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 ComancheThe 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 ShowTim 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 interiorThe 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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Family-friendly three-row SUVs

Three of our favorite three-row SUVs for 2022

The Grand Cherokee L is available with two different powertrain choices.

Jeep

There are more three-row SUVs on sale than ever before, so it can be tough to make a choice between them. You need to balance space, performance, safety, and tech to make your decision, and doing your homework is important. To help you get started down the right path, we've selected three of our favorite three-row family haulers. These are SUVs that bring the latest features and excellent design features to help keep you and your family rolling. Let's get started.

2023 Toyota SequoiaThe Sequoia is all-new for the 2023 model year, and finally stands on level ground with its rivals.Toyota

Toyota Sequoia

Toyota gave the Sequoia a much-needed overhaul for the 2023 model year that brought it up to speed with its competitors. The thirsty V8 and outdated styling are gone, and in their place, Toyota installed a twin-turbo V6 with a hybrid system that produces 437 horsepower and 583 pound-feet of torque. A ten-speed automatic transmission and either rear- or four-wheel drive are available.

The Sequoia’s update brought a new infotainment system with a much more intuitive, fluid interface. It runs on a standard 8-inch or an optional 14-inch touchscreen. Toyota’s new software offers voice controls, standard wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and much more.

Inside, the Sequioa’s interior feels much more upscale and modern than before, and there’s plenty of room for the entire family and all their gear across its three spacious rows. Starting with the Limited trim, Toyota gives luxurious standard features, including heated and ventilated front seats, a larger touchscreen, a hands-free liftgate, and a heated steering wheel.

2023 Kia TellurideKia updated the ultra-popular Telluride for 2023 with refreshed styling and features.Kia

Kia Telluride

The Kia Telluride is easily one of the best family vehicles from the last ten years, and it offers great value on top of its functional characteristics. Kia updated the SUV for 2022 with a new 10.25-inch infotainment system and a highway driving assistance system.

The Telluride comes with a 3.8-liter V6 that produces 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and either front- or all-wheel drive. The SUV’s engine may not be the most powerful or thrilling, but it gets the job done and offers refined, smooth operation.

Kia equips the base Telluride with seating for eight, but the optional second-row captain’s chairs reduce capacity to seven. Interior fit and finish, materials, and styling are all far more upscale than the Telluride’s price tag would suggest, making the SUV an excellent family companion for longer road trips.

2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee LThe Grand Cherokee got a third row for the first time with the new L.Jeep

Jeep Grand Cherokee L

Jeep completely overhauled the Grand Cherokee for 2021 and added a new three-row “L” model shortly after. The new Grand Cherokee L features boxy, muscular styling that works with its stretched profile. Even with a new shape, the SUV is immediately recognizable as a Grand Cherokee.

Jeep offers two engines in the 2022 Grand Cherokee L. The base mill is a 3.6-liter V6 that makes 293 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is available that produces 357 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Both come with an eight-speed automatic transmission and the V8 comes standard with four-wheel drive.

The L is more premium inside than most likely expect from a Jeep, but at the top end of the model line it’s deep into luxury territory, both on price and design. The Jeep is just shy of its competitors on interior space, but there’s still plenty of room for up to seven people. Top trims get luxury finishes like leather and woodgrain, and available tech like a rear-seat entertainment system helps keep everyone happy for the long haul.

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The Wildcat is a new electric concept from Buick.

Buick

Buick, the automaker whose lineup consists entirely of middle-of-the-road SUVs, has just come out with something unexpected. Today, the storied American automaker announced a new EV concept that revives a historic name from its catalog. The Wildcat was introduced in the early 1950s and has just returned on a sharp, futuristic EV.

Buick Wildcat ConceptThe car will help Buick test and validate new tech like artificial intelligence. Buick

The concept’s interior features a classic 2+2 seating configuration, with two front and two rear seats. An extended center console stretches through both rows of seating, and the cockpit-style seats feature cantilevered headrests. Buick says it focused heavily on color and the level of comfort it conveys. Green accents highlight many parts of the interior, and orange contrasts can be found throughout, including on the seatbelts.

The Wildcat features a large curved display that integrates the gauge cluster and infotainment unit into one panel. The air vents and all physical controls are hidden in an interesting and elaborate dash, and Buick says the car is designed to be a platform for future technologies like artificial intelligence, biometrics, and aromatherapy.

Buick Wildcat ConceptThe Wildcat's interior is futuristic and almost completely devoid of buttons.Buick

Buick will become an all-electric brand in the future, and though the Wildcat is just a concept, we’re likely to see many of its features make their way into production models. We don’t have any details on whether or not a version of the car will make it into production, though if it does, it’s unlikely to wear the Wildcat name, as of the automaker’s other models feature sedate names.

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