Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: June 4, 2020
It only took three minutes behind the wheel of Jeep’s new pick-up truck for me to witness the first Jeep wave. In fact, by the time I finished my one-hour commute, I had lost track of how many Wranglers and truck enthusiasts had flagged me down. And for good reason. The new Gladiator is a long awaited entrant into the storied brand, a midsize truck meant to compete against the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, and Chevrolet Colorado. Dressed in a flaming red suit with boxy proportions that heavily contrast today’s popular aero-slick shapes, it’s certainly got presence. What other truck lets you unhook the doors, tear the roof off, fold flat the front windshield, and drive around looking like Bear Grylls in search of his overnight hotel? Yes, there’s leather in our Gladiator, but Bear likes toilet paper too.
The Gladiator name sounds wicked, queueing up fond memories of Jeep pickups from the sixties, or Russell Crowe kicking ass in the Roman Colosseum. But you will be paying a pretty penny to enter this theme park. The base Gladiator Sport S starts at $43,876, while the Rubicon model that we’re driving begins at $49,627, with all our bells and whistles pushing it up to $66,055. That gets you the most off-road capable truck that Jeep currently offers, with a lift kit, rugged all-terrain tires, FOX shocks on all four corners, a wider front and rear track, locking differentials, an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, and a 4:10:1 ratio. And if you must know, it can tow up to 7,650 lbs, gaining commercial workhorse credentials.
Now, this is purely a road test of the Gladiator Rubicon. I won’t be reporting about its off-roading capabilities. Instead, our Jeep crawled its way into pandemic-era grocery store parking lots. In these missions, the Rubicon is clearly overkill. Yes, the beefy tires will let you squish those peskily high curbs, and the lift kit means you can peer over every other Prius when eyeing for those coveted parking spots. Hell, you can pretty much create your own parking spot on the nearby hill at this point. Of note, the off-road button and red-coloured diff locker switch will need the occasional dusting. But is it any comfortable to drive? No, not in the slightest. All body-on-frame Jeeps are a bit wobbly, shaky, and unnerving on the streets.
But here’s the biggest surprise: the Gladiator with its longer wheelbase, unique frame, and upgraded Fox dampers, actually delivers more civility and rides better than the Wrangler that it's based upon. The stretched out length quells some of the cumbersome behaviour on long straights, and you don’t fight the steering wheel as much just to keep the Jeep from veering into Grandma’s Civic in the neighbouring lane. It still requires full-on concentration to tame the wandering front tires, and there are butt-clenching moments when you hit large bumps going triple digit speeds on the highway. The all-terrain tires don’t do a very good job absorbing impacts or quelling cabin NVH either, adding to a more focused drive than a relaxed one, but it’s more comfortable, friendlier, and stutters less than the Wrangler. If you prioritize comfort and road mannerisms above all else, best to stick with the more conventional Gladiator models like the Sport S or Overland.
There’s only one engine available for the Gladiator in Canada, and that’s the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 that comes naturally aspirated with start/stop technology, and is paired to a standard six-speed manual. Or you can have an 8-speed automatic for $1,795. A 3.0-litre diesel should be coming next year. In the meantime, the V6 produces a healthy 285 hp and 260 lb-ft, and is enough to get this truck up and away with a decent amount of shove. Don’t commit heavily to last-minute overtakes, and on-ramps might require a flat throttle, but the delivery is linear, predictable, and the extended travel in the pedal makes acceleration easy to modulate.
One of the largest appeals of the Gladiator is its aftermarket support and customizable features. Mopar has you covered with performance accessories and its paraphernalia. You can personalize it as much as your imagination allows. The Freedom three-piece hard top on our Gladiator gives you the freedom (hah!) to drive without a roof as well. The front two panels are easy to remove - all it takes is two minutes of unlatching six hooks without any tools. They can be easily stowed in the truck bed as well in case it rains (Gladiator: 1, Wrangler: 0). The rear roof and windshield come as one piece however, are heavier, and requires a wrench that comes with the vehicle. You don’t need to be handy to detach it though. It only requires a few screws and latches to be undone, and with some added arm strength, off it goes! Now tell me again that a naked Gladiator is not dripping in presence.
The interior is essentially carried over from the Wrangler. The modern design is a far cry from the outgoing Wrangler models, hosting durable feeling buttons and knobs with waterproofing seals. It looks like a Jeep and best of all, feels like a Jeep. There’s almost no interior difference to the Wrangler except for the little silhouette icons on the gear shifter, and only when you look into the rear view mirror and notice the truck bed, do you remember that this is a pick up. And when you do back it up, you’re treated to the most high-definition back-up camera I have ever seen, and I’ve driven Rolls-Royces and Porsches. The Jeep’s is on another level, punching it from SD to HD. Speaking of which, the infotainment unit is bar none in terms of functionality, responsiveness, and learning curve. Even your 90-year old nona would be able to navigate through the menus, as it follows a simple smartphone-like layout with shortcuts on the bottom, all of which can be dragged and dropped around.
Let’s be real. The Gladiator doesn’t make the most economical sense. It’s far from a work truck, costs more than every other mid-size pick up in the segment, and is hardly a comfortable daily driver. You could call it a lifestyle truck but that doesn’t do its off-road credentials any justice. There’s so much charm and capability behind the Rubicon that makes it feel more like a companion than an appliance. So there is a market for its domesticated duties, even if they’re just to fulfill the owner’s dreams of one day heading to the Rubicon Trail. You certainly won’t see a Tacoma or Colorado inspiring that kind of enthusiast. That’s where the Gladiator gains its upper hand, by instilling charm, a storied history, and the ability to figuratively drive naked with all the doors, roof, and windshield ripped off. It may be slightly overpriced but what you’re getting is something uncompromising and unique, Jeep waves included.
Model: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Paint Type: Firecracker Red
Base Price: $52,495
Price as Tested: $66,055
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,539 / 1,875 / 1,857
Curb weight (kg): 2,301
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Horsepower: 285 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, 4WD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 13.7 / 10.7 / 12.3
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 14.2