First Drive Comparison: Is the Gladiator the JL Wrangler Pickup We Need?
The new Gladiator has the perfect Jeep feel, coupled with proper pickup abilities. But how does this launch compare to the JL’s debut?
Although the last Jeep-built pickup prior to the new Gladiator was the Cherokee-based Comanche, Jeep fans have long been calling for a truck based on the modern JL Wrangler. FCA officials are quick to downplay the idea that the Gladiator is simply a Wrangler pickup because a great deal of engineering went into this vehicle to ensure that it was more than just a JL with a bed conversion.
The Jeep engineers wanted the Gladiator to be able to work like a truck while maintaining the look, feel and capabilities of the Wrangler. There is no question that the designers hit a home run in terms of the physical design, but can this new midsize pickup incorporate the key aspects of the legendary sport utility vehicle while adding the function of a truck?
Fortunately, I was invited to the media first drive program for the 2020 Jeep Gladiator in late March, but I also attended the media first drive program for the JL Wrangler in Arizona back in December 2017. Based on those two programs, I can say without question that the new Gladiator is the Wrangler pickup that we have all been hoping for; offering everything that you want from a Wrangler and everything that you want from a midsize pickup in one gorgeous package.
While you don’t need to drive either of these vehicles to appreciate the similarities in design both inside and out, the team did too good of a job with the Gladiator to not mention the look of the new truck. While the pickup has a longer wheelbase, the Wrangler’s front end and basic body shape has been converted perfectly into truck form, leaving no question as to the roots of this vehicle.
Even the tailgate and bedsides have a similar basic design to that of the SUV, so while it might not be called the Wrangler pickup, the Gladiator is exactly that in terms of exterior styling.
That is carried over to the interior, as from the driver’s seat, you would be hard-pressed to know for sure whether you are in the Wrangler or the Gladiator, if not for the logos around the cabin and the truck bed in the rearview mirror. The seats, the steering wheel, the dash, the door panels and the center console of the pickup all have the same feel as the SUV, so if you like the feel of the Wrangler from the driver’s seat, you are going to like the feel of the Gladiator.
Although the first drive event for the JL Wrangler was in Tucson, Arizona and the first drive event for the Gladiator was in Sacramento, California, the on-road portion of the two were fairly similar. In fact, many media first drive programs have similar on-road driving situations that typically including some time on the highway, some time in a city situation and some time on rural roads, and that was exactly how the drive programs for the JL Wrangler and Gladiator went. The key difference for my first experiences with each was that it was sunny in Arizona when I drove the Wrangler, but in California, it was cold, with hard rain and intermittent hail.
My first Gladiator test vehicle was an Overland model in Firecracker Red with the standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and the 8-speed automatic transmission. The presentation was in a fairly rural area, so I immediately got to experience the Gladiator on some open, country roads and I immediately noticed how much it felt like the Wrangler. The longer wheelbase of the pickup gives the Gladiator a bit more of a planted feel, but in terms of steering, suspension, acceleration and braking, the new pickup feels remarkably similar to the JL.
If you have driven a JL or even a JK, you know that the modern Wrangler has a very distinct feel, with a high seating position and a stiffer suspension feel than you will find in most sport utility vehicles. Some people were concerned that the Gladiator would be “softened up” for the midsized truck market, but the only real difference that I noticed between the two when cruising around town is that the longer wheelbase smooths the ride out a touch. This is more noticeable when you are cruising at highway speeds, but this smoother ride does not compromise the “Jeep feel” that so many enthusiasts will expect.
Along the same lines, the Gladiator feels similar to the Wrangler when making your way through a series of turns, so while the longer wheelbase improves the ride quality a bit, it never feels like you are driving a larger truck.