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After almost 30 years, Jeep is back in the ring and ready for battle with the brutish off-road and refined on-road capabilities of the 2020 Gladiator, Doug Firby writes
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Friday, April 12, 2019 – Page D1

SACRAMENTO -- 2020 Jeep Gladiator $45,495 (BASE PRICE); $52,495 (AS TESTED), PLUS $1,895 DESTINATION CHARGE

Engine: 3.6-litre V-6 (gasoline) Transmission/drive: Six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic/part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.7 city; 10.7 hwy; 12.3 combined with automatic; 14.3 city; 10.4 hwy; 12.6 combined with standard Alternatives: Ford Ranger, GM Canyon/Colorado, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier

When motorists last saw a pickup truck from off-roading champ Jeep, let's just say it was less than inspiring.

It was also before a lot of today's truck buyers were even born.

The Jeep Comanche, last seen in 1992, was reasonably solid, but its bland looks and mediocre performance were about as pulsequickening as the dipping sauce at Swiss Chalet.

What a difference 27 years have made. The new 2020 Jeep Gladiator retains the macho good looks and off-road prowess of its cousin the Wrangler, yet has a five-foot box on the back that carries enough cargo to serve weekend warriors and contractors alike.

This truck is both a refreshing alternative to its mid-sized domestic competitors, Ford's Ranger and GM's Canyon/Colorado, and also a defiant throwdown to the aging Toyota Tacoma, which for nearly a decade has ruled the mid-sized, off-road category virtually unchallenged.

If the Ranger and Colorado are essentially street machines that can be beefed up for off-road adventures, the Gladiator is the converse - a brutish mountain goat that practically comes with mud smudged on its face.

There is nothing subtle about the Wrangler lineage in this truck, which comes in Sport S, Overland and Rubicon trim levels. From the front, the Gladiator has the seven-slot grille and retro-looking round headlamps that declare the brand.

The rugged four-wheel drive mechanism, with a rock-crawling low-gear ratio is all-Jeep, too, especially in the top-end Rubicon, which adds tall 33-inch Falken Wildpeak M/T tires, locking front and rear differentials, and sway bars that unlatch with the touch of a button.

It also has Jeep's removable doors, convertible roof and flipforward windshield for off-roaders seeking an authentic bugs-inthe-teeth experience.

From there, the similarities fade. The side profile of this crew-cab only five-passenger vehicle reveals its remarkable length, at 554 centimetres, fully 76 cm longer than the Wrangler.

That makes the Gladiator by far the longest of the "mid-size" trucks on the market. Its wheelbase is also 48 cm longer, making a trip over California's jarring concrete freeways surprisingly mellow. Back seat passengers will also appreciate the extra eight cm of legroom. Day-long road trips are no longer to be dreaded.

The Gladiator has a different high-strength steel frame than the Wrangler. The rear suspension is different, too, with control arms and a track bar taken from the Ram 1500 pickup truck. The axles are beefier to handle the extra weight and stress.

The longer wheelbase enables a five-foot cargo box, but also limits something called the breakover angle - which is essentially the biggest mound the truck can crawl over while keeping all wheels on the ground.

That only matters when you climb over basketball-sized boulders like the ones journalists tackled on a rocky ranch a few kilometres from a Northern California town called Cool.

There's a lot of metal plating to protect the undercarriage from those rocks, and Fiat Chrysler has compensated by adding lightweight aluminum doors, hinges, hood, fenders and tailgate.

That keeps the Overland trim level at a reasonable curb weight of 2,137 kilograms when equipped with automatic.

Trucks are not new to Jeep. In fact, the history goes right back to the Willys-Overland of 1947.

The last effort was the Cherokeebased Comanche, last seen in 1992.

The Gladiator has virtually nothing in common with those forebears. It is refined, pleasant to drive with Fiat Chrysler's rugged and familiar 285-horsepower V-6 engine, and - shocking for Jeep fans - relatively quiet at highway speeds.

Strangely, the optional hard top seemed as noisy as the standard rag top.

It also has remarkable capabilities, with towing capacity up to 3,470 kg (in the optimum configuration) and a payload of 726 kg. Smart placement of the electrical parts even enables the vehicle to ford streams 75 cm deep - although I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that to a truck that starts north of $45,000.

(If you do, of course, the floor has those handy drain plugs to get rid of the water.)

Fiat Chrysler took a long time to get back into the mid-sized truck game, after dropping the Dakota in 2011. It used the time to create a unique and profoundly likeable new vehicle, one that lays it down to the former offroad champ - the Toyota Tacoma.

For weekend warriors, this truck sets the new standard.

The Gladiator is arriving in dealerships now.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

RATINGS LOOKS It has charm more than cuteness, with its unwavering commitment to Jeep styling heritage. The big box on the back really does look awkward in the side profile.

INTERIOR The simple dash layout and easily accessible controls pay homage to it forebears. Only Jeep deliberately exposed the allen-head screws that hold dash components in place to accentuate its workmanlike image. Leg room is comfortable, especially in the back, and the seats reach a cozy compromise between comfort and support. Rubber-sealed electronic bits are water resistant, so they won't fizzle in the rain.

PERFORMANCE The popular 3.5-litre V-6 gasoline engine delivers 260 lb-ft of torque, adequate for off-road when combined with Jeep's ultralow adventure gearing. A 3.0-litre turbo diesel promised for 2020 should be better. Even so, the top-end Rubicon can crawl up steep rises and over eye-popping boulders.

TECHNOLOGY Dozens of safety and convenience features include optional hands-free communication and nav features, blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, stop/start for fuel savings and - a favourite - on the Rubicon a front-mounted camera that lets drivers see over the hill ahead. Even better, the camera comes with a one-button washer to clear away the inevitable mud spatters. Touch screens range from 13 to 21 centimetres, and the bigger ones have pinch, tap and swipe capability.

CARGO The back seat is a marvel of ingenuity, with three-position seating and lockable storage compartment underneath. The five-foot cargo box has become the mid-sized truck standard, but Mopar accessories, many compatible with the Wrangler, allow it to be outfitted with a broad array of lockable compartments.


Associated Graphic

With the optimal configuration, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator has a towing capacity of up to 3,470 kilograms and a payload of 726 kg. PHOTOS BY FCA US LLC

The Gladiator sports the seven-slot grille and retro-looking round headlamps that declare the Jeep brand. FCA US LLC

There is a new king of the hill. This well-mannered truck can work all week, tow your boat to the cottage and climb mountains.

Huh? How did I get here?
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