Editor's Note: This review was originally published on March 30th, 2019. We're re-publishing it today, April 12, since this is the first day that production Gladiators begin delivery to US dealers.
Long time coming, this one. Jeep has been teasing a Wrangler-based pickup truck for years. Aftermarket Wrangler truck conversions gather drool at car shows and on social media. Finally, it's here: The 2020 Jeep Gladiator. And the best thing I can say about it is that it's exactly what we always wanted: A Wrangler with a pickup bed.
Simple, but good. The current JL-generation Wrangler is a revelation. It's more civilized on road and more capable off-road than any previous Wrangler. It's smarter, safer, and better looking. It's livable, without compromise, in a way that no solid-axle 4x4 has a right to be. And all those traits are here in abundance in the Gladiator.
Jeep invited journalists to Healdsburg, California, smack in the middle of Sonoma wine country, to spend a day sampling the new pickup on pavement and dirt. Two varieties were available: The lux-spec Overland, and the off-road-ready Rubicon.
On the roads of Sonoma county, the Gladiator was calm and composed. Jeep engineers squeezed almost all of the solid-axle weirdness out of the JL-generation Wrangler. In previous Jeeps, you'd get tossed side-to-side for a few agonizing seconds after clearing railroad tracks or big potholes. No more, and good riddance. The Gladiator takes the improvement even further, thanks to a wheelbase that's more than a foot and a half longer than the four-door Wrangler's—and more than three feet longer than that of the two-door.
All that added wheelbase makes the Gladiator the smoothest-riding solid-axle Jeep you can buy. An Overland edition I drove up a winding coastal highway was whisper-quiet, with no wind noise from the split removable roof panels and no tire noise from the road-oriented 255/70R18 Bridgestone Dueler HT tires. The electric-assist hydraulic steering has a slightly quicker ratio in the pickup (to account for the added wheelbase), but its driving manner is still smooth, never twitchy, and the slight off-center dead spot I've noticed in every new Wrangler's steering was completely absent in the Gladiator.
(A tip for the streetside Jeep spotter: Rubicon models have the faux-scooped hood, while Overland hoods are smooth. Other Overland touches include brushed silver trim in the grille slots, unique wheel designs, and silver badges. Both Rubicon and Overland are available with fender flares and hardtops in either black or body color. Gladiator Sport models have black flares and 17-inch wheels only.)
The Gladiator's brakes are better, too, with a firmer, more smooth-to-modulate pedal than a comparable Wrangler. The rig still feels heavy under braking, and will give you a big, dramatic nose-dive on panic stops, but overall, the pickup's brakes show a noticeable improvement over the Wrangler's.
At launch, the only engine available on the Gladiator will be the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. This base-model engine is, thankfully, available with a six-speed manual on all Gladiator trim lines. As in the Wrangler, the manual transmission in the Gladiator is untruckishly smooth, with light-touch shifts and no driveline wobble through the body-mounted shifter. The clutch pedal is way light—too light for a 4x4, in my view—and there's a maddening amount of rev-hang during upshifts. But we're glad that the stick-shift is still standard-equipment. The eight-speed automatic? It's fine. It gets 17 mpg city, 22 highway, while the stick-shift does 16/23.
A diesel engine (available only with the eight-speed auto) will be available later as an option. Jeep has no current plans to offer the 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder that’s optional on the Wrangler.
The Gladiator Rubicon comes with raised suspension, a 4:1 low range transfer case, Fox monotube shocks (not available on Wrangler Rubicon), front and rear electronic locking differentials, and an electronic-disconnect front sway bar. Locked, disco'ed, and shifted into 4LO, the Gladiator was unstoppable over a short rock-crawl loop set up by Jeep. You have to pay a little extra attention to the pickup's length—especially if you're used to wheeling a two-door, which measures more than four feet shorter than the truck. There's added overhang behind the rear axle, but Jeep was thoughtful enough to put tough rock rails under the trailing edge of the bed, burly enough to handle the full weight of the truck if you find yourself dangling at an inopportune angle.
Unlike the Wrangler Rubicon, the off-road Gladiator comes with Falken Wildpeak tires—either A/T or M/T spec, your choice—in 285/70R17 size. A soft-top, mud-tire Rubicon I drove was notably noisier on pavement, with squishier cornering dynamics. Still, compared to a Wrangler Rubicon, the Gladiator Rubi was more composed.
The Gladiator is the first Wrangler variant you'd actually want to tow a trailer with, and Jeep knows. Stick-shift models are limited to 4000 lbs, but with an automatic and optional 4.10 gearing, a Gladiator Sport is rated for 7650 lbs, or 7000 lbs in an automatic Rubicon. A short drive hauling a 5500-lb boat-and-trailer combo showed the Gladiator to be a calm and capable towing rig, the eight-speed automatic keeping the engine from lugging and doling out downshifts on steep descents.
In other words, the Gladiator is good at all the midsize pickup stuff it needs to be good at. It's got a decent size bed—one you can actually reach into without a stepladder—and competent on-road manners. It's got a refined, capable drivetrain and an honest-to-god manual transmission that's not just relegated to the no-option base model.
Here's where it pulls away from the rest of the pickup truck world: After a brief rainstorm, the sun started peeking out during Jeep's Gladiator media drive. Bingo. I weaseled my way out of the hardtop Overland I'd been driving all morning and snuck into a soft top Rubicon. Folding the roof is easy for two people, but doable solo.
And then, there you are, cruising around in the only drop-top pickup truck you can buy in America today. That? That's pretty damn cool.
The Gladiator starts at $33,545 for the Sport model, $40,395 for the Overland, and $43,545 for the Rubicon. Sales will begin in the second quarter of 2019.