soft top Jeeps. Tire noise was well suppressed, too. The ride is firm, but it doesn’t feel like you’re getting beat up. Longer journeys would probably be easier in a Gladiator than a Wrangler thanks to the added stability and refinement inside. The 285 horsepower from the Pentastar was plenty to hustle the near two-and-a-half-ton truck down the road, and gear changes from the optional eight-speed automatic were well-judged. We didn’t get to test the six-speed manual on the road. Sometimes the auto box felt hesitant to change down when a little extra shove was requested, though. Jeep claims the Gladiator can tow up to 7,650 lbs when specified with the towing package, making it the front-runner in its class.

Our tester came with what Jeeps calls “bucket seats,” but from where I was sitting there was nothing particularly bucket-ey about them. In classic Jeep fashion the driver's seat felt too high, and the driving position too upright. The rest of the interior, however, is smart and easy to learn quickly. Connecting my phone via Bluetooth was a snap, and getting around Jeep’s fourth-gen UConnect system – which is just intuitive as Apple CarPlay – took no time at all. There are a total of five USB ports (four A and one C) in the Gladiator, and a 115-volt AC outlet in the bed for powering home electronics. Want to bring your toaster camping? Look no further!

Just a few hours after driving the Gladiator I got my hands on a Toyota Tacoma TRD Sportthe best-selling midsize pickup in 2018 –  and the Toyota immediately felt outdated in comparison. The Bilstein dampers and kevlar lined tires on the Tacoma made for a noticeably stiffer ride – even on smooth, straight roads of Simi Valley, CA. The Toy’s steering was heavier but not as precise as the Jeep’s. That steering also made the Taco feel much heftier than the Jeep despite the fact that it weighs almost 400 pounds less. Forward visibility is much better on the Gladiator too. The unnecessarily vast hood on the Tacoma takes up far too much of the driver’s view, and the smaller frontal area of the Jeep made off-roading in the Gladiator a simple job.

Even for a first-timer like myself, the off-road course at Calamigos Ranch isn’t too daunting, but the Gladiator Rubicon was so capable I felt like I had been doing it for years. The car gives you confidence in spades. Just throw the transfer case into 4LO and up the hills you scamper – we didn’t even need to lock the axles once. Rubicon models get electronic sway-bar disconnect, a segment exclusive, and the extra wheel articulation that allows doesn’t go unnoticed. Not once the did Gladiator cock a wheel or struggle for traction up the mostly dirt track.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator makes a great car better. It’s handsome, refined, easy-to-use and keeps nearly everything about the Wrangler JL that you do want while fixing everything you don’t.

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