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posted on March 8th, 2019

Mid-size trucks go head-to-head

It’s indisputable that trucks provide more capability and versatility than any other type of vehicle. Some haul tens of thousands of pounds, some cosset their occupants in luxury — some even do both. But trucks that do more also, well, are more, with gargantuan proportions that can make them challenging to drive. There’s also a certain image that comes with being seen rolling around in such monstrous machines.

The new 2019 Ford Ranger and 2020 Jeep Gladiator challenge this truck status quo. Slightly smaller and each with their own approach to style, practicality, and adventure readiness, these competitors are storming onto the scene surrounded by fanfare. They occupy a similar niche, but carry key differences. So which one will better serve your trucky aspirations?

Design

Images: FCA

Let’s start with looks, since that’s the first thing you — and everyone else — will notice. The Gladiator is pure Jeep; it basically looks like the Wrangler with a truck bed welded on. That means a retro-tastic boxy body with huge wheel arches riding on big knobby tires. As is customary for Jeeps, the doors and roof panels are removable for a true open-air experience. The Gladiator is built for the trail and looks the part.

Images: Ford

The Ranger’s design is more subdued; almost car-like in comparison. The body is comprised of smoother shapes, with plenty of attractive sculpting. The grille and headlights provide a modern-yet-tough countenance. A Ranger may not stand out like a Gladiator, but perhaps that’s part of the appeal. It seems more street-oriented, but depending on options you can still get your fix for a suspension lift and off-road rubber.

Drivetrain

Power is important, and the trucks’ internals are quite different. Behind the Gladiator’s signature seven-slot grille is a 280 hp, 260 lb-ft 3.6-liter V6 (a torquey diesel will be available later) hooked up to either an eight-speed automatic or — rejoice — a six-speed manual. Like any self-respecting Jeep, four-wheel drive and a transfer case are standard.

Some may find it unthinkable to have a four-cylinder in a truck, but the Ranger’s 2.3-liter turbocharged engine is strong for its size, cranking out 270 hp and 310 lb-ft. Backed by a 10-speed (!) automatic, rear-wheel drive is standard with four-wheel drive optional.

Different engines mean different fuel economy. The Ranger’s turbo-four and trick transmission enable a 21/26 city/highway MPG rating — not bad for a truck. Official numbers for the Gladiator’s V6 aren’t available yet, but if they’re anything like the Wrangler’s, expect around 17/25 city/highway.

Cargo & towing

Crucial for the truck segment is bed size, an area where the Ranger has an advantage: while the Gladiator only comes as a crew cab (four doors, seating for five) with a five-foot bed, the Ranger is available in the same configuration, or extended cab (two doors, seating for four) with a six-foot bed.

Payload and towing capacity are other make-or-break numbers, and the Ford and Jeep trade leads here. The Ranger’s maximum payload of 1860 lbs defeats the Gladiator’s 1600, but the Gladiator can tow 7650 lbs while the Ranger tops out at 7500. Any of these figures are sufficient for your average Trader Joe’s run, but in terms of getting work done, a few pounds here or a couple inches there make all the difference. The Gladiator and Ranger are considered “mid-size” trucks, but they’re still big vehicles with big-vehicle capabilities.

On paper, the numbers show the Gladiator and Ranger have the chops to handle a range of towing, hauling, and adventuring capabilities. But in the real world, they’re each unique. Perhaps the Ranger, with more power, more payload, and more body options, is more of a “real” truck. The Gladiator, with classic style, removable panels, and trail toughness may be more of a “lifestyle” vehicle. How to decide which is right one for you? You’ll have to drive each to find out.

Alex has been a car fanatic for as long as he can remember. At 6'10", he might be the tallest auto writer in the world, and whether it's engine timing, exotic car design, or race strategy, there is no automotive topic beyond Alex's interest.