Pop the roof off the Jeep Gladiator pickup and cruise around on a sunny day and you won’t care at all about the clunky handling, deafening wind noise or plasticky interior. You won’t have to manage the awkward climb-down until you park and get out. The poor gas mileage won’t hurt until you fuel up, later.
Jeep owners make well-known tradeoffs in exchange for membership in a club of carefree adventurists unburdened by ordinary boundaries. Rugged individualism is mostly an American myth, but it’s a powerful one that forms many identities and still sells vehicles. Jeeps probably convey a deeper sense of freedom and possibility than any other vehicle, which is why the brand has coveted cachet and is probably the most valuable division within parent Fiat Chrysler.
Pras Subramanian and I drank the Kool-Aid during a pre-coronavirus test of the Gladiator, which debuted in 2019. It took both of us to remove the optional hard top, but that’s no biggie—you’ll always be able to find a friend in this ride. We filmed in cheerful weather, with drivers in much plusher rides giving us a thumbs-up and, we’re sure, wishing they were us.
Jeepers have been begging for a pickup for a long time. Who knows why Jeep waited so long, but the Gladiator is what the faithful have long wanted. As a mid-size pickup, it doesn’t compete with work trucks like the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado or Dodge Ram. It has a 5-foot bed, not the 6-footer typical in a full-size truck, making it more of a lifestyle vehicle than a contractor’s workhorse.
The competition includes the Ford Ranger, Honda Ridgeline, Toyota Tacoma, GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado. While the Ranger is sassy and the Ridgeline fun, the category is hardly bursting with excitement. The Gladiator livens it up.
The Jeep pickup is basically a Wrangler SUV with a longer wheelbase and a bed instead of an enclosed cargo area. It has all the Wrangler goodies: on-demand 4-wheel drive, removable doors, the storied waterfall grille, and macho off-roading options. The electric window switches are on the center stack rather than the doors, which is annoying but necessary if you want to remove the doors. It’s the type of sacrifice Jeepers wear as a badge of honor.
Pras and I grinned and imagined better things for ourselves as we cruised in a fully loaded Overland model, which starts at around $41,000 but topped out at $55,000 for us. The standard roof is a soft-top, with the hard-top being a $2,300 option. That standard transmission is a 6-speed manual that even hardcore Jeepers will probably scoff at, since nobody drives manuals anymore. For the automatic 8-speed, add $2,000. The add-ons are pricey, but that didn’t bother us as we contemplated extending our test drive, heading to the beach, and checking in with our people a few days later.
Actual buyers have to deal with the price, however, and that’s where grim reality harshes your mellow. The Gladiator starts at around $34,000, nearly ten-large more than the Ranger. Almost all the competition is cheaper. Even the larger F-150 starts about $5,000 less the Gladiator. And like a BMW, the Gladiator won’t really be the car you want until you’ve added thousands of dollars worth of options.
Is it worth it? To some buyers, sure. But that hefty price will test how loyal to Jeep you really are. Look at your bank balance before scheduling a test drive. After, too.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.