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Los Angeles — Jeep unveiled its rock-crawling Gladiator pickup here Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show, sending another serious contender to the midsize pickup wars.

Packing all the off-road weaponry of its iconic Wrangler sibling, the steel-frame 2020 Gladiator goes on sale in the second quarter of 2019, following closely the Ford Ranger midsize truck expected early in 2019. It re-enters one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative vehicle segments in the U.S.

But the Gladiator is much more than a Wrangler with a bed.

The frame has been beefed up and the vehicle's length extended to 212 inches long to accommodate a 60-inch bed. The result is a truck that Jeep says beats the Ford with best-in-class towing and payload — 7,650 and 1,600 pounds, respectively.

"They were key metrics for the why-buys," said Jeep boss Tim Kuniskis, who established the Hellcat as a performance beast in his previous Fiat Chrysler job as Dodge commander. "The people we talked to who are owners in this segment were very clear they wanted a real truck with serious hardware that would do what they wanted to do. They didn’t want some styling statement with a bed on the back."

Indeed, Jeep once sold such a truck: the Scrambler, which was a version of the Wrangler with a bed attached. Kuniskis and his team were adamant that a midsize Jeep truck get the Gladiator name — a throwback to Jeep's serious 1960s truck — in order to separate it from Wrangler.

"It was important that we called it a Gladiator so it competes in its own segment," continued Kuniskis. "Customers are looking for real trucks. They're looking for serious hardware."

That serious hardware includes a 3.0-liter Ecodiesel engine with a stump-pulling 442 pound-feet of torque. Though, says Kuniskis, it's the base 3.6-liter V-6 that puts up the best-in-class tow number.

The big bed has the ability to carry an ATV or two dirt bikes. An available Rubicon option comes with front/rear locking differentials, disconnecting front sway bar, Fox shocks, 33-inch tires, vented hood, and removable doors and roof to get close to the outdoors.

The Gladiator and Ranger will round out a Detroit Three battle in the midsize pickup truck market, which GM has occupied with its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon for the past four years. With the segment up 14 percent this year and roaring toward a 500,000 sales volume, Jeep sees an opportunity to expand its brand.

"The segment is growing because SUVs are so hot – and they are enabling a lifestyle," said Kuniskis. "Jeep is (already) playing in SUV segments with 4 million in volume. (Gladiator) brings another half-million segment on top of that with 14 percent growth."

Toyota's Tacoma is the midsize pickup leader with nearly 52 percent market share through mid-November, compared to GM's nearly 32 percent of the market, according to data provided by GM.

But as with Jeep in the midsize SUV market, the new Gladiator stands to carve out a niche of its own in the midsize truck segment.

"The Gladiator might not be on an island like Wrangler is, but it's going to stand out," said Jeff Schuster, president of global vehicle forecasting for LMC Automotive. "This is going to appeal to the Jeep enthusiast as well as wealthy buyers looking to buy a toy for their garage."

Schuster added that the Gladiator debut might make the Ranger launch a bit bumpy, as the Gladiator appeals more to off-roading with its Wrangler bloodline than Ranger will. 

GM officials weren't fazed by the new competition.

"Frankly, we are mystified that it has taken competitors so long to follow GM’s lead," GM spokesman Jim Cain said Wednesday. "The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon helped our company sell more pickups than any other competitor for four consecutive years through 2017, and we’re ahead of the pack this year, too.  At least Jeep is trying something new. Ford’s Ranger has been running around Asia since 2011, so they’re more than a little late to the party."

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The Gladiator will come in four trims: Sport, Sport S, Overland and Rubicon.

The four-door truck has a slew of Wrangler design cues, including the seven-slot grille and the boxy four-door cab with removable doors. Its interior will share the all-new Wrangler's improved comfort with rear-seat H-Vac and improved door storage. A 7- or 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system is available (a 5-inch touchscreen comes standard on the Sport trim). Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are standard.

The Gladiator will one-up the Wrangler with an exclusive off-road feature that will make the Jeep faithful salivate. To enable high speed driving off-road, the Rubicon can reconfigure its locking differentials with the flip of switch to enable an easy transition from rock-climbing to high-speed dune-running. 

The truck will launch with one engine option, a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 delivering 285 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque. The automaker will offer a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 engine in 2020. The engines will be mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission. An eight-speed automatic is optional.

The Gladiator will be available will be available with two 4x4 systems. The Overland and Rubicon trims will have upgraded systems. The Sport, Overland and Rubicon will all have a Trail Rated badge.

Pricing has not been announced.

The pickup will be built in Toledo at Fiat Chrysler's Toledo North Plant, where the automaker has built Jeeps since 1941.

"By birthright, Jeep has a right to compete in this segment," Kuniskis said. "It's going to compete in that segment. It's going to set the new benchmark."

Ian Thibodeau can be reached at ithibodeau@detroitnews.com or Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. 

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