Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 19, 2019

Jeep Gladiator – Automatic or Manual ?

Screen Shot 2019-10-19 at 2.01.34 PMCEDAR CITY, Utah

We recently spent a very enjoyable week test-driving a box-stock 2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport 4X4 around the colorful countryside in southern Utah.

This is an area where the paved roads don’t always lead to where you want them to go, so improvisation is often in order. In other words: Jeep Country.

When we headed off-road, I was reminded of something the late Mickey Thompson, who once raced a Cadillac in Baja, told me: “The longer the wheelbase, the flatter the bumps become.” The Gladiator, with its 137.3-inch wheelbase, did an admirable job of flattening the bumps – off-road and on.

One of the best features of the Gladiator is its base price: $33,545. Of course, it is very easy to content-up that amount considerably with all the options available. But with the base model, the essentials are there: the 285-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 with 260 pound-feet of torque, air conditioning, 17-inch wheels and all-season tires, full-size spare, part-time four-wheel-drive, etc. The list also includes some welcome amenities such as a backup camera, tilt wheel and a full suite of safety and stability aids. A cloth top is standard; it’s a lot of fun to play with all the open-air options, and even romp around with the removable doors off.

What you also get on the base model are old-school hand-crank windows, manual door locks and a six-speed manual transmission.

Normally I would award plus points for the manual – my preferred way to motor – but, man was this one a lot of work. I can’t imagine coping with this setup in traffic, or any kind of urban driving.

The Aisin D478 manual helps make the truck faster 0-to-60 mph (but so does nearly 500 pounds less curb weight in this configuration). I also briefly drove an early production Gladiator with an eight-speed automatic, with much closer ratios; I thought that was a much more harmonious marriage for the V6’s horsepower and torque.

In layman’s terms, the manual has more gears than it needs (I once said this about the six-speed 208-mph Dodge Viper too). You spend most of your time in first, second and third – wondering why you need the other three gears. That’s largely because first is good up to 31 mph, second handles speeds up to 60, and third can top out at 103 – which is probably faster than you want to drive this trucklet on the road. Much less off of it.

It is possible to opt for a 4.10:1 axle ratio (available in higher-priced trim packages), which lowers shift top speeds by about 10 percent over the stock 3.73:1 gearing. But even then, it seemed the gear spacing didn’t seem natural, and the truck often seemed to bog down, especially between second and third. And because of the way this setup is geared, those are your go-to gears.

The clutch travel also drove me to distraction; you keep letting it out, and out, and…until it finally engages. The shifter needs long, industrial-strength throws, reminiscent of a school bus I once drove, to row through the gears. I stalled it an embarrassing number of times during the week I had it; perhaps with more time, I would become more used to it.

If you have passengers, you often find yourself assuring them, “I actually do know how to drive a stick.”

So, between the wearying operation of the clutch, the shifter and the number of gears, I found myself longing for the idiot-proof eight-speed automatic.

The automatic would seem to be the better choice, even for trailer towing. Torque is skewed more toward top end speeds, than low end, which seems counter-intuitive. In fact, the as-tested acceleration times, with a 4,000-pound trailer, more than doubles, 0-60, from 7.9 to 15.9 seconds.

For early buyers of the Gladiator, the gas-powered V6 was the only choice. But the much-anticipated 3.0-liter EcoDiesel, and even a 2.0-liter turbo-four, were due to be later options.

The added oomph from the torquey diesel might be worth the wait.

Overall: If you love the Wrangler, despite these caveats, you’ll easily find room in your heart for the Gladiator.

Jerry Garrett

October 19, 2019


  1. Dear Jerry…and your trip ti Italy and France with your lovely red Mercedes? I was following it on your website but the news of your trip was not posted. Hope all went well on your schedule. Warmest regards Giancarlo from Italian Riviera

    • Thank you for writing, Giancarlo! There is a good story for the last of the red Mercedes. I promise to make another blog post this week.

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