Payne: Jeep Gladiator jacked to the Maximus

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The fully armored Jeep Gladiator pickup truck has stepped into the Colosseum, and it’s ready to rumble.

If you Google “Gladiator,” the Jeep pickup and the Russell Crowe movie from 2000  dominate the results. That’s appropriate.

Both were wildly anticipated blockbusters from charismatic directors (Ridley Scott and Sergio Marchionne). Both feature buff, rugged stars (Crowe, Rubicon Jeep trim). And both lead characters are real softies inside.

Before we ogle the Gladiator’s impressive biceps, pecs and glutes, behold the interior of this off-road general. Jeep’s pickup is based on another legendary warrior, the Jeep Wrangler. Tough enough to plow through walls, the World War II forged Wrangler has always had swagger, but owners had to suffer its spartan interior. This was a vehicle that was born to carry a rear-seat machine gun after all.

With locking front and rear differentials and detachable swaybars, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon can go just about anywhere.

That all changed last year with the fourth-gen Wrangler.

Credit interior designer Chris Benjamin. He arrived at Jeep after years building European luxury suites for BMW, Mercedes and Volvo. His team understands that Jeep is the rare brand that hangs out at the intersection of Rodeo Drive and Main Street with appeal to luxury and mainstream buyers alike.

Jumping into the 21st century with all four tires, the Wrangler gained interior quiet, rear-seat heating and air-conditioning controls, and state-of-the-art electronics while maintaining signature touches like dashboard “oh-crap-we’re-going-over-a-20-degree-rocky-incline!” handle and door nets.

The Gladiator inherits all that and more. This is the Wrangler with a truck bed that enthusiasts have been pining for.

It touts the best interior in a segment where interiors have been an afterthought.

“It’s a truck, it gets dirty,” has been the stock line for midsize pickup interiors. Sure, class leaders like Toyota, Chevy and Ford have introduced modern trucks with high-fidelity infotainment systems and digital dials, but they’ve been surrounded by acres of uninspired plastic (the exception to the rule is Honda’s unibody-based Ridgeline).

The Jeep makes budget with plastic materials, too, but they blend in with careful details like aviator vents, metal-plated bezels and meaty dials. This is an interior you’ll enjoy riding in every day.

Behind the captain’s quarters the ship gets really interesting. Gladiator remakes the Wrangler aft of the B-pillar. The wheelbase gets stretched to a nearly Ram 1500-like 137 inches to accommodate the biggest back seat in segment. The 60-inch steel bed sports easy access and a two-step tailgate drop. The rear axles are pushed back to allow a 25-inch departure angle so I didn’t drag the tailgate down off-road inclines. Which is where Jeeps are happiest.

My 6-foot-5 basketball player’s frame had more room in the back seat than in Delta first class. That seat is a skybox for the Gladiator’s off-road games like my foray into the wilds east of Sacramento. Normal-size humans will appreciate the assist from door-mounted grab handles, since the Gladiator rises nearly a foot off the ground.

Despite its size, the pickup loses none of the Wrangler’s capability or open-air attributes — which women dig as much as guys.

A female friend recently bought a Grand Cherokee SUV and was instantly the star of the playground set.

“My mom got a Jeep!” her kids sang as they piled out of the four-door ute at school. If Mom buys a Gladiator, she’ll be over-run by playground paparazzi. And she won’t lose any utility, as the pickup’s back seat is as big as the Grand Cherokee.

“Want it,” was all an outdoorsy pal responded when I posted Instagram pictures of the Gladiator devouring a mud-choked California off-road trail in the pouring rain.

Jeep has more brand equity than anything this side of Nike, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles milks it for all it’s worth. Loaded with mud-caked swagger, the Gladiator is pricey compared to comparable midsize competitors.

The base Gladiator Sport begins at a lofty $35,040.

Armed with a big seven-slot grille (for heavier breathing during towing and payload duties), the pickup comes with signature plastic fenders, removable roof and doors, double cab, 32-inch tires and a 4x4 system that can climb Mount Rushmore (which should make the family vacation interesting).

The bed of the 2020 Jeep Gladiator pickup comes with a clever, roll-up Tonneau cover to keep things dry back there.

Throw in useful tech packages for blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control and infotainment, and you’ll have a $43,000 Sport pickup that can go anywhere, any season. And it has a best-in-class 1,600-pound bed capacity and and can tow 6,000 pounds (equipped with trailer package, the Sport can tow up to 7,650 pounds).

That’s a couple-grand more expensive than competitive Ford Rangers, Chevy Colorados and Toyota Tacomas. Jeep figures you’ll pay the premium for capability – and because you yearn for the kids’ playground approval.

Roaring into the Colosseum priced just shy of the Gladiator Sport is a Ranger with FX4 off-road package. Unsheathe your swords, warriors!

The $41,000 Ford has similar tow and payload numbers while swinging state-of-the-art technology like auto-crawl mode and self-park (useful when you have a long bed out back). Lower than Gladiator, it’s more athletic on road — and its FX4 bash plates make it a credible off-roader, too.

King of the outback, the Gladiator makes a surprisingly good showing on asphalt thanks to its brother, the Ram 1500. The best-handling light-duty pickup, the Ram shares its coil-over, multi-link suspension tricks with the Gladiator. How’s that for sibling hand-me-downs?

Climb the price ladder and Jeep has no peer.

I tested a loaded $50,000 Overland tester ($40,000 base) with blacked-out wheels, body-colored aluminum fenders and roof, and two-tone interior that belongs on stage if it didn’t work so well in mud. It’s a knockout. Unlike the Ranger and its nifty rotary-shifter, Jeep insists on its signature stick mode-selector that sometimes requires the muscle of a — well, Gladiator — to yank into four-wheel-low.

Turn off the traction control, and the little truck slices through gravelly mud ruts like a Roman sword through butter.

Then there’s the peerless Rubicon starting at $43,545. With its extreme 43-degree departure angle and detachable sway-bars and ability to wade through 30 inches of water, the Gladiator Rubicon can go anywhere a Wrangler can. But if you want to throw a couple dirt bikes in the back for off-roading, only the pickup will get you there. The Gladiator Rubicon starts at two-grand north of the Wrangler.

With a spare tire under the bed, throaty 285-horse V-6 and 200 available Mopar mod options, Gladiator should do very well at the box office. One more thing it has in common with its Hollywood namesake.

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.

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator pickup in Overland trim. The pickup borrows the Wrangler's chassis - but is all-new from the b-pillar rear-ward.

2020 Jeep Gladiator

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: Base price $35,040 including $1,495 destination charge ($43,685 Sport S model, $53,380 Overland, and $57,615 Rubicon as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 6-speed manual 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 7,650 pounds; payload, 1,600 pounds

Weight: 4,450 pounds (5,072 Rubicon as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/22 highway/19 combined (automatic); 16 city/23 highway/19 combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Hits all the rugged Jeep benchmarks; friendly interior

Lows:No rear-wheel-drive option; $1,495 destination adds to already pricey truck

Overall: 4 stars