New Car Review: 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon 3.6 And 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 2.0Turbo – The Beat Goes On

2020 Gladiator and 2019 Wrangler

JEEP.  Say the word to virtually anyone in the world, no matter the language they speak, and instantly they generate a mental image; usually of the tough little buggy that eventually got the name Wrangler hopping over a dirt surface with a load of G.I.s or crawling through a mud pit or climbing a rock face.  Or, in my own case, fulfilling my daughter’s fondest wish when I gave her the keys to ours last week after she got her license at 8am on her birthday, first in line at the DMV.  That (last week) was the last time I drove a Jeep as she immediately added a Jeep “Daisy” spare tire cover and a flower lei around the mirror as Dad repellent.  But today I drove a part of Jeep’s future and the biggest thing that’s happened to the brand in years.

Yes, the white truck above is the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator, Jeep’s first foray into the pickup truck market in 27 years.  That’s longer than some of our contributors and quite a few of our readers have been alive.  As car guys (and gals), even if not interested in Jeeps per se, I doubt any of you are unaware of this new development, it’s been shown in various places and is now for sale across the country.  The first public sale was to a resident of Virginia just last week, he selected a Rubicon version like the one above, but in silver.

Anyway, we (yes I really mean “I” but I like saying “we”, it makes us sound like big shots) got to drive it (albeit briefly) yesterday along with a relatively new member of the Wrangler family, in this case a 2019 2-door Rubicon model powered by Jeep’s new 2.0l turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with their e-Torque system; more on that one later down the post.  First, the Gladiator!

The Gladiator is based on the JL-platform Wrangler.  In a nutshell, the frame is lengthened and the bed is longer than the rear portion of the 4door Wrangler was but if you think it’s the same cabin, you’d be mistaken.  The doors are the same but look just behind the doors, there is room added for the seats to sit further back and also to still have some storage room behind them, including locking (and removable) bins for security.

All Gladiators (for now) are powered by FCA’s familiar and well regarded 3.6l V-6 “PentaStar” engine (285hp, 260lb-ft), backed by either an 8-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual.  All Gladiators are 4WD, and all come in the same crew cab with 5-foot bed configuration.  Next year a 3.0l turbo-diesel will become available as well.

Jeep considers the Gladiator to be the most off-road capable mid-size trucks ever made by any manufacturer and the specs seem to bear that out.  4WD only.  Dana 44 axles front and rear.  Largest brakes of any mid-size.  5-link coil rear suspension similar to that of the RAM 1500 along with some direct carryover parts from RAM (Jeep borrowed some of the RAM engineers for their new pickup foray).

The Rubicon has the disconnecting sway bars as well as optional 33″ Falken WildPeak AT tires.  Rock rails not just on the sides but also on the back end to protect the body. It also has 2″ diameter aluminum Fox brand shocks standard.  Will the aftermarket supply more items and will buyers remove some of that standard stuff and add their own? No doubt.  But it’s immensely capable right out of the box.

I spoke with one of the engineers in charge of the project over lunch and asked him about plant capacity.  While he wouldn’t give a concrete answer as to production numbers, note that the Toledo plant built a brand new assembly line for the new JL-platform 2door and 4door Wranglers and then scrapped the old line for the previous generation Wrangler (JK version) and built a new line for just the pickup (internal code JT) in its place.

So by my guess that puts their capacity at close to 250k per year for the pickup alone based on old JK production numbers in its most popular years.  That’s pretty impressive for a mid-size (and more than Toyota can produce of Tacoma and Tundra combined at their San Antonio plant, btw) but obviously no match for the full-sizers, although all of them use more than one production line per model.

The one potential fly in the ointment that I see is that according to what I understood from the engineer the lines are not currently compatible with each other’s products, i.e. if pickup sales are less or more than anticipated, they can’t move overflow production to the other line (or vice versa for that matter).  Still, capacity is capacity and if they get anywhere close to it as they have been, it should be a total money press.

So how is it in person?  It looks and feels long at first.  But it drives good and is a very nice place to be as soon as you open the door.

The example we had was extremely loaded with all the toys and extra features: leather, heated seats and steering wheel (much appreciated on a late spring snowy day), painted hardtop with removable top panels (full soft top convertibles are available as well), all the safety nannies, the large 8.4″ touch screen, navigation, tow package, cargo management system for the pickup bed and on and on and on…Including a nifty front facing camera that has a system showing you where your tires are going depending on how the wheel is turned (useful when cresting, uh, crests with drop-offs, along with a squirter for removing the mud from the lens which beats convincing your passenger to crawl over the hood to clean it with a spit-finger or get out when cresting the muddy crest).

We tried the squirter, it worked, and caused my co-driver to giggle.  So I pressed the button a few more times. Then it was my turn to giggle when we very briefly (and jokingly) discussed if we should try an actual crest – we quickly thought better of it when we looked at the sticker supplied in the Jeep and remembered the admonition of our drive handler to please stay on the road during this event.  The base price for a Rubicon version is $43,545.  As shown, this particular one stickered at a hair over, gulp, $60,000.  Yeah that’s a hefty sum.  Most people will likely pick and choose more selectively with their options but I don’t see many leaving the lot for under $50k, at least not Rubicons.

For that sum, the interior is significantly nicer than my 2015, and I didn’t think that was bad for a Jeep.  This one is really good and not just “for a Jeep”.  It seems durable where it needs to be but well thought out and attractive, both in design as well as material selection, for everyday commute duties (which, let’s be real, is probably where 95% of these will be most of the time, no matter if Rubicon or other version.)  And then it has the truck part on top of the “Jeep” part to boot.

Turning onto our drive loop and mashing the throttle revealed the familiar Pentastar snarl but with smoother shifting from the new 8-speed.  The tail is evident as extra weight “back there” and the larger tires with big tread blocks are soft and a bit squishy but not ill-handling.  It’s no BMW but it isn’t meant to be.  This is a very comfortable truck that can be used everyday.

It’s not “soft” either, while comfortable it also is able to tow 7650 pounds and haul 1600 pounds in the bed (not at the same time).  Both are class-leading numbers.  (The diesel may actually reduce those numbers a bit as the engine weighs more).

It feels (and is) larger than the other mid-sizers out there but it’s by no means huge or unwieldy, it just kind of “fits” a person; while there is enough space inside it doesn’t feel cramped nor does it feel overwhelmingly capacious.  But in my opinion the price makes it compete less as a truck/tool and perhaps more as a truck as lifestyle item (I don’t think I’m diminishing its actual capabilities in any way by saying that though).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Jeep has spent a lot of time (and had some luck) in becoming very popular, they are taking full advantage of the situation as they should, a lot of other brands are no doubt quite jealous.  And for those that love the idea of a Jeep and have some need for a pickup bed some of the time, this may be a very good solution/option.

It’s certainly not bland or vanilla, it is instantly recognizable and has a “swagger” that the other mid-sizers don’t really have.  I can certainly picture the typical customer thinking of towing their boat to the lake over the gravel road with the top down or off and the doors off as they sign on the dotted line, can’t you?

The other Jeep we (ok, I) drove is the current Wrangler Rubicon in 2door form but with the 2.0liter turbo four with FCA’s mild-hybrid “e-torque” assist system (270hp, 295lb-ft, yes, more torque than the V6).  Getting in I felt instantly comfortable, it’s basically the same as the Gladiator in the front (obviously, actually it’s the other way around, right?), and is sized pretty much like our own 2-door JK-platform version.  Just a bit nicer.

Looking out over the hood you see the expanse of green (Mojito! is the color name with the exclamation mark) and reminded me again what a joy it is to get a fun color on a vehicle.  Jeeps should only be sold in fun colors as far as I am concerned and for some reason it’s one of the few brands where the cool colors don’t cost extra AND dealers seem to stock the colors, so why not.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the engine but wow, it’s actually fast off the line.  I was surprised, ours with the V6 is quick and plenty powerful in my opinion but this seemed to actually rear up a bit and you really felt it go.  The 8-speed likely helped but the hybrid assist (which consists of a very small battery and a belt drive) gives it an extra shove off the line (before boost builds up) and during shifts (to smooth them more) from what I understand.  I’m overly simplifying it but in a nutshell it seems to work, the thing scoots.

Part of the loop consisted of getting on a freeway and then continuing for a couple of miles uphill to the off-ramp with a long sweeping transition curve (all at over a mile of elevation) and while my 2015 Wrangler is fine on the freeway it doesn’t exactly love high speeds.  This one had NO problem at well over 75mph with plenty more to give and the level of noise from the premium soft top was not much greater than from my (or the Gladiator’s) hardtop.  Color me very impressed.

I looked it up later and found that while super unleaded is “recommended for best performance”, it apparently isn’t “required”, but at altitude and if giving it the beans is a frequent event then it would probably be best. However, if regular gas is OK for normal-ish driving then the 23/25 mpg ratings are pretty decent, noting that this example has the 4.10 gearing and rather large 285/70-17 tires (rather large for a stock Jeep, that is, the aftermarket supplies vastly larger sizes and gear ratios to match).  Around town it was a joy, easy to see out of, responsive, turned on a dime, quick to go, powerful brakes, not really anything to nitpick in the admittedly brief opportunity we had.

When I first saw this new JL platform Wrangler in the showroom last year, I didn’t really think it was that big of a big step forward; after actually driving this one I’m quickly coming around on that.  I still love the one we have way more than I ever thought I would (or could) but if it came time to replace it I would have to think long and hard about stepping up to a new JL vs another JK.  And as much as I love the 3.6l PentaStar, the new 2.0T with the e-Torque assist really is a peach too.

Pricing?  Well, this Rubicon starts at $38,045 but other more basic ones (Sport, Sport S, Overland) are less.  In this case, the optional engine adds $1000 over the V6, the automatic adds another $2000, and then there were enough other options (leather, premium audio, premium soft-top, navigation, large screen, tow package, LED lighting, and much more) on this one to bring the total to $52,120.  Cheap they are not.  Jeep has a very good online configurator if you want to check out what you would really “want” vs “need”, check it out if you want (or need).

They do have some of the best resale values of any vehicle out there which is reassuring but at the end of the day there is nothing else remotely like it.  The closest you can get to this is, well, a used Wrangler.  If you want one, you want one, and it’s not really something you can cross-shop against much else.  I dig it, and I’ll admit I’m not much of an off-roader.  These Jeeps don’t require much compromise anymore and that’s likely a big part of the success they are having.  Kudos to Jeep for two very interesting new products, you’ll see them all around you soon enough, I’m sure.