The 2020 Jeep Gladiator and the 2019 Toyota 4Runner may not be very similar in form. One is a less-than-full-size convertible pickup, and the other is a mid-size SUV. But when life's trials push you to bug out of town for safety or to just get away to more peaceful pastures, one of these rugged, off-road-friendly ruffians is what you want parked in your driveway. Be it fleeing zombies, a flood, or an impending visit from your in-laws, these overland-ready utilitarians are built to tackle less-trodden paths whilst loaded with gear—and to look good while doing it—without entirely sacrificing on-road drivability. How do they stack up?
The all-new Gladiator clearly is a beefed-up four-door Jeep Wrangler JL with a cargo bed. Despite its freshness on the market, it is arguably one of few vehicles that can make Toyota's current 4Runner seem modern. With its front and rear live axles and design cues that trace back to World War II, the Gladiator is an anachronism that has been meticulously fussed over to operate far better in day-to-day use than it has any right to. And you can remove its roof and doors and fold its windshield down flat, which spikes its driver's cool factor better than a selfie with Keanu Reeves. The Gladiator's inherent compromises limited it to third place in our most recent comparison test of compact pickups. The 4Runner fared only slightly better in its last comparison test, back during Obama's first term, when it finished second to the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
That Toyota sold about 140,000 4Runners last year speaks to the solid fan base that this SUV has cultivated over the years. Like the Jeep, the 4Runner's body is mounted atop a separate ladder-type frame, diminishing its packaging efficiency in favor of a tougher build. It only has a live axle at the back, and its control-arm front suspension and conventional SUV layout make it feel less like a novelty on the road than the Jeep. Its 270-hp 4.0-liter V-6 is a decent match for the Gladiator's 285-hp 3.6-liter V-6. Both of these vehicles have a maximum passenger count of five, yet the Toyota's 5000-pound towing capacity falls well short of the Jeep's 7650-pound rating.
The 4Runner starts at $35,905 in rear-drive SR5 form; four-wheel-drive models begin at $37,780; and it's possible to exceed $50K on the top Limited Nightshade 4WD model. Given its antiquity, the Toyota cannot be had with certain active safety features, such as front and rear automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, that are available on the newer Jeep. While pricing for the four-wheel-drive-only Gladiator opens at a similarly reasonable $35,040, its breadth of optional equipment makes it easy to inflate that figure massively. Witness our $55,040 test vehicle, and that's only a mid-level Overland model.
On the Road
Stellar road manners are not included with either of these vehicles. These are old-school trucks with chunky transfer-case shift levers poking up through the floorboards. Their responses are vague, performance is modest, and their rides are often choppy, particularly the Gladiator's. Both are adequately quick—zero to 60 mph takes 7.1 seconds in the Jeep and 7.7 in the Toyota—yet their soft suspensions and tall-sidewall tires combine to make them feel ponderous on the road. The 4Runner is particularly lethargic due to its hefty steering and five-speed automatic transmission. In contrast, the intelligent action of the Jeep's optional $2000 ZF eight-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard!) works well to make the most of the V-6's 260 lb-ft of torque. Along with the Gladiator's better low-speed maneuverability and—thanks in large part to its sprawling 137.3-inch wheelbase—good-for-a-Wrangler stability at higher speeds, this is the Wrangler that non-Jeepers will find the most tolerable.
Both the 4Runner and Gladiator are heavy at about 4800 pounds and push large amounts of air, making them similarly thirsty at the pump; both of our test vehicles averaged less than 20 mpg. With lots of ground clearance and two-speed transfer cases, both vehicles offer significant capability when the pavement ends, although the Gladiator's 27.5-inch longer wheelbase means that it's a bit large for some trails, and it will often scrape its belly over obstacles. Our 4Runner TRD Off Road Premium's abilities were bolstered by the $1750 Kinetic Dynamic Suspension system that hydraulically manages body roll, giving the car increased wheel articulation while off-roading. Both models offer more extreme off-road variants in the 4Runner TRD Pro and the Gladiator Rubicon.
The Inside View
These two vehicles share few similarities on the inside, save for both sitting rather tall in the saddle, making it cumbersome to climb in and out. Passenger space in the first and second rows of seats is slightly better in the Gladiator (104 cubic feet to the 4Runner's 96), yet the upright cabin can make it feel more compact than it actually is. Aside from some initially funky ergonomics, such as the shallow dashboard and the centrally located window switches, the more contemporary Jeep also gets the nod for materials and electronics, including Fiat Chrysler's excellent 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen interface. The Toyota will seem more familiar to any SUV driver, and all of its controls are intuitively arranged, but its plastics and switchgear look and feel cheap and its 6.1-inch center touchscreen is in need of a big upgrade. While power outlets and connectivity options are plentiful in both vehicles, there's no mistaking that the Jeep design is a decade newer.
Six-footers will find similar levels of comfort in the back seat of either vehicle, although the Gladiator's seat backs are a bit more upright than we'd like, and the rear door aperture has a narrowing cutline at the bottom that makes it an effort to squeeze through. Folding down the rear seats makes little difference in its versatility, although there is that five-foot bed out back that's perfect for large, grungy items. In addition to a spacious 47 cubic feet of secure cargo space, the back end of the Toyota also houses several of the 4Runner's niftiest features: an available third row of seats on certain models ($1365); an optional—and convenient—slide-out cargo floor ($350, reduces cargo volume by one cubic foot); and the standard power rear window, which, in practice, is more entertaining than it is useful.
The Bottom Line
Aside from their distinct personalities and different cargo layouts, what truly separates the Jeep Gladiator and the Toyota 4Runner are the intangibles. The 4Runner, while highly capable, simply drives like the old SUV that it is. The Gladiator, for all of its even more antiquated design foibles, brings a sense of occasion to its use, and that's before you remove its roof and doors. That novelty, combined with a solid execution that improves upon the on-road composure of the newly redesigned JL Wrangler, helped the Gladiator make partial converts out of several drivers previously indifferent to the seven-slot grille. While the Gladiator is far from perfect—and downright expensive if you get happy with the options and accessories—it's the type of fun we'd want to bring along when heading for the hills.
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