2020 Jeep Gladiator test drive: The ultimate off-road pack animal?

If the new Jeep Gladiator looks like a Wrangler with a bed on it, that’s because it is. And isn’t.

While it shares most of its body and plenty of parts with the brand’s iconic SUV, Chief Engineer Pete Milosavlevski points out that there are several significant changes under the very straight lines of its steel and aluminum skin.

(Jeep)

Among them are a set of stronger front tips on its frame to compensate for its heavier weight in the event of an impact, and improved cooling for its 3.6-liter V6 engine. But the real party is in the back.

There, the Gladiator’s frame is lengthened and strengthened compared to the Wrangler’s, and the suspension redesigned with a five-link coil spring setup borrowed from the Ram 1500 pickup that includes forward-facing shocks to better manage loads in the five-foot bed.

(Jeep)

The Ohio-built Gladiator is currently available only with the same 285 hp 3.6-liter V6 as the Wrangler and can haul up to 1,600 pounds. Its 7,650-pound tow rating is just 50 pounds short of the best in class Chevy Colorado diesel’s, but the Gladiator is getting a 3.0-liter oil burner of its own next year, so stay tuned.

To be fair, the Gladiator is bigger than the other small pickups. This is particularly true of its cabin, which is essentially ported straight from the Wrangler Unlimited. There’s so much rear legroom that anyone used to being in a Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger or Chevy Colorado will think they shrank when they get in it. Since you can drop the soft top or remove the optional hard top, headroom is unlimited, and so is elbowroom if you take off the doors. A folding windshield provides the ultimate wind in the hair experience.

(Jeep)

The Gladiator starts at $35,050, which is about ten grand more than the base price of its competitors, but it comes standard with a 4x4 drivetrain that features a low range transfer case plus front and rear solid axles, making it the only light duty pickup – midsize or full-size – that does.

That’s great off-road, and Rubicon models feature locking front and rear differentials for even more rock-crawling capability, but the recirculating ball steering is vague on the highway, the ride a little lumpy and the handling less than ideal. Of course, all of that is also true about the Wrangler and none of it has stifled sales, with 240,000 of them sold in the U.S. last year.

The boxy body makes a lot a wind noise, even when you have the optional hardtop all closed up, but the Gladiator is available with high tech driver aids like automatic emergency brakes, a blind spot monitor and adaptive cruise control that help out on the highway. Its extra-long wheelbase doesn’t hurt here either, smoothing out the ride.

But it can be a negative off road where it is the Gladiator’s Achilles heel, allowing it to bottom out over crests and rocks that a Wrangler wouldn’t even notice. Most Gladiators have 10 inches of ground clearance, but the top of the line Rubicon gets 11.1 and comes with a disconnecting front sway-bar for extra articulation.

(Jeep)

I spent a day at the Monticello Motor Club’s off-road track and trails in a midlevel Overlander wearing relatively tame mud and snow tires and it felt as much the mountain goat as a Wrangler does. Well, maybe the SUV/pickup mashup is more like a mule. There’s no flex in the fully-boxed frame, and it may ride even better at high speeds on bumpy trails than on pavement.

It also has the Wrangler’s Selec-Speed very low-speed cruise control, which is superior to many similar systems in its operation. It holds a speed smoothly without the anti-lock brakes rattling away, and you can adjust it from 1-5 mph by tapping the gearshift lever.

(Jeep)

The Gladiator has a few clever features to add to its functionality. There’s a full-width locking bin under the rear seats for secure storage when the roof is open and the seatbacks can be locked if you want to stuff something behind them, like the optional removable Bluetooth speaker and charging station that lets you party in the great outdoors without leaving the engine running.

(Jeep)

You can also do a nifty trick with the tailgate. If you run its cable stays around hooks mounted on the bed it holds it halfway open, which lines it up perfectly with a plank placed across tops of the wheel well humps. This allows you to load the benchmark 4x8 sheet of plywood across, despite the width between the humps being only 44.8 inches.

As with the Wrangler, owning a Gladiator comes with plenty of compromises compared to a more conventional vehicle -- road noise and a 19 mpg combined fuel economy rating tops among them –-- but no other pickup offers anything close to its toy military truck experience.

Or the attention. Deliveries just started a few weeks ago, so there aren’t too many on the road yet and everyone stops to take a look or a photo. If you drive it down the highway long enough you will eventually find yourself surrounded by a pack of Jeeps that want to be in its presence, a "Jeep Wave" given from each and every one.

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2020 Jeep Gladiator

Base price: $35,040

As tested: $55,485

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger, four-wheel-drive pickup

Engine: 3.6-liter V6

Power: 285 hp, 260 lb-ft

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

MPG: 17 city, 22 hwy