Payne: Can the rugged Jeep Gladiator pickup adapt to domestic life?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I first drove the 2020 Jeep Gladiator pickup on a bruising off-road course in rural California: Mud-caked trails. Rocky landscapes. You know, Jeep stuff. Marketers love to show this capability off to journalists. How about that, eh? Unbelievable, yes? Yes, yes. But rugged as the ladder-frame Gladiator (and brother Wrangler) may be, how many owners will ever take it to those extremes?

So I was eager to get a Gladiator in my driveway this spring to test it as a common commuter sled where I would have to live with the Jeep’s more, ahem, truck-like attributes.

Silly me. I forgot that driving Michigan roads is an off-road test in itself.

Michigan has some of the worst byways I’ve ever driven (and this is coming from a West Virginia boy, no stranger to bad roads). Especially during the spring thaw when potholes the size of the Mariana Trench open up. Close your eyes crossing from Ohio to Michigan and you’ll feel it. KUH-THUNK, KUH-THUNK, KUH-THUNK. Welcome to Pure Michigan.

The rugged Jeep came as a relief. I’ve been testing the autonomous-driving capabilities of a few luxury cars this spring — Mercedes, BMW, Tesla — and it’s murder on the concentration. The vehicles are competent enough at seeing lanes and traffic, but they can’t see imperfections in the road, so I’m always poised to intervene for fear of — KUH-THUNK — losing a tire.

The Jeep, by contrast, has no self-driving pretensions, and its rugged tires and frame shrugged off potholes like Avengers bouncing off Thanos. Take I-75 north of Madison Heights, for example. Ruts have opened up between the concrete lanes like moats around medieval castles. Negotiating these in a sports sedan is nerve-wracking. The Gladiator thumps over them with ease.

“Kid stuff. Payne, take me to a real off-road park like the Mounds!”

The Jeep was begging me. But I resisted. I was determined to write about the Gladiator as a daily commuter.

It gave me peace of mind every day I left the house. No worries about rough roads shaking the car to dust. In fact, my Gladiator Overland tester almost floated over the road on its big Bridgestones. This truck is no sport truck like the stiff Chevy Silverado Trail Boss.

Road handling is not its forte. But personality it has in waves. I covet the spare aesthetic brilliance of a Porsche or a Mazda, but after a week with the Gladiator I get its brand magnetism: Iconic face. Raw, outdoorsy design with exposed hinges and lock-down hood. Tattooed graphics everywhere, including a Jeep crawling up the windshield and "♥419" carved in the bed to honor its Toledo-built area code. Signature interior touches like straps that adjust the seat backs and door nets that hold cargo.

I find mid-size truck interiors to be cold and uninspiring, but the Gladiator has an appealing wardrobe with luxury-like flair. You know when you are in a Mercedes — and when you’re in a Jeep. It is this personality that makes the Jeep coveted across mainstream and luxury buyers.

I took Mrs. Payne out for an evening on the town and she chose the Jeep pickup in the driveway over the BMW 3-series. She wanted the Jeep’s status: outdoorsy, unique, authentic. She had coveted the Jeep Wrangler at a young age.

Is there any other truck with that kind of cross-gender appeal?

Jeep knows it’s got game, and you pay for it. The Jeep is priced to be exclusive, eschewing the low-end, rear-wheel drive market occupied by Chevy and Ford to start at $35,000 with 4-wheel-drive only. My tester was pricey — Gladiators are generally $2,000-$3,000 more than comparable competitors — yet lacks handy tech like the Ford Ranger’s self-parking feature. At $53,000, my Overland still had cloth seats!

My wife pulled herself into the cab with the A-pillar handle and remarked about the cloth and the noisy cab (all the panels, including doors, are designed to come off). But the Jeep turned heads, dressed in silver with gray 18-inch wheels, when we pulled into an upscale parking lot full of BMWs and Lexuses.

Payne, I’m getting impatient here. When can I get dirty?!

The Jeep’s voice continued to nag at me. All that off-road capability — skid plates, plastic bumpers, signature second shift-knob for 4-wheel-low — and I was just going to drive it back and forth to work? Even my pickup bed forays to haul mulch and winter debris from the yard seemed soooo mundane.

I finally gave in. Like driving a Porsche for a week and never going to the track, it just wasn’t right to deny the Gladiator a trip to its natural habitat. We set course for the Mound ORV Park near Flint over the Memorial Day weekend.

Just an hour north of Metro Detroit in Mount Morris, the Mounds is a haven for off-roaders. Its swampy, hilly, mogul-infested terrain is choked with dirt bikers, ATVs and mega-tire trucks. And Jeeps.

Jeep Wranglers are everywhere. The new Gladiator was an instant rock star.

I floored the 285-horse V-6 across moguls and splashed through narrow bike trails, the Gladiator’s compact proportions allowing it to go where a full-size truck could never roam. That floaty, on-road handling is perfect for terrain like this as the chassis requires flexibility over undulating terrain.

A helmeted dirt biker sidled up to me. “Dude, that Gladiator is beautiful. How’s it feel out here?” Like a Wrangler with a bed, I replied, and he gave me the "hook 'em horns" sign.

I slopped through a series of muddy ruts, caking the Gladiator in mud. A female ATV-writer sidled up to my door. “How’s it doin’? My daughter wants one sooooo bad!”

Locked in four-wheel low, I fishtailed across a muddy trail. A herd of dirt bikers rode by — all pumping their arms and giving me "hook 'em horns" signs.

Does the Jeep Gladiator pass muster as a metro commuter vehicle? Yup. Its mid-size dimensions, easy Uconnect infotainment and signature interior make it an all-season ride. But don’t forget to heed the call of the off-road every once in a while.

2020 Jeep Gladiator

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

Price: Base price $35,040 including $1,495 destination charge ($53,045 Overland 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 Overland as tested)

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

Report card

Highs: Jeep cred; off-road warrior

Lows: Pricey; numb handling on-road

Overall: 4 stars

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.