With its 2020 Jeep Gladiator, Fiat Chrysler has delivered what amounts to a four-door Jeep Wrangler with a pickup truck stuck on its hind end.
It's a sort of Jeep/truck hybrid, an off-road-ready puddle jumper that can carry a lot more cargo than the standard SUV.
The corporate thinking behind this mashup is clear: The Jeep division outsells all other FCA brands, and the Wrangler alone accounts for a quarter of all Jeep sales. America loves Jeeps and America loves trucks. So, why not a Wrangler for truck buyers -- especially because, according to numbers compiled by Kelley Blue Book, FCA's Ram truck division is the only one showing improved year-to-date sales for 2019?
What's less clear is who will buy it.
This is not a luxury SUV. Distinctly mechanical and analog -- even the high-end Rubicon version has manually adjusted seats -- the Gladiator is built for rugged treatment. The top, the doors and even the windshield can all be removed for extra rugged off-roading. The interior is pure Wrangler -- the dash looks identical to the one found in the Wrangler Rubicon or Sahara trims -- and while comfortable is designed to get dirty and clean up easily.
Jeep has thrown a lot into this beast. Under the hood is FCA's 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which pumps out 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to an eight-speed manual transmission -- a six-speed manual is also available -- and connected to a four-wheel-drive system that is among the best in the business.
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Standard equipment on the Rubicon trim -- the loaded version of four Gladiator models, all of which are four-wheel-drive trucks powered by the 3.6-liter V-6 that's also found in the Wranglers -- are off-road essentials such as multiple skid plates, massive Fox shock absorbers, heavy-duty front and rear axles with locking differentials, front and rear tow hooks, rock rails and huge all-terrain tires. (A full-size spare is tucked under the pickup bed.)
Added to the Gladiator I borrowed were extras such as front and rear "trail cams" for up-close views of the terrain, FCA's extra beefy Rock-Trac 4x4 system, a trailer hitch and tow package that gives the Gladiator a 7,650-pound towing capacity (compared with a mere 2,000 pounds on the Wrangler), upgraded lighting, heated leather seating and a batch of safety features such as adaptive cruise control with forward-collision warning and emergency brake assist.
Determined to put the beast through its paces, I set off for the Rowher Flat off-highway vehicle park near Santa Clarita -- the closest place I know with enough really rugged off-road terrain to test the Gladiator's abilities.
I found out several things right away. The handsome black canvas Gladiator roof, which when removed makes this truck a convertible, soaks up and retains a lot of heat. In the four-hour voyage to Rowher and back, it never stopped radiating heat into the cab.