Attica, Indiana- Meriting as one of the worst kept secrets of the past auto show season: Jeep once again sports a pickup truck.
The go-anywhere brand best known for rugged off-road sport utility vehicles and adventurous five-door crossovers now seeks to conquer the fast-growing mid-size pickup truck segment.
Debuting last October at the Los Angeles Auto Show and a crowd pleaser this past February in Chicago, the all-new 2020 model year Gladiator encourages a new breed of clientele to stop by Jeep dealerships. This was no October surprise as word spread through multiple outlets and social media platforms of Jeep's intension for quite some time. The Jeep Gladiator Concept Vehicle teased auto showgoers way back in 2005, but with a smaller passenger cabin. Throughout Jeep's post World War II history, the pickup body periodically came and went, the last attempt exiting in 1992 with Comanche.
The folks at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) invited a gaggle of Midwest media folks to the 'Badlands,' a sizeable off-road adventure park nestled in west-central Indiana a short jaunt from Danville, Illinois to experience Jeep's latest and greatest pickup foray. Badlands encompasses about 1,000 acres of a former gravel quarry repurposed as a splendid off-road playground.
Badlands also serves as a Port of Call for 'Jeep Jamboree,' a family-friendly traveling road show targeting Jeep enthusiasts boasting 35 stops throughout the year (the 2019 Badlands visit takes place the weekend of May 30-June 1). These events support quality mud time to vehicle and owner alike with guiding support from trail-rated instructors/mentors. Touring towns list at www.jeepjamboreeusa.com, although Midwest stops remain much too infrequent.
The all-new four-door Gladiator began rolling of a Toledo, Ohio assembly line in April as it now reaches dealerships nationwide. The same Toledo complex also churns out the diminutive Jeep Wrangler although Gladiator skews mid-size. This new vehicles fills a corporate need as FCA's Ram pickup truck division remains strangely void of a mid-size offering (for now).
Gladiator boasts many traditional Jeep nuances: circular headlights, a seven-slot grille and a four-low gear select inviting off-roading as Jeep intends. The flatbed region includes seven embossed vertical floor slats, saluting the Jeep-centric seven-slat grille.
The sole powertrain at launch is FCA's well tested 3.6-liter, naturally-aspirated (non turbo) V-6 engine delivering 285 horsepower and connected with a six-speed manual transmission (add $2,000 for eight-speed automatic). This powertrain can be had in Dodge Chargers, Dodge Challengers, Chrysler Pacifica minivans, Wrangler, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 pickups.
During the past 11 years, approximately 10 million of these 3.6 liters have serviced Chrysler family vehicles. A Gladiator diesel engine is promised soon, although FCA's PR team provided little specifics. Engine Start-Stop also comes standard, quieting the engine at prolonged stops.
Four Gladiator trims include: Sport, Sport S, Overland and top-trim Rubicon. All feature a five-foot cargo bed and roomy five-seat full-size Club-Cab. Hood, doors, tailgate and windshield frame benefit from high-strength lightweight aluminum.
Similarities to Jeep's long-running Wrangler remain glaringly apparent. As with four-door Wrangler Unlimiteds, Gladiator's four side doors are completely removable and the front windshield folds forward if desired, or just simply lifts from the vehicle frame. Enjoy open-air convertibles? Gladiator offers an assortment of removable soft and hard-panel tops. A thin, narrow functional whip terrestrial radio antenna extends up from the driver side fender.
Two transfer cases are offered depending upon the trim level selected. Each provides two-wheel drive high, four-wheel drive high, neutral and four-low. Sport, Sport S and Overland offer 'Command Trac' standard.
Our Rubicon tester of the day substituted the heavy-duty 'Rock Trac' transfer case with a floor-board manual shifter ideal for off-road opportunities such as those presented at Badlands. Rubicon is the sole trim with an electronic sway bar disconnect system.
"When engaging the sway bar disconnect it improves articulation, so if you're climbing over a rock or any other type of trail obstruction it helps get the vehicle up and over," according to Trevor Dorchies, product manager for Gladiator. "The sway bar automatically reconnects at about 18 miles an hour once back on the road."
Gladiator offers an Off-Road Plus option not available in Wrangler, adjusting throttle and stability control intuitively based on current 4 x 4 settings. Suffice it to say, Gladiator handled just about any terrain the Badlands tossed in its direction.
Row two seats up to three adults, complimenting two front row bucket-type seating. When not in use, seat cushions flip forward for extra inside storage opportunities, including an area for storing removed bolts and widgets when removing doors and/or windshields.
Standard in all four trims; an easy drop-down tailgate eliminating the troublesome freefall 'thud' of yesteryear. Squared, flared wheel wells include servable air vent slots up front in all trims. A pair of hood scoops remain exclusive property of the top-trim Rubicon.
An available black canvas-like tonneau cover stretches across the cargo box to secure items below, and rolls back in an accordion fashion if desired.
Fun-in-the-mud Gladiators don't come cheap. Our Badland's tested Rubicon included a $43,545 start. A cargo bed full of options brought the bottom line to $60,965 including the ubiquitous $1,495 destination charge. At the spectrum's other end, a Sport starts at $33,545. By comparison, the reintroduced 2019 mid-size Ford Ranger starts at $24,300.
Gladiator Rubicon includes 11.1 inches of ground clearance (other trims provide 10 inches) welcome through a 45-minute loop of what the Badland's offered. When pressed, Gladiator manages to tread up to 30 inches of water. Badlands provided just such an opportunity with a substantial, rocky-bottom water basin compliments of Mother Nature's substantial Spring rainfall. Gladiator breezed through the murky water with no sweet.
In addition to the standard video feed from the back-up camera, an additional grille camera upfront (a $500 option in Rubicon trims) provides a glimpse of the terrain ahead and includes a 'spritzer,' cleansing the lens for better views once exiting muck.
Standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interface within the fourth-generation of FCA's UConnect system allows Smartphones to interact with the center 8.4-inch touch screen. As with other Jeep and most FCA vehicles, interacting with this screen gets enhanced with secondary auto controls located on the three-spoke steering wheel's back side, allowing finger tips to do the walking in a natural grip position. Left-and-right-side toggle buttons allow changes in audio volume and station presets. Best designed mouse trap thus far.
All four power windows operate from a center console region below the multi-function screen rather than a removable door location.
While domestic brands Ford, Chevrolet and Ram continue dominating sales of full-size pickups, the mid-size segment is now enticingly competitive. Toyota's invested heavily in Tacoma, the mid-size sales champ for decades. Ford recently reintroduced the Ranger nameplate in the 2019 model year after a hiatus begun in 2011 while General Motors restarted Canyon/Colorado production for the 2015 model year with a next-gen opportunity hinted in 2022....and now Gladiator enters the ring.
Let the games begin. 2020 Jeep Gladiator
4 x 4
Price as tested: $60,965
Wheelbase: 137.3 inches
Overall Height: 73.1 inches
Overall Width: 73.8 inches
Overall Length: 218.0 inches
Curb Weight: 5072 pounds
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway
Powertrain Warranty: Five years, 60,000 miles
Assembly: Toledo, Ohio