SD Pride: 2019 – A 2020 Jeep Gladiator Review
At first blush, you would be forgiven for thinking that the 2020 Jeep Gladiator is a Wrangler Unlimited with pretentions of truck-hood. Appearances, as they say, can be deceiving. The Gladiator is in fact, possibly the most interesting, well-assembled, capable parade-utility I’ve ever come across.
Coming from the Toledo plant, our Firecracker Red Gladiator Sport was a hit from the moment I picked it up. This became quite clear during the wash-n-ready period when not one, but four salespeople contacted me trying to sell the truck out from under me. One of the first things you notice after you’ve fired up the 3.6L Pentastar V6 is just how quiet the cabin is. Heading down the highway at 70mph, the 2018 redesign of the Wrangler platform really begins to make sense. The Gladiator inherited the improved aerodynamics of the new windshield, hood, fenders and more aggressive forward angle of attack from its siblings which results in a surprisingly quiet and dignified ride. Dignity is a really good word here, FCA has mated an 8-speed automatic transmission to their perennial V6 and the two play incredibly well together. From stop-and-go traffic to the open lanes of a parade route, the motor never over-revs and the transmission shifts so smoothly that you forget it is even there. Being born of the Wrangler platform, the Gladiator is of course a 4×4 however, it doesn’t suffer from any of the slow takeoffs that plague many 4×4 drivetrains.
While we’re on the subject of things that Jeep has absolutely improved let’s talk about the interior. I maintain, 100%, that the Gladiator is narrower than the same Wrangler Unlimited. This is not a dig though; the interior feels comfortable and for once I don’t feel as if I have to shout across a chasm to talk to my copilot. The reality is that they are probably exactly the same but somehow the Gladiator feels more like a cockpit than a chair bolted to a driving soccer field. The controls are fairly standard, the layout will be familiar to anyone who has ever driven a Jeep before. The 7” Radio installed in our vehicle seemed to be the perfect size, fitting splendidly above the rest of the control panel arrayed top-to-bottom like all Wrangler platform vehicles have for at least two generations. Climate, audio, and accessory controls are all larger than average and feel robust. My one complaint is with the power window buttons which are, as usual, in the center of the control panel below the radio. The issue is that the panel angles back toward the engine bay as you travel down the stack. It’s possible this is an optical illusion based on the placement of the buttons and the driver seat however, I think a 5-10 degree slant toward the rear of the vehicle would make these buttons a lot easier to use.
On the floor below the control panel stack is the usual automatic gear selector with button-operated shift lock to prevent accidental changes. Paired on the driver side is the Range select for the 8-speed automatic transmission offering 2H, 4H, neutral, and 4L options. Unfortunately, we only had time to test the Gladiator in 2H and 4H ranges, it did not disappoint. This is a platform that Jeep has worked on for many years and the collective engineering expertise that they have accumulated shines brightest in the drivetrain and suspension. More on that later. Rounding out the interior of our Sport model were bucket seats finished in dark cloth. Since parades are difficult to organize and execute, I spent nearly 6 hours in the low back seat moving, parking, driving, parking, waiting, staging, and finally parading in the truck. The seat was comfortable, perhaps surprisingly so. I think the models which come with Leather trimmed seats have a slightly larger side-bolster which I will admit would have made me feel more secure driving without the doors on, but also might have made the seat too embracing and lead to discomfort and sweating. With that said, both options are comfortable and look good, but I think the hard driving, long distance driver might actually prefer the cloth here.
By now you might be asking yourself, ‘Why does he keep talking about parades?’ Well an incredibly scientific and utterly exhausting 3-minute search indicates that this 2020 Jeep Gladiator is the first to ever make an appearance in a Pride Parade! That’s right folks, hold your applause, you are reading about a genuine one-of-a-kind celebrity. This entire review is actually a result of what should have been a hum-drum marketing drive but turned into an incredibly fun and rigorous test of the new Jeep truck! Don’t believe me? Well, read on!
We were blessed with perfect San Diego weather in the days leading up to the 44thPride event. I mention this because what do you do when the sun is out? That’s right! You drop the top! The T-Top panels which cover the Driver and Passenger seat come off with ease. Unlike the previous generation t-top panels, the panels equipped to the Gladiator are very light weight and can be easily removed by anyone tall enough to drive the truck. Another significant improvement over previous Wrangler platform hard tops is evident when you go to remove the back 2/3rds of the top. There are only a handful of bolts and a single cable harness to remove before you and a friend can move the startlingly light-weight top up and off of the truck. A feature I didn’t know existed, but which illustrates the expertise of Jeeps design engineers is the screw and bolt compartment located under the rear seat. Concealed inside the small black box mounted to the back wall of the cabin is a container to store all of the bolts/screws that you remove when taking the top off; and they are all labeled so you don’t get them confused. With the top off something just felt right about taking the doors off! Door removal is just as simple as it could possibly be, two star drive bolts on the outside, and single star drive on the inside allows the door to lift free. The doors are also lighter than they have been on previous Wrangler platform vehicles meaning that one person can perform the removal operation without much difficulty.
At this point, the little idiosyncrasies of the platform start to show through and while the engineering division at FCA has clearly though everything through, it is a little odd to learn on the fly. The first thing we noticed is that the bed lights are always on once you remove the doors, a fact explained once you figure out that those lights are tied to the interior dome lights in the cabin. Quickly rotating that knob to ‘off’ shut off the bed lights. I walked away from the Gladiator and hit the lock button on the key fob, more out of reflex than anything else and made it another two steps before realizing that I hadn’t heard the customary bark of the horn. The engineers were a step ahead of me yet again! Removing the doors disables the locking system; that makes sense, but again it is not mentioned in the manual and threw me for a bit of a loop at first.
Saturday morning came and we were back at the dealership loading our gear for the days event and familiarizing ourselves with more of the features of our Gladiator-float. Satisfied that it was still just a big Wrangler Unlimited we set off using surface streets. At this point I would be remiss not to mention that California Law requires that motor vehicles have at least two rear-facing mirrors in order to operate on public roads. With the doors removed, we had only the center rear-view mirror, a fascinating tidbit which lead to some fun later on and something that I do not recommend, endorse, or suggest any of you attempt on your own! On our route we had the Gladiator at several speeds between 25 and 55 mph. What struck my copilot and I was that we were having a perfectly pleasant conversation at completely normal volume at 50 mph. Again, the 2018 JL Wrangler Platform redesign scores big points in the aerodynamics and road noise departments. The lack of doors was a little freaky at first but eventually your brain learns to ignore that part of your peripheral vision and you carry on as usual, that is, until you go to change lanes for the first time. With no door, and more importantly, and no side-view mirror the driver has to actually turn and look for objects and vehicles on the sides of the truck. After looking for the mirror 8 or 9 times, the 10thtime habituated me to turning and craning my neck out the side to check for obstacles. The drive from the dealership to the parade staging area was uneventful and not nearly as cold as you might have imagined. This is in no small part to the weird layout of air vents in the Gladiator. Having always wondered why Wrangler platform vehicles have their vents in the locations they do, I can now explain to the rest of the world from experience that the layout is not an accident, or sign of laziness but actually a quiet brilliance. The outermost vents happened to be the strongest, forcing 80 degree air along the channel where the doors should have been. Owing to some unique fluid-like properties of air, this created a warm barrier separating me from the outside of the vehicle. The center vents created a similar stream down the center of the vehicle while the foot well vents were angled in toward the center instead of toward the outside. In this way we maintained 72 degrees while driving in the utterly frigid 65 degree morning air.
We hit the staging area and met up with the other members of the San Diego 4×4 Pride club and began the long wait for showtime. While we sat watching our cohort gussy-up their Jeep Commander, JK Wrangler Unlimited, JL Wrangler Unlimited, and fully custom Toyota Tacoma racing truck I perused the owner’s manual. Nearly an hour in I got bored and started eyeing the Gladiator windshield with mild suspicion. I say suspicion because the Gladiator shares the windshield hinges with its siblings which suggests that it too should be able to shed, or at lease lower her front glass. Instructions for this process are nowhere to be found in the owner’s manual, a fact which I think is a definite oversight. One of our cohort, the JK, indicated that the lowering process was a pain and that she had only done it once; the resident salesman and proud father of the lifted, one of a kind ‘TrailHawk’ Commander pointed me to the factory-equipped tool kit. Inside of that flip-phone sized pouch I found the only four tools the owner of a Gladiator should ever need, 1 x 60 Hex, 1 x 50 Hex, a ratchet, and a 20mm socket. Hidden behind those were the instructions for removing the top, the doors, and the windshield! As I set out to remove the windshield wipers the lady in the JK eyed me with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. Five minutes later, the windshield was folded over onto the hood, four Hex bolts were securely stowed in the compartment under the seat and every JK owner in a quarter-mile radius was looking on in awe. Not fully understanding the reaction lead me to yet another improvement over the old JK platform that our Gladiator inherited. On a JK Wrangler you have to remove 28 (twenty-eight, yes two-eight) bolts to lower the windshield! Our Gladiator required two bolts, one for each wiper assembly, and four internal for the actual glass frame.
Having finally finished exploding our Gladiator, running out the clock for step-on time, and fielding no less than 20 inquiries from the trucks fanbase, we were ready to roll. As the AstroGlide float slid on by in front of us we fired up the steadfast V6, activated cameras and started recording. Now at this point I could end this review and feel like I had accomplished a pretty decent experience with the truck. I’d basically taken it apart driven it at high speeds, low speeds, and found dozens of refinements that I wouldn’t have thought to look for in the king of off-road travels’ younger truck brother. Being a man of integrity and thoroughness, I won’t leave you hanging dear reader, there are plenty of features that have yet to be tested!
At precisely 12:46 we rolled onto the Parade Route. My copilot and I were feeling a little anxious, surely some last minute stomach flu would strike and save us from the spectacle we were about to become. Alas no such divine affliction befell us and the three rowdy ladies in the back seat were determined to attract as much attention as possible. We turned on the headlights and rolled onto University Ave playing tail-end-charlie to the 4×4 Pride contingent. At this point I could tell you that the Gladiator handles phenomenally at low speed, that the ride was comfortable, and that the Firecracker red exterior excited revelers young and old but that is what someone far less professional than I would do. Instead I will relay to you the quality of the suspension. Parades tend to yo-yo as they go down the road with some groups stopping to perform and then starting up again and this one was no different. At our first stop, I came to a sudden but oddly controlled stop behind one of our contingent when I felt what I thought was the latest tremor to strike Southern California. Said tremor was in fact a pair of young hobos who had taken the opportunity to hop our train and begin dancing in the bed of the truck. It took a quarter mile before I even knew they were there! Five full grown adults, three of us more sideways grown that we’d like, and two waifs in the bed of the truck didn’t even dampen the suspension at all! The truck rolled on smoothly as we serpentine back and forth across the full four-lane width of the avenue and it did so remarkably flat. The body roll I tried to induce was swallowed by the brilliant independent suspension of the Gladiator. At this point our two stow-aways departed and were immediately replaced by four more! The replacements clearly had more enthusiasm for public displays of…. Let’s say dancing… and really started to put the rear end to the test. Three topless young ladies and a gentleman rode the rest of the way in the bed dancing to the delight and delectation of the crowd. Surely this was going to be it, the Gladiator couldn’t possibly shrug off 9 adult humans. WRONG! It did! The ride stayed smooth, the cornering level, and the rapid darting back and forth across the road didn’t even seem to translate to the passengers. Convinced that I was imagining things, we got a little more adventurous and began crossing the concrete center divider with increasing speed and varying angles of attack. Still, the ride was solid, controlled, roll-free, and the dance troupe in the back didn’t even feel us mount the 7” curbs! This is a truck meant for some serious off-road time, but the designers didn’t skimp on the cotillion lessons because the Gladiator has road manners that rival many luxury sedans.
As the paraded moved on, our dancers and their bright red Jeep Parade Float were quickly becoming the talk of the town. This is about the time that I suddenly missed the doors. As I quickly darted back and forth across the narrowing avenue, several locals broke quarantine and joined the parade route with electric bikes and scooters. This irritated the police and organizers quite visibly. I was less irritated until our third close call when the biker quickly darted past me leaving mere millimeters between himself and the Gladiator and even less distance between himself and the metal barricade protecting the onlookers. This is my only real complaint about the Gladiator in its stripped-down form, the lack of side-view mirrors. With the doors removed, it would be nice if the mirrors could be mounted in their place. I think that is going to be my 3d printed million-dollar accessory because it would make a big difference and since the Gladiator is now a proven Parade Platform, it seems an absolute-must-have.
So there you have it. The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport 4×4. The worlds greatest Pride Parade float, surprisingly good all-around runabout, and my vote for best mobile lounge chair.
A special thanks to San Diego 4×4 Pride for having us as a part of their contingent, to Mark at San Diego Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram for loaning us the Gladiator, and to San Diego for continuing to show why it is America’s Finest City!