Retrospective

Gladiator vs Comanche: How Jeep's approach to pickups has changed in a generation

Jeep has come a long way since it first designed the Comanche.

Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

When it was launched last year, Gladiator became the first pickup truck to wear the Jeep badge in more than 25 years. A lot has changed over that span.

How long ago was 1986? "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was just making its debut. Mr. Mister topped the charts with "Broken Wing". Ronald Reagan was coming to the end of his second term as president. The Chevrolet Celebrity was America's best-selling car. And Jeep had just introduced the Comanche compact pickup truck.

Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

Today, SUVs rule the roadways and pickup trucks are replacing luxury imports in suburban driveways. So it's not surprising the differences between Gladiator and Comanche are as vast as the gap between Warren Buffet's net worth and my own.

In 1986, Jeep introduced the Comanche to try to cash in on the compact pickup craze that was in full force back then. Ford Ranger, Chevy S-10, and the Toyota SR5 each sold well into six figures and little AMC was hoping to capture a piece of that pie via their Jeep brand. Without the resources to develop a new truck from scratch, however, they took an interesting route to developing a compact truck.

AMC engineers and designers basically cut a unibody XJ Cherokee in half and attached a box rail frame to the back end of the compact crossover, creating the first ever "uniframe" chassis. From the B-pillar back it featured a purpose-built steel rail frame with an X-brace adding stiffness over the rear axle. At launch, Comanche was offered only as a standard cab in both 2x4 and 4x4 configurations. It was a little larger than its rivals with a 7-foot 4-inch box and an overall length of 194 inches.

Performance clearly wasn't in the design brief for Comanche. In its first year of production it had three engine options available, none particularly energetic: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine made 117 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque, the 2.1-liter turbodiesel sourced from Renault made 82 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, and a General Motors-built 2.8-liter V6 delivered 115 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Available transmissions included four and five-speed manuals as well as a three-speed automatic.

Comanche was really designed to walk the line between work and play. In its base versions the truck was extremely utilitarian and affordable, starting out at just over $7,049 for a short bed two-wheel drive truck. That made it perfect for a commercial painter, residential landscaper, or other subcontractor. In its 4x4 versions, especially in the more upscale Laredo trim, Comanche was designed to appeal to outdoorsmen and adventurers.

1986 Jeep Comanche The 1986 Jeep Comanche was the first vehicle to have a uniframe chassis.Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

Comanche was not a very capable off-roader thanks to it's hybrid frame and modest ground clearance. Those who wanted it to do Jeep-like feats over rugged terrain would either be disappointed or have to invest a lot of money in aftermarket accessories and modifications.

After Chrysler purchased AMC in 1987, Comanche was updated a few times. Most notably, the GM V6 was jettisoned for a 4.0-liter inline six that boosted output to a respectable 173 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. An Aisin four-speed automatic replaced the TorqueFlite three-speed, and a 6-foot short bed option was added.

Shortly after the Chrysler takeover, however, it became clear there wasn't room for both the Comanche and Dakota pickups in the corporate garage, so Comanche was phased out in 1992, having sold just 190,000 trucks during its entire six-year run.

Fast forward 27 years to the Jeep Gladiator and you'll find a pickup truck so different from the Comanche, it's hard to believe they come from the same company.

Unlike Comanche, Gladiator is laser-focused in its purpose as a recreational truck. There's no pretense of it being used for any type of traditional work and it's available only in a four-door crew cab configuration. At its unveiling at the 2018 L.A. Auto Show, Jeep showed it off with dirt bikes, quads, jet skis, and other toys. Officials were quick to point out that Gladiator in the Rubicon trim was every bit as capable an off-roader as the Wrangler upon which it is based. Gladiator is the epitome of a "lifestyle vehicle".

2020 Jeep Gladiator introduction LA Auto Show Tim Kuniskis, Head of Jeep Brand North America, introduces the 2020 Jeep Gladiator at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Photo by Joe Wilssens Photography

It would be easy to dismiss the Gladiator as a merely a Wrangler Unlimited with a bed, but that would be selling it a bit short. True, Gladiator is built in the same Toledo, Ohio factory as Wrangler and uses all the same drivetrain components – 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmissions with identical ratios, axles, transfer cases, etc.

The longer wheelbase and added weight transforms Gladiator into something different altogether from a ride and handling perspective both on and off-road. Gladiator is smoother, more stable, and more refined on the road than the Wrangler. Off-road, Gladiator is limited by its length. Its turning radius is 10 inches wider and the breakover angle much shallower. Even still, especially in Rubicon trim, Gladiator can take you deep into the wilderness and get you back in the toughest of terrain.

Compared to the old Comanche, Gladiator is both massive and luxurious offering comfort, safety, and convenience features that were unimaginable in a truck in the mid-1980s. Even with it's 5-foot box, Gladiator is two feet longer than the Comanche long bed. And let's talk about the box. While it can hold a few plants, a bale of hay or two, or a small lawn tractor that's not really what it's designed for. Gladiator is all about the weekend. It delivers best-in-class towing capability for your ski boat or camper. Mopar offers over 200 accessories specifically developed for Gladiator – everything from kayak racks to bicycle carriers, tie downs, tonneau covers, and cargo carriers.

Opt for a Gladiator Overland with the Popular Equipment Package and you'll get leather trimmed-seats, premium audio with an 8.4-inch touchscreen, navigation, and more. Riding on all-season radials with standard four-wheel drive, it's a street-oriented pickup that will get you to your cabin in just about any weather and do it more comfortably than the Comanche could ever have hoped to.

2020 Jeep Gladiator interior The Jeep Gladiator's interior is quite well appointed in its top-tier grades. Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

In contrast, the standard Comanche epitomizes 1980s automotive design with a vinyl-covered bench seat, a skinny molded steering wheel, and more plastic than you'll find in a cosmetic surgeon's office in Beverly Hills. In 1989 bucket seats were offered in the sporty Eliminator package. No matter the trim level, Comanche's interior never approached the comfort and utility of even the base Gladiator.

So yes, Comanche and Gladiator are both pickup trucks and they're both Jeeps. That's where the similarity ends, and that's probably for the best.

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The new Grand Cherokee L is on its way to dealers now.

Stellantis

The all-new three-row Grand Cherokee L was unveiled earlier this year, and features an ultra-premium interior, a load of new tech, and sharp styling that shouts back to Jeep models of the past. Just a few weeks ago, we learned pricing and feature details for the new model, and now Jeep says the vehicle is on its way to dealerships across the country.


Jeep Grand Cherokee L The L is the first three-row Grand Cherokee.Stellantis


In terms of styling, the L's shape has been reworked from previous Grand Cherokee models to be more reminiscent of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer. The automaker says that the grille has been tilted forward and is now wider for better air flow and a more dramatic appearance. The idea was to make the Grand Cherokee L look rugged, but keep it sleek and technical in the process.

The stretched Grand Cherokee retains the engines that powered its predecessors. That means a 3.6-liter V6 is standard, which delivers 293 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A 5.7-liter V6 is optional, and makes 357 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Both engines come paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and either rear- or al-wheel drive. Either powertrain option will provide decent towing capability, but the V8 is unsurprisingly more powerful. With a V6 on board, the Grand Cherokee L can tow 6,200 pounds, while V8-powered models can pull 7,200 pounds.


Jeep Grand Cherokee L The L's styling is modern but nostalgic.Stellantis


Inside, Jeep says the L can be equipped with the latest tech and entertainment features. Running the latest Uconnect infotainment software, the Grand Cherokee L will be capable of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and can be had with a head-up display, a rear-seat monitoring camera system, and a 950-watt 19-speaker McIntosh audio system. At the top end of the lineup, the Summit Reserve model gets Palermo quilted leather, open-pore waxed walnut wood, and 21-inch wheels.

Pricing for the L starts at $38,690 after destination, which buys the base Laredo trim. The range-topping Summit Reserve model starts at $61,690 after destination. Dealer deliveries are underway now, supported by almost 5,000 employees at Stellantis' Detroit Assembly Complex.

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The Nissan Pathfinder is just at home on the trial as it is on the road.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". The message is about making choices and, how the road taken made all the difference. Often in life and on the road, we have to make one choice. Take one road. No turning back. I thought of this poem on my recent test drive in the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder in the hinterlands of Montana, when I could take two different roads—paved and dirt—and that made all the difference!

Nissan has redesigned and retooled its fifth-generation Pathfinder instilling greater latitude for buyers who want to travel both types of roads and expand their adventure footprint. After seven decades of off-road development, 35 years in the business of selling Pathfinders, and with more than 1.8 million sold in the U.S., this Japanese automaker has moved the needle with a ground-up revision of the previous-gen model.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is a capable off-roader.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The full-sized sport utility is available in four trims (S, SV, SL and Platinum) and two- and four-wheel drive versions; Nissan expects that nearly 60 percent of buyers will choose four-wheel drive. The Pathfinder is in a segment that has grown larger each year as more families want a vehicle for around-town, school and playdate runs and for weekend getaways with traction technology that allows travel in the backcountry and good towing capability. Direct competitors are the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer.

A day-long drive of approximately 150 miles on tarmac and over a variety of dirt roads and tracks provided the opportunity to assess the Pathfinder's updates. A late-spring snowstorm added slickness to all the road surfaces in the region and allowed the Pathfinder to show off its traction capabilities at both slow and higher speeds and with lane change and emergency-braking maneuvers, when towing. I concentrated my evaluation on the augmented hardware and software designed to enhance the crossover's capabilities for backcountry travel and towing.

What I found most notable over every road surface was the comfortable ride and responsive handling that come from a collection of upgrades—and, in particular, as a result of the following: the gearing on the new nine-speed transmission, with paddle shifters for personal and more precise shifting for sport driving and slowing over rough terrain; the new terrain mode system that's engineered for different driving conditions; the four-wheel drive system that moves torque more quickly to avoid wheel slip; the improved suspension system; and new tires with a larger contact patch and more aggressive tread pattern, among other changes.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Pathfinder's drive modes are designed to inspire confidence. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Pathfinder provided sure-footed motoring and comfort over uneven surfaces. Its 7.1 inches of ground clearance easily maneuvered over the small obstacles on the trail and hill descent control took the reigns without hesitation for steeper and longer downhills on traction-compromised surfaces.

I was also impressed with the Pathfinder's towing competence and appreciated the standard trailer sway control onboard all trims. It offered notably strong, mannered acceleration from a standing start and excellent straight-line braking without porpoising for either exercise.

The new 2022 Pathfinder brings off-road and towing attributes that are important to families who are seeking to spend time in the backcountry for days trips and longer and for overlanding in terrain that doesn't require a true off-road vehicle with a low range. It's will appeal to buyers who want don't want to have to choose only one road.

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