Payne: Jeep Gladiator pickup lives up to its hype

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

One of the year’s most anticipated vehicles, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, opened to media reviews this week, and the midsize pickup lives up to its hype.

The Detroit News spent a day at the helm of the mighty pickup and will have a full review in Thursday’s Drive section. But with the embargo for drive impressions and pricing lifted this weekend, we couldn’t help but spill some of our initial thoughts on the vehicle, which arrives on dealer lots in May or June.

In our 100-mile-plus adventure from the chilly streets of Sacramento to the rocky, rain-soaked foothills of California’s Sierra Nevadas this week, the Gladiator made a strong case for the best all-around vehicle in its segment. Combining Jeep’s unique off-road capabilities with a longer wheelbase than brother Wrangler, the Gladiator proved nimble when rock-crawling, and comfortable when asphalt-cruising.

Those with $60,815 to invest in a fully-tricked-out Rubicon Launch Edition are rare, to be sure, but the base, $35,000 Gladiator comes loaded for bear with standard four-wheel drive, 285-horsepower V-6, and 6,000-pound-plus towing capability at a price a bit north of segment competitors like the Toyota Tacoma and Chevy Colorado.

More on that pricing. Jeep’s unique off-road tools and stylish interior – not to mention that World War II-forged seven-slot grille that has made it one of the most coveted brands this side of Apple – means buyers will pay a couple-thousand-dollar premium over competitors.

King of the Hill. The 2020 Jeep Gladiator is the most capable off-road pickup. Starting at about $35k, it has best-in-class 4x4 towing and payload.

The Gladiator is based on the Wrangler’s body-on-frame platform and carries its familiar 285-horsepower V-6  (a diesel option will arrive in 2020). The pickup benefits from its iconic SUV sibling’s major update for the 2018 model year – an update that brought the Wrangler into the 21st century with modern technology, a quiet interior and properly cooled rear seats.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon can be stripped of its doors and roof for open air driving.

Cruising the byways of Sacramento in a hard-top Gladiator, it was easy to forget we were driving a pickup. A modern cabin and rear multi-link suspension inspired by the smooth-riding Ram 1500 pickup made for easy conversation and comfort. The same could be said for rear passengers.

Gladiator offers the best rear legroom in class (this 6-foot-5 reviewer lounged comfortably). That's part of a thorough remake aft of the B-pillar that converts the Wrangler platform into a long-wheelbase, midsize pickup with a 60-inch steel box and 1,600-pound payload capability. Like class competitors, the Gladiator gets sub-rear seat storage capability – then adds locking storage for when owners strip the doors and roof for off-roading.

That open-air vibe has been a signature Wrangler attribute, and the Gladiator exports it to pickups. It’s a reminder of the huge off-road bandwidth this pickup possesses, especially when dressed in Rubicon trim with full swaybar-disconnecting suspension and bash-plated armor.

Gladiator Rubicon owners will generally use their new tool for daily commutes – or leverage its best-in-class towing and payload capacity to haul mulch or motorbikes to weekend escapes.

But to explore the Rubicon’s sizable envelope, it needs to be taken to the far corners of the United States – Nevada’s Rubicon Trail in Nevada, the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and the twisted trails of Moab, Utah.

Before the first $35,040 entry-level Sport model is sold, Jeep is offering the exclusive Launch Edition model to order for 24 hours on Tuesday.

A special 2020 Jeep Gladiator Launch Edition gets a speical stamped tailgate signifying that the truck is one of 4190. The number honors the Toledo area code (419) where the Gladiator is built.

Buyers can then enter a contest to win a full year’s salary of $100,000. Entrants will be culled from the 4,190 buyers of the Launch Edition, which is a fully loaded Rubicon trim.

Why 4,190? To honor the (419) Toledo area-code where the rugged rig is manufactured. The special truck will only be available to order on the fourth day of this year’s fourth month (April 4) – a play on Jeep’s 4x4 capabilities.

Entrants for the $100,000 prize will be judged on their submission of a video featuring their Gladiator.

The Gladiator Launch Edition comes with an exclusive stamped tailgate, 17-inch wheels and red-stitched black-leather seats. Buyers get a choice of five colors, including Firecracker Red. Standard features include an 8.4-inch touchscreen, a nine-speaker Alpine sound system and a blizzard of safety systems.

Buyers can go online to build their Launch edition at 12:01 a.m., Jeep 4x4 day at: www.jeep.com/gladiator/launch-edition.html. Then join us at the Drive section Thursday for more impressions.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.