If you’re one of those unique souls who frequently find themselves noodling along the Rubicon Trail in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited while towing an off-road trailer—yes, these exist—boy howdy, has Jeep got just the thing for you. Enter the 2020 Jeep Gladiator (perhaps you’ve heard of this?), the first Jeep pickup truck in more than 25 years.
We mean it. It’s real. We’ve driven it. Not just driven it, mind you. Oh, no. We drove it. Mud. Rocks. Angles. Four low. Locked diffs. Did we mention angles? What about fear? Off-roading is like that, a tiny niche of the automotive universe which has perverse angles, ridiculous articulations, and insatiable need for grip that rearrange our perspective on life every time we shift a real transfer case. Also, it’s fantastic. And in a truck like this one there’s no need for a trailer. Beds, baby: they’re not just for sleeping.
Anyway, about this Gladiator thing. It’s a real truck. And by real truck, we mean the kind with a ladder frame topped by a cab and a separate cargo bed. The kind with two live axles. It’s just not the monstrously big kind. It’s what they call a mid-size, which means next to nothing since there are no mid-size trucks. Call the Jeep what you want, but know that it’s not as big as a Ford F-150 or a Chevy Silverado. With the Gladiator, we’re talking about a truck that’s roughly the size of a Chevy Colorado, a Ford Ranger, or a Honda Ridgeline. It’s available only with four full-size doors and a five-foot bed. Every Gladiator has selectable four-wheel drive and uses a two-speed transfer case. Both hard and soft tops are available, and like its Wrangler brethren, its windshield folds down flat.
Four trims are available: Sport, Sport S, Overland, and Rubicon. Every Gladiator at launch will be powered by Fiat Chrysler’s Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, rated at 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but ZF’s eight-speed automatic is optional across the board. A turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel V-6 good for 260 horses and 442 lb-ft, paired exclusively with the eight-speed automatic, is coming in 2020.
Jeep is keenly aware that its bread is buttered with the anachronism of stick axles, but that, alas, is a Jeep thing, endowing the Wrangler lineup and the Gladiator with usable suspension articulation and supreme off-road capability. Those axles, however, necessarily burden the truck with recirculating-ball steering, something that departed from virtually every other production vehicle, oh, about 30 years ago. And that means the Gladiator is not blessed with laser-precise steering.
Couple that with the fact that its heavy axles compel it to do a dynamic tango on certain surfaces, and you’ve got a recipe for a modern-day Conestoga wagon. Sure, other, more contemporary suspensions might not dance so much on washboard terrain, but the truth is, if you’re a truck person, this probably is not going to matter. These are components of the Gladiator’s personality but hardly true demerits. We noticed them, sure, but in light of the Gladiator’s other virtues, they wouldn’t persuade us to avoid it. And if you’re thinking of buying a Gladiator, we aren’t going to convince you otherwise. After all, no one really needs a convertible truck with a windshield that folds flat. But we suspect lots of people will want one.
The Gladiator is not quick. We know this because we’ve driven two of them: a Rubicon, the top trim level and leader of Jeep’s off-road armada, and an Overland, which sits one step down the Gladiator trim tower. The Overland tester needed 7.2 seconds to hit 60 mph. That’s off the pace of the rest of the mid-size-truck field by at least half a second. It’s not much for cornering—0.75 g around our skidpad—but then again, neither are the rest of these trucks. Plus, if you’re measuring success in life by how quickly your Jeep accelerates or how well it turns, perhaps it’s time to revisit the Xanax. Also, we know just the thing that’ll clean that retentiveness out of your veins: How about a day slopping through mud and bulldozing over rocks in a topless Jeep pickup?