AP NEWS

JEEPERS CREEPERS

April 6, 2019

If you’ve ever wished for an affordable family-friendly 4x4 you could take rock crawling on Saturday, load up with home and garden supplies on Sunday and commute in Monday through Friday, your ship may have come in.

Meet the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, a sort of Ramified Wrangler that opens up a world of possibilities thanks to its five-foot steel cargo box - and $33,545 starting price.

Feedback from colleagues who put the new midsize pickup through its paces near Sacramento, California, was decidedly positive.

“It looks great outside,” said motorsports photographer Antonio Alvendia. “They did a really fantastic job on styling.” Impressed by Jeep’s use of composites, high-strength steel and aluminum to keep weight down, Alvendia added, “Ninety-five percent of motorcycles will fit in that bed. I want to go off-roading and bring some dirt bikes. It’s an adventure vehicle.”

“It’s in a class of one,” said auto writer and off-road veteran Sue Mead, praising the manners of the Gladiator’s V6 and eight-speed automatic.

Jeep’s new pickup comes in four versions: Sport, Sport S, Overland and Rubicon.

All flavors have at least push-button start, an eight-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, class 2 bumper hitch, 4/7-pin trailer wiring, cargo bed lighting, halogen headlights and fog lamps, air conditioning and skid plates to protect the transfer case and 22-gallon fuel tank. Also standard are Dana 44 axles, removable top and doors (in the Wrangler tradition), a damped three-position tailgate and lockable rear storage.

As mentioned, the base Gladiator Sport starts at $33,545 (MSRPs do not include $1,495 destination) and is equipped with black 17-inch steel wheels with 245/75R17 Bridgestone Dueler HT 685 all-season tires, a 3.73 rear axle, manual windows and door locks as well as manual, single-zone air conditioning. The federally mandated rear camera features dynamic gridlines. The infotainment setup is strictly basic: an older corporate Uconnect 3 with 5-inch touchscreen display. There is an audio jack input for mobile devices and slots for SD memory cards.

The Sport S ($36,745) moves you upstream with silver aluminum wheels, power windows, power heated mirrors and power locking doors and tailgate, remote keyless entry. Although you won’t find Apple CarPlay or Android Auto with the standard 5-inch display Uconnect 3, an upgrade to the Uconnect 4 with 7-inch screen with the Apple and Android interface is available for $1,590. (The $995 audio upgrade is tied to a convenience package that includes universal garage door opener and remote engine start.)

The Overland’s $40,395 MSRP adds 255/70R18 Bridgestone Dueler HT 865 all-season rubber on its own gray aluminum wheels, side steps and body-color fender flares. Techies will be relieved that the Overland’s Uconnect 4 infotainment system with 7-inch display is the entry point for standard Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto interfacing. The Overland also throws in a garage door opener.

The range-topping Rubicon, named for the rugged road/trail near Lake Tahoe, starts at $43,545. It adds wide-track, lockable third-generation Dana 44 axles at both ends, 4.10 rear axle and Rock-Trac 4x4 system with extra low gearing that on automatic-equipped Gladiators produces crawl ratios of 84:1 and 77:1.

The Rubicon also includes 33-inch Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires in LT285/17R17 with high-clearance fender flares, an added skid plate up front, electronic sway-bar disconnect, FOX shock absorbers, vented hood and steel off-road rock rails for cab and bed.

For now, the major decision buyers must make in the powertrain department is whether to stick with the standard six-speed manual gearbox or step up to the eight-speed automatic, which runs an additional $2,000.

The engine is FCA’s venerable 3.6-liter Pentastar making 285 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. Jeep said a diesel will be available in 2020. The turbocharged 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 will only be offered with an eight-speed automatic that’s designed to handle the EcoDiesel’s 442 lb.-ft. of torque and 260 horsepower.

Don’t feel like waiting months for the oil-burning version? The gas V6-powered Gladiator is ready for work with payload ratings of up to 1,600 lbs. Equipped with a 4.10 axle (standard on the Rubicon and included with the Sport’s optional towing package) and 8-speed automatic, the Pentastar-powered Gladiator can handle trailers up to 7,650 lbs. (The Jeep pickup’s gross combined weight rating is 12,800 lbs.)

Fuel consumption is not one of the Gladiator’s bragging points. The automatic Gladiator’s EPA ratings are 17 mpg in the city, 22 highway and 19 mpg combined. The manual Gladiator maintains 19 mpg overall, but differs slightly at 16 city and 23 highway.

Of course, consumers should keep in mind that the Gladiators have either 3.73 or 4.10 axle ratios and tip the scales, without driver or passengers, at anywhere from 4,650 to 5,072 pounds.

For a “Wrangler pickup” that’s not too Spartan (hand-cranked windows and manual door locks in 2019 border on cruel and unusual) yet is outfitted for optimal towing, consider ordering a Gladiator Sport S with the automatic ($2,000), limited-slip rear differential ($595), max tow package with 4.10 axle ratio ($995), seven-inch Uconnect 4 radio for the display and Apple CarPlay/Google Android Auto, and mandatory bundled remote start and universal garage door opener. The list price comes to $43,420.

The tow package includes 240-amp alternator, all-terrain tires, class IV receiver hitch and heavy-duty Dana 44 wide front and rear axles, heavy-duty engine cooling and molded-in-color fender flares, earning our vote for “best-bang-for-the-buck” option.

Meanwhile, we’ll be monitoring the Gladiator’s consumer votes on the showroom, not to mention the upcoming truck of the year competitions.

“I would take the Gladiator over a normal Wrangler all day, every day,” said Alvendia. I think it’s going to be a phenomenal success.”