Say what you want about President Ronald Reagan’s politics, but there’s no argument the man had style, especially when it came to his choice of off-duty vehicles. Among his favorites: a baby-blue Jeep Scrambler that he used to chauffeur friends, family, and occasional dignitaries—including in 1992, cowboy-hatted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—around his California spread, Rancho del Cielo.
We mention the Scrambler, of which Jeep cranked out about 28,000 copies between 1981 and 1986, because it is undeniably the spiritual predecessor of the splendid new 2020 Jeep Gladiator, which was almost called the Scrambler, just like the old stretched CJ-8 with a small pickup bed. The Gladiator name was a catchall moniker for the full-size Jeep trucks from 1962 to 1971 and was dropped when AMC took over the company.
The history lesson given in Jeep’s press presentation, in scenic Healdsburg, California—known for meaty Sonoma wines and massive redwoods—was heavy on Jeep pickups such as the J-10 and even the Comanche, but the designers and engineers on hand skipped over the Scrambler like it didn’t exist. Democrats, perhaps? Unlikely. But the president-approved Scrambler was a pretty useful vehicle that remains, like most Jeep CJs and Wranglers, blessed with astronomic resale value. Indeed, the Comanche was the last real Jeep pickup, a part-unibody (and consequently light-duty) trucklet based on the Jeep Cherokee and sold from 1985 to 1992. Resale value is just now catching up to the Comanche, especially the four-wheel-drive model with the thirsty but bulletproof 4.0-liter inline-six.
So what’s taken so long to bring back a genuine Jeep pickup? That’s a question Jeep execs are happy to answer; they have been building so many Wranglers that adding another model just wasn’t a consideration until several years ago, when the team took the bit in their teeth and put pencil to paper. That followed, of course, a $700 million retooling of the Toledo, Ohio, plant where the Wrangler is built, thus providing the capacity to handle a new model.
The result: a product that is so much better than it needs to be, with such follow-through, utility, and attention to detail, that several of us wondered what these men and women could do with, say, the Chrysler 300 or Dodge Journey.
An example is a very accurate, sectored nose camera offered on the top model that allows for boulder crawling even if you don’t have a spotter. This wasn’t included on the loaded Wrangler Rubicons we drove on the brutal Rubicon Trail just late last summer. The Gladiator isn’t just a stretched Wrangler; it’s improved over the Wrangler’s flagship with multiple features that will migrate to the rest of the lineup.
The basics: There are three models—Sport, Overland, and the premium Rubicon. Jeep insists the corporate mandate was that the vehicle had to be “best in class,” the other members of that class being “midsize pickups” including the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Chevrolet Colorado, and the new Ford Ranger. Worthy vehicles all, but the Gladiator is a different animal. Even Jeep executives speculated that Gladiator buyers might come, in large numbers, from other Wrangler models, thus “cannibalizing” the brand. But so what? The money still goes into the same pocket.
Part of that “best-in” mandate, and thanks to enhanced engine cooling, the Gladiator can tow a whopping 7,650 pounds when properly equipped. We towed a boat that weighed, with trailer, about 6,000 pounds, and the Pentastar engine and busy transmission handled it. Climbing a moderately steep hill did not inspire huge confidence, though. If we towed more than 7,000 pounds regularly, we’d probably opt for the Ram pickup. Note: If you’re thinking of waiting for the upcoming Jeep diesel, it will actually be rated with a slightly lower towing capacity.
The only engine offered now is the familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, rated at 285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. The diesel, which comes in mid-2020, is a 3.0-liter V-6 rated at 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft. Official EPA mileage for the Pentastar comes in at 16/23/19 mpg city/highway/combined with a manual and 17/22/19 with the automatic. (The take rate for the manual on the Wrangler Rubicon is only six percent, so if you insist on one in your Gladiator, you may have to order it.) The 850RE eight-speed automatic is eager and capable, equally adept both on- and off-road. We briefly drove a Gladiator equipped with the base six-speed manual, and although it was surprisingly fun on the road, we much prefer the automatic when the going gets rough.
The wheelbase was lengthened to 137.3 inches to accommodate the relatively shallow five-foot steel bed. (The doors and hood are aluminum.) Add a couple of 2x4s across the bed braces, and you can stack 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood to your heart’s content.
The solid axles use a five-link coil suspension design with forward-facing shocks; in the Rubicon, they’re Fox brand, and they’re excellent. The Sport and Overland get the Command-Trac 4×4 system, and the Rubicon gets upgraded to the Rock-Trac system with Tru-Lok locking differentials. The Rubicon also gets a standard 33-inch wheel-and-tire setup and an electronic anti-roll bar disconnect. Jeep claims you can ford up to 30-inch water crossings. A nice touch: Knowing that owners might well increase the tires to 35-inchers, the under-bed full-size spare has a mount that will handle rubber that large.
Mechanically, you’d expect most of that, but inside is where the real surprises lurk. Two six-foot adults fit easily in the rear seat, with a slightly less happy third six-footer in the middle. Instruments and controls are thoughtfully designed and properly placed. All electrical connections have been moisture-sealed.
Loosen four bolts, and you can fold down the windshield. The doors are removable. Depending on your propensity for enjoying open-air motoring, you can choose from one soft top and a pair of hard tops. But suffice it to say, all these features are so nicely thought through that you can’t go wrong in your choices. Add to that the fact Jeep will offer more than 200 parts and pieces at rollout to further personalize your Gladiator, and heaven only knows how many more bolt-ons will show up from aftermarketers at this year’s SEMA show.
So how does it all work? Quite well. In order to get to our off-road driving, Jeep took us through a seemingly endless loop of extremely tight winding roads more suited to a Mazda Miata than the Rubicon. By the time we got there, we’d had enough tight switchbacks in the 5,072-pound Rubicon, though it did handle them with moderate poise. The seats were comfortable and supportive even on the tight turns.
Off-road—yes. Although Jeeps enjoy the highest percentage of owner off-roading, it’s still a shame there are customers who seldom if ever traverse terrain more taxing than a gravel road. Some of the boulder crossings we tackled seemed simply impossible, and even with a decidedly unaggressive tread pattern that favored pavement, the tires are far more capable than they look—and they still work well, and quietly, on the tarmac. Massive steel skid plates made horrible sounds but emerged virtually unscathed.
The Sport starts at $35,040; the top-of-the-line Rubicon starts at exactly $10,000 more and reaches to the moon and to the limits of your checkbook as you add equipment. If you consider one, do yourself and the engineers a favor and really go through the Gladiator front to rear. You’ll notice little things like the Torx bolt bit size printed on the door hinge so you don’t have to guess which one you need from the included toolkit to remove the door. Little things like that, and the rest of the package, should make the Gladiator another hit for Jeep. If there’s one automotive group in the U.S. that has its stuff together, it’s this one.
2020 Jeep Gladiator Specifications
|ENGINE||3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6; 280 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD pickup|
||Gladiator ATX 17/22; Gladiator MTX 16/23 (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||218.0 x 73.8 x 74.1-76.1 in|
|0–60 MPH||7.4 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||125 mph (est)|