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Warrior Reborn: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Test Drive Review

The Jeep Gladiator is back and prepared to take on its rivals in the midsize truck segment. It’s Jeep’s first factory-produced pickup since 1992, when the XJ Cherokee-based Comanche rode off into the sunset. The 2020 Gladiator offers the utility of a truck, the off-road capabilities of a Jeep, and something none of its rivals can match: the open-air fun of a convertible.

The all-new Gladiator is available in four trim levels: Sport, Sport S, Overland, and Rubicon. I got the chance to drive almost all of those during the Gladiator media launch event in Sacramento, California. It’s been a while since the Gladiator was around (Jeep stopped using the name for its truck in 1971), but it’s ready to fight its competitors on highways, boat ramps, and rugged trails.

Jeep Gladiator

2020 Jeep Gladiator Exterior

There’s no denying the Gladiator looks a lot like the new Wrangler. However, Jeep made a variety of changes (some more noticeable than others) so that the Gladiator can haul and tow like a genuine truck. It’s based on a high-strength steel frame that’s 31 inches longer (137.3) than the Wrangler Unlimited’s frame. That extra length gives the Gladiator nearly 20 more inches of wheelbase. The five-foot bed is also made out of steel and centered just behind the rear axle. The cargo box’s positioning and greater amount of space between the front and rear tires improves the Gladiator’s weight distribution and ride quality when it’s hauling a load. According to a Jeep representative, the Gladiator’s bed can fit up to nine sheets of drywall.

Jeep Gladiator

The Gladiator’s seven-slot grille features wider openings that can send more cooling air to the engine while the Gladiator is pulling heavy cargo. By using aluminum for the hood, fenders, removable doors, door hinges, foldable windshield frame, and soft-drop tailgate, engineers were able to keep weight down. There’s an additional benefit to that: higher payload and towing capacities (more on those in the Performance section below).

The Gladiator isn’t all about working, though. It makes it easy to have fun in the sun. Just remove the front wipers and pull four bolts to fold down the windshield. Jeep offers a black three-piece hardtop (which includes two removable Freedom panels over the front seats and a manual sliding rear window) and a folding Sunrider soft top (basic or premium depending on trim level) across the Gladiator model range. A body-color three-piece hard top is optional on Overland and Rubicon models.

It only takes one person to fold the Sunrider top. It’s easier and faster to pull off the hard top’s Freedom panels if you have another person with you. Luckily, I had a driving partner to help me do that before we cruised the interstate. Since our Sport S test model didn’t have the available roll-up tonneau cover, we had to wedge the panels between the front and rear seats. However, the Overland model we tried out did have it as an optional extra. Once my colleague and I pulled a couple of latches, we rolled it toward the back of the cab and used the included straps to secure it.

Jeep Gladiator

2020 Jeep Gladiator Interior

Chris Benjamin, the head of Jeep interior design, and his team used the brand’s past as inspiration for the Gladiator’s interior layout. They combined the MB’s cleanliness, the CJ-5’s tough rugged lines, and the YJ’s circular elements, then added modern technology and convenience features. Sport models come standard with a 5.0-inch touchscreen. Larger 7.0- and 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreens with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and pinch, tap, and swipe functionality are available on other grades.

Jeep Gladiator

During one segment of the launch, my colleague drove while I sat in the rear seat, behind the front passenger seat that I had adjusted to my 5’10” height. Headroom in the back was not an issue and Jeep chose a comfortable angle for the rear seatbacks. While I did have enough legroom, my knees were closer to the front seatback than I expected they would be.

Jeep Gladiator

The back seats conceal a variety of storage solutions. Folding down the lockable seatbacks reveals space for small cargo and nets for carrying things more securely. Flipping the 60/40-split bottom cushions up into their “stadium” position uncovers a full-width storage bin (a lockable version is optional).

Jeep Gladiator

2020 Jeep Gladiator Performance

Jeep’s familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 powers the Gladiator. Output is 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. An updated 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 with 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque is coming next year.

The Gladiator’s base transmission is a six-speed manual; an eight-speed automatic is available on all models. Both get roughly the same fuel economy when combined with the Pentastar. With the manual gearbox, the Gladiator is rated at 16 city, 23 highway, and 19 combined mpg. With the automatic, it’s capable of getting 17 city, 22 highway, and 19 combined mpg.**

Jeep Gladiator

Choice of transmission makes a bigger difference in how much the Gladiator can haul and tow. With the right gearbox and axle ratio, it’s capable of carrying up to 1,600 pounds and, with the optional Max Tow Package, pulling a 7,650-pound trailer.

All Gladiators have four-wheel drive, Dana 44 front and rear axles, skid plates, rock rails, and at least 10 inches of ground clearance (the Rubicon has 11.1 inches). Sport, Sport S, and Overland models are equipped with the two-speed Command-Trac 4×4 system, which has a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio, 3.73 axle ratio, and a max crawl ratio of 52.1:1.

Jeep Gladiator

The Rock-Trac 4×4 system is exclusive to the Gladiator Rubicon. It features a 4:1 “4LO” ratio and 4.10 gearing. Tru-Lok locking differentials and a maximum crawl ratio of 84.2:1 join forces to give the Rubicon the ability to go through and over challenging terrain. It also gets special rock rails to protect the corners of its bed.

On the way from the starting point in Clarksburg to the off-road portion of the event in Cool, my driving partner and I took a wrong turn. That gave us the chance to travel through winding foothills. Power was never in short supply, but the rapid transitions quickly revealed how vague the Gladiator Overland’s steering was. Keeping the truck going straight required several quick adjustments to the wheel.

Once we arrived in Cool, we had to travel down a long muddy trail with deep ruts to get to the staging area where a fleet of Gladiator Rubicons were waiting for us to get them filthy. The Overland got dirty, too, but it never scraped its skid plates or struggled for grip in the muck.

Jeep Gladiator

The Gladiator Rubicon comes with several hardware upgrades that prepare it for serious off-roading. It’s available with a winch-ready steel front bumper with removable end caps to give the front tires more room. The rear bumper is steel. The Gladiator Rubicon’s wheels come wrapped in either 33-inch all-terrain or 33-inch mud-terrain tires. Its fender flares are mounted two inches higher than they are on other Gladiators so that they can fit tires as large as 35 inches in diameter. There’s even enough room in the spare tire carrier under the bed to fit a matching fifth wheel and tire.

Jeep Gladiator

I took a Rubicon through Jeep’s 25-minute off-road course. The friendly expert trail guides from Jeep Jamboree spotted me and gave me helpful tips throughout my time on the trail. They had aired down the Rubicons’ mud tires to roughly 21 psi to improve their grip. I had plenty of that whether I was charging down muck-filled paths or crawling up rocky inclines. The Rubicon’s optional front camera gave me peace of mind when I was about to descend a steep hill because it enabled me to see what was two feet in front of me.

Jeep Gladiator

No matter where I went, the Gladiator Rubicon’s 11.1 inches of ground clearance and 43.4-degree approach and 26-degree departure angles were more than enough to keep it from scraping its bumpers. Despite its long wheelbase, the Gladiator didn’t drag its belly, either.

Jeep Gladiator

The only parts of the truck that took a hit were its skid plates, especially during one particular downhill run. It was so steep that the Hill Descent Control didn’t have time to react. I just held on tight to the steering wheel, kept my right foot over the brake pedal, and let gravity do its thing as the Gladiator thumped and crunched its way to the bottom.

Jeep Gladiator

2020 Jeep Gladiator Safety

Jeep put a lot of thought and engineering into making the Gladiator capable off-road. Luckily, they also put a great deal of effort into making it a safe vehicle wherever you happen to be in it. It’s available with more than 80 safety and security features, ranging from Forward Collision Warning to Blind-spot Monitoring to Rear Cross Path Detection.

Jeep Gladiator

2020 Jeep Gladiator Overall

If the 2020 Jeep Gladiator has everything you’re looking for in a midsize truck, I have great news. It’ll be in AutoNation Jeep dealerships very soon. Prices start at $33,545 for the Sport, $36,745 for the Sport S, $40,395 for the Overland, and $43,545 for the Rubicon.*

*MSRP excludes tax, license, registration, destination charge and options. Dealer prices may vary.

**Based on EPA mileage ratings. Your mileage will vary depending specific vehicle trim, how you drive and maintain your vehicle, driving conditions, and other factors.

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