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The 2020 Gladiator is based on Jeep’s iconic Wrangler, but engineers said the intent was to be certain “it’s 100% truck” and not a Wrangler with a cargo bed; shown is the limited-run Launch Edition. (FCA)

Jeep revives its pickup mojo with 2020 Gladiator

Get ready for the fractionalization of the U.S.’s raucous pickup-truck market.

Launching what’s surely one of the year’s most-anticipated and potentially significant new models, Jeep engineers and planners insist they went out of their way to ensure the 2020 Gladiator was developed as a genuine pickup and not “a Wrangler with a bed.” But everyone knows Jeep would’ve been crazy to stray too far from the radiant demand for the new JL-generation Wrangler, so excuse us if the Gladiator does, well, at least look like just that: a 4-door Wrangler Unlimited—with a bed.

But Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep Brand, is quick to point out the 19.4 in. (493 mm) of new wheelbase the Gladiator brings to the party, as well as the accompanying 31 in. (787 mm) of added length, compared to the 4-door Wrangler Unlimited, of the high-strength steel frame. Overall, the new Gladiator—almost inexplicably, Jeep’s first pickup since 1992—is 218 in. (5539 mm) long, about 29.6 in. (752 mm) longer than the 4-door Wrangler.

After 27 years, why is Jeep finally getting back into the pickup market? There’s one incontrovertible force at play: “When Wrangler buyers leave the Jeep brand, they’re buying a truck,” Tallon flatly confirmed.

About that bed
There’s a slight reticence when Jeep’s peeps (see what we did there?) talk about the Gladiator’s all-steel bed, which is 60.3 in. (1531 mm) long. It’s not substantively shorter than those of competitive midsize pickups with crew cabs, but competitors such as the segment’s best-selling Tacoma or the Chevrolet Colorado have long-bed options. And largely because Jeep wanted to keep the bedsides low to ease reaching into the cargo area, the Gladiator’s bed is visibly less-capacitive in terms of volume, although there are some clever design details to allow carrying 4X8 sheets and other large-ish bits of cargo.

Given the Wrangler foundation for the Gladiator and Jeep’s ongoing teasing of two-door pickup concepts, it seems obvious one of the first variants of the Gladiator “theme” could easily be a longer-bed model with single-row seating, either bench or buckets.

“The challenge for us was to make it a viable truck,” confirmed chief engineer Pete Milosavlevski, of the tradeoff between truck-like cargo-carrying ability and the desire to maintain vehicle dimensions that enabled retaining the desired offroad ability. Reinforcing a longstanding industry axiom that pickup owners aren’t prone to using the cargo bed, he said a 5-foot box was shown to meet the needs of 85% of customers. And although the Gladiator engineering team looked at many options for the bed material, “We decided to go with tried-and-true steel,” he added, noting it is of high-strength formulation.

Milosavlevski also reminded that the new Gladiator has the segment’s best crew-cab, four-wheel-drive payload capacity, at 1600 lb (726 kg), although that figure is for the “stripper” Sport S trim with a manual transmission. And significantly, Jeep said, the bed’s centerline is behind the rear axle to maximize stability and ride quality with weight in the bed. Although it has nothing to do with the cargo bed, the Gladiator also claims best-in-class trailering capacity at 7650 lb (3470 kg); once past the Sport S trim, though, Ford’s across-the-board tow rating of 7500 lb (3402 kg) soundly beats the rest of the Gladiator lineup.

Although the bed is steel, the tailgate is aluminium and pleasingly damped so it drops with a soft landing. Also formed from aluminium are the Gladiator’s hood and front fenders, doors and windshield frame (like the Wrangler, the windshield can be folded down and secured to the hood). Most of the cab structure—essentially carried over from the Wrangler—is steel. And steel bumpers are available on the Rubicon trim for the rock-banging crowd.

Framing it
The Gladiator’s high-strength steel frame is all-new and distinct from the Wrangler, Milosavlevski said, designed to deal with the additional gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) compared with the Wrangler. Tailor-formed blanks in the front and rear of the frame optimize stiffness and geometry and there are four steel crossmembers added to the bed area for the requisite reinforcement.

Built in the “south” portion of FCA’s Toledo assembly plant that makes the Wrangler in the north end, the Gladiator’s frame is supplied by Metalsa, Milosavlevski said; the Wrangler’s made is built by Tower International. The frame also is different, he said, to accommodate the decidedly different rear suspension of the Wrangler, a 5-link setup to locate the solid rear axle—an arrangement effectively borrowed from the Ram 1500 pickup, even using the same upper and lower control arms.

The design is borrowed from the Ram, but the rear-suspension frame pickup points and other design elements are unique to the Gladiator, however. “The 5-link geometry is different from the Ram,” Milosavlevski said. “We’ve got a solid front axle [for the Gladiator], so the rear suspension behaves differently.

All Trail-Rated
The 2020 Gladiator launches with the 3.6.-L V6 FCA employs throughout its brand lineup, for Jeep’s new truck developing 285 hp and 260 lb-ft (353 Nm). Transmission choice is a standard 6-speed manual or a ZF-made 8-speed automatic. Coming for the 2020 model year is FCA’s 3.0-L V6 turbodiesel that Jeep said will be rated at 260 hp and 422 lb-ft (572 Nm), which should satisfy the hardcore towing clientele.

Also said to be coming is a plug-in hybrid-electric (PHEV) variant, but Jeep operatives will not confirm any plan to incorporate the 2.0-L turbocharged 4-cyl. currently used for the Wrangler, although almost every midsize pickup currently has a 4-cyl. gasoline engine available.

And what would a Jeep be without serious four-wheel-drive hardware? The Gladiator gets heavy-duty versions of the latest Dana 44 axles and there are two 4X4 systems: the bulk of the trims get the Command-Trac 2-speed transfer case. The Rubicon trim comes standard with the Rock-Trac 4x4 setup with unique gearing and standard electronic locking differentials. Standard ground clearance is 10 in. (253 mm) and the Rubicon will clear 11.1 in. (2283 mm). All Gladiators earn the coveted Trail Rated badge.

Inside, the Gladiator is mostly standard-issue Wrangler, but there’s a unique “offroad +” button that tailors the accelerator response and stability control for certain conditions in both low- and high-range 4X4 conditions.

In all, baked into the Gladiator is the right ratio of retro that Jeep’s so effectively cultivated for the Wrangler—particularly the rear view, where the Gladiator’s pinched hips and a bed, narrower-looking than that of any of today’s pickup behemoths, imparts a distinct twentieth-century vibe.

Deliveries begin in in the second quarter of 2019. Jeep executives weren’t to be pinned down about sales volumes, but one indication might be in the response to the Gladiator Launch Edition, a special run of 4190 Rubicon-trim models; the production number is a reference to the 419 area code of the Gladiator’s Toledo assembly plant.

The pre-orders for the Launch Edition, priced at $62,310 sold out the first day of availability.

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