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Ready, Set, Adventure: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Proves Its Mettle on the Rubicon

Jeep’s new pickup truck is a rough and tumble winner.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California—In our sister publication MotorTrend's 2019 Power List—its annual ranking of the automotive world's 50 most influential personalities—Mark Allen, head of Jeep Design for Fiat Chrysler, is ranked 24th. He is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list at all, much less ahead of Tesla founder Elon Musk, General Motors president Mark Reuss, and Akio Toyoda, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp.

He also ranked three spots higher than Tim Kuniskis, at the time the head of Jeep North America, which likely caused a few awkward moments around the conference room table at Jeep headquarters.

But look at what's selling in Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, Alfa Romeo, Ram, and Jeep showrooms around the country: Jeep, followed at a respectable distance by Ram. In mid-2018, Jeep announced it would release two new or substantially refreshed models each year through 2022, including the Wagoneer and the much-anticipated Grand Wagoneer.

But we're here in the spacious lobby of a lodge in South Lake Tahoe, California, sitting next to the fireplace. We're talking to Allen about his latest product, the Jeep Gladiator, the company's first truck since the Comanche went out of production in 1992. The Jeep Scrambler, the Gladiator's spiritual predecessor, went out of production in 1985. And the full-sized Jeep J-10 ended its run in 1987.

What's different about this conversation is that we've just been helicoptered off of a mountain, where we parked a string of 2020 Gladiator Rubicons midway through the grueling Rubicon Trail, the legendary strip of rock, sand, gravel and dirt—but mostly rocks—on the California/Nevada border.

About that drive: The next day, we were supposed to be helicoptered back and finish our trip. But we weren't: Fog, low clouds (there's a difference), rain, wind, rumors of zombie attacks, and additional paranormal activities kept the helicopters grounded, and oddly, few of us complained. My driving partner and I were in the first Gladiator, and with the truck's extra weight, extra length, and longer turning circle, the truck was not as nimble as the Jeep Wrangler Rubicons we drove up the trail a year ago.

Ground clearance on our Gladiator Rubicon is listed at 11.1 inches, which is actually 0.3 inch more than the standard 2020 Wrangler Rubicon has, but we wished for a couple of inches more: Part of it was because we were driving the first Rubicon in line, so we were the first to hit all the riding-mower-sized rocks on the trail, often requiring the Jeep Jamboree spotters and scouts, on foot ahead of us, to either move the rocks that no mass-market production truck in America could straddle, or help, er, rock us off when we got high-centered. And this is not because the two of us lacked off-roading credentials, because we didn't. It just seemed like on this trip up, unlike other passages done as part of a manufacturer's program, the ever-changing trail had not been as effectively pre-run by our hosts. Yes, the Rubicon Trail is always rated a 10 out of 10 in degree of difficulty, but this was an 11 or 12.

Still, while progress was slow, it was steady. We could not help but marvel at two things: How in the world the pioneers made it across these mountains with horse and wagon, and how in the world some of the privateers we met on the trail find this to be a relaxing hobby, especially absent the never-tiring crew of scouts scrambling ahead of us to help clear the way. Most of those privateers, in Jeep Wranglers and CJs, straight-axle Cherokees and Toyota 4Runners, were driving vehicles that seemed to have shed parts on past trips, and after such parts were judged to be noncritical, were just left that way. Such as doors and fenders.

There is little the scouts did that Joe, my driving partner, and I couldn't have done our own; we could have spotted for each other, and moved the required rocks. But at the end of the day, we'd probably still be in sight of our starting point.

As it was, it was still kind of exhausting in a hothouse-flower, relentlessly white-collar sort of way, like being stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, our Starbucks cups drained, and satellite radio playing nothing but Christmas carols. But compared to the guys moving rocks, we were fine, though the toe of one of my Bruno Magli suede loafers was soiled when I stepped in a puddle.

From a product-review side, we wouldn't hesitate to take the Gladiator Rubicon up the trail again, but we'd insist on tires bigger than the LT285/70R17C Falken Wildpeak A/Ts mounted on the Gladiators as standard fitment. Traction was adequate, but we just needed more ground clearance. Yes, the skid plates and rock rails on the side are built for durability, and they are made to scrape on rocks. But the sound—like the death moan of a whale, times 10. Think about it: The Gladiator's wheelbase is 137.3 inches. The four-door Wrangler Rubicon's wheelbase is 118.4, and the two-door just 96.8, though dividing time in the two- and four-door Wrangler Rubicons the last time up the trail, we actually preferred the handling of the four-door, and on pavement, it's definitely our choice. Even without the locking front differential engaged, the Gladiator's turning circle is already 44.8 feet, and we had to unlock it several times to make it around the tightest turns.

But, bless the hearts of the Gladiator Rubicon team, Mark Allen, and everybody else who built this truck, they gave us so much help in the way of traditional and modern off-road aids. Such as, for example, the wonderful forward-facing camera, which allowed us to actually see the rock we were about to high-center on. It isn't as good as a human spotter saying "left-left" and "right-right," but it's helpful.

So, after making it back, and warmed by the fireplace, we grilled Allen on what had just happened, and what was likely to happen with Jeep.

A little background: Allen, 56, is approaching his 25th anniversary with the company. Yes, he could do other things within the corporation, but his first vehicle was a flat-fendered CJ, his dad was a Jeep guy, and growing up near Vancouver, Washington, there were plenty of opportunities for off-roading. "My dad is who I probably got the car gene from," Allen said. "He's been gone a long time now, but his influence remains."

Arguably Allen's most important role in his career was to design the modern Wrangler, on which the Gladiator is based. "We only get to design a new Wrangler every 10 years or so," he said.

Years in advance of the technical start date on the design of the 2018 Wrangler, he and his crew had been sketching, refining, thinking, looking at the competition. "We were so ready to do the new Wrangler. We were absolutely locked and loaded."

With the design of the Wrangler and the Gladiator, "We kind of had to be able to show all the 'wrong' answers," Allen (pictured above) said. Meaning that when some top executive suggested, say, the front fenders should angle up into the hood, Allen would have treatments that showed that, which also showed that no, that isn't quite right for this product.

And Allen spends a lot of his time explaining to people new to the brand who assume the reason Jeep sticks with body-on-frame and the straight—or "stick"—axles is because FCA won't give it money to go unibody and with an independent suspension. No, Allen patiently says, the Wrangler and now the Gladiator are in such demand that the company essentially gave them a clean sheet of paper to design the new models. What looks old and dated is there because it works. Better than anything else.

The Gladiator takes some cues from the Jeep Scrambler CJ-8, which was a slightly lengthened CJ-7. The Scrambler's wheelbase was stretched a little to 103 inches—some 34 inches shorter than the Gladiator—and it lasted only from 1981 to 1985 before it was, technically, replaced by the MJ, the Jeep Comanche the company sold from 1986 to 1992. The Scrambler did not sell well, but it's a legitimate collector's item now, with prices reflecting the fact.

There's no question that with its much larger bed and a towing capacity that approaches four tons, the Gladiator is an actual truck and can be used like one—unlike, say, the upcoming Hyundai Santa Cruz, about which executives refuse to mention the word "truck," instead calling it an SUV with an open back.

It would have been easy for Allen to simply do a truck that was branded as a Jeep, but given its heritage, it was decreed early on that this one had to go beyond "trail rated;" it had to take on the Rubicon. Which it did, and will again, hopefully with more ground clearance.

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $35,040/$48,850 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6; 280 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSIONS 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD pickup
EPA MILEAGE
16/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 218.0 x 73.8 x 76.1 in
WHEELBASE 137.3 in
WEIGHT 5,072 lb
0-60 MPH 7.4 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 125 mph (est)