With the full-size pickup market being the hottest in North America, and one single vehicle knocking on the door of seven-figure sales volumes every year, it was a bit of a surprise that one size down there was nearly nothing. There was Toyota’s Tacoma, which has been largely unchanged for years but maintains a cadre of devoted fans for exactly that reason, and there were the GMC and Chevrolet Canyon/Colorado twins that were, well, your other choice. And Nissan’s Frontier that (sorry, Nissan) we nearly forgot about just now. Ford had been gone from the segment since 2011, and FCA left the market (with the Dakota) the same year. But now, all of a sudden, both are back and ready to play with two very different mission statements. So let’s see how they stack up.
Ford’s offering is the Ranger, a vehicle that’s new to us but one that has been on sale in much of the rest of the world for a few years now. It’s not the old Ranger you might remember for selling for under $10k new, boasting side-facing rear seats, and sharing a chassis with the ancient first-gen Explorer but instead a thoroughly modernized small truck that’s big enough for real rear seats, but not as much bigger (in footprint, at least) than the old one as you think it is.
On the other side is the Jeep Gladiator, arriving to fill a desire for a Jeep truck so strong that companies have been offering kits for you to do it yourself. Jeep’s last pickup was the XJ Cherokee-based Comanche that left the market in 1992, but it gets a name that was last used on a Wagoneer-based model that ended in 1988. While they could have just built a Wrangler with a bed, Jeep instead shocked the market with a real pickup that had payload and towing capacity among the best in class, along with almost all of the off-road capability that Jeepers wanted in the first place.
They take two very different routes to build a small pickup, but the Ranger and Gladiator will both get you to nearly the same places in as far as what you need your truck to do. We’ll highlight some of the similarities, the biggest differences, and why we think one is better than the other.
There’s no arguing that the Ranger is a handsome truck. It’s smaller than big-brother F-Series, and instead of trying to copy that look on a smaller scale, Ford went a much different direction. It looks more related to the brand’s cars and crossovers, but there’s still plenty to admire. In crew cab and short-box, it’s got excellent proportions, and the blacked-out mesh grille and side vent make sure it’s rugged enough to still look pickup-truck rough and ready.
The Gladiator, on the other hand, is unmistakable. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t nearly identical to the Wrangler. While before you could never mistake a Wrangler nose for anything else, now you might need to get a little more side profile first. The Jeep face has been near-enough the same since the very first models rolled off the line in the Second World War, and there’s something comforting in that classic appearance. But using the Wrangler as a base has lead to some strange shapes in the styling department. Like the too-short looking rear doors that are the same as those on the Wrangler and the bed that visually is longer than the cab.
Inside, the Ranger is again typical mid-2010s Ford crossover, meaning lots of buttons (good) and some plastics that feel a bit downmarket (bad). While it’s not that noteworthy aesthetically, with the exception of the difficult to see temperature controls, it’s practical and easy to use. In a truck, that’s probably all you really need.
The Gladiator, though, gets more style. Switchgear that’s massive and reassuring, with faux exposed screws and knurling in the plastic that make it feel more substantial. The water covers on the 12V and USB plugs, too, help make it look more off-road ready. The leather and stitching on the dash feel more premium, and we like the Jeep graphics that appear and change in the gauge cluster on start-up. It may still be hose-out ready, but we’d feel bad about getting this nice inside too muddy. We say the Jeep wins on the inside hands-down, but on the outside, it will depend on if you want that signature Jeep look or the more refined and understated appearance of the Ranger. Both are great-looking vehicles, but for different reasons.
These are pickups, so practicality means towing, cargo space, and payload. The Ranger in SuperCrew 4×4 trim as tested can handle 43.3 cubic feet of stuff in a five-foot one-inch bed, and then handle 1,560 lbs of payload and tow up to 7,500 lbs. The Gladiator’s bed is about half an inch shorter and holds eight fewer cubic feet of stuff, but they’re both trucks so the sky’s the limit when it comes to how much you can put back there. Well, not the limit, follow your local regulations, but you get the idea. The Gladiator’s tow and payload specs are more complicated than the Ranger’s, but this Overland with the 3.73:1 gears is rated for 1,120 lbs of payload, and a trailer of 6,000 lbs. Max Payload is 1,700 for a Sport with the stick and max towing is 7,650 for a Sport with the auto and 4.1 gears. Towing with a Ranger is more simple, from a spec sheet point of view, at least, so if you want to haul with your Gladiator be careful which one you get.
In the cab, both offer similar space up front, with the Gladiator slightly larger in most dimensions, but in the back seat, the Jeep offers appreciably more leg and headroom. So if you’re planning on transporting adults or the kids are getting bigger, the Jeep gives them more room to ignore you and stare at their phones on long drives. One miss for Jeep, though it doesn’t affect our internal scoring, is that with that big pickup bed, Jeep didn’t give you a way to store the roof and doors inside. It seems like a no-brainer, that.
When it comes to filling the tank, we found these two very different powertrains closer than expected. In the city, the Ranger is rated to get 11.8 L/100 km, and 9.8 on the highway, easily beating the Jeep’s 13.7/10.7. In our test of both, though, in similar conditions for both road and weather, we averaged in the mid-10s, showing that the sticker isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Leave the pavement, though, and expect to consume far more fuel in either, as rolling along in 4Lo is not exactly good for gas.
The nod goes to Ford here for the better sticker numbers and straightforward capacities, though it’s pretty darned close to a tie.
Features, Equipment, and Safety tech
Ranger comes standard with Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 and auto high-beams, blind-spot with cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping, and pre-collision braking. The only add-on active safety feature is adaptive cruise, which comes bundled with navigation. Jeep offers adaptive cruise, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and rear park assist, but split into two option packs, giving Ford a clear edge if you want all the driver aids.
The Ford gets an 8.0-inch infotainment screen with Ford’s Sync3 voice recognition and operating system. This Jeep gets the slightly larger 8.4 Uconnect system that looks a bit more modern. Both are splitting hairs when it comes to operation, and both get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Jeep has an optional Bluetooth speaker hiding behind the back seats that you can remove and take with you for on-the-go audio. Both can heat the front seats and the wheel, and both have dual-zone climate control.
Ford wins on safety tech, but you can’t take the doors and roof off of the Ranger, so while we’ll give the nod to the Ranger, that open top is massively appealing.
Performance, Ride and Handling, Fun Factor
Ford’s 2.3L EcoBoost turbo-four makes 270 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, and aided by a 10-speed automatic feels far more up to towing and hauling than we ever expected from an engine this small. Even with more than 1,000 lbs in the bed, it feels sufficiently brisk, though the engine never really makes proper truck-like noises. Instead, it buzzes at low revs and gets a bit thrashy up high. Jeep uses the 3.6L V6 that FCA puts in nearly everything it makes, here making 285 hp and 260 lb-ft put through an eight-speed auto. It’s probably a bit more sluggish than the Ranger, but not enough that you’ll notice unless you’re drag racing, but the engine makes noises that are more suitably truck-like. Not loud, just more welcome.
On the road, the Jeep feels more agricultural than the Ranger, but strangely enough, smoother over bumps. Steering the Jeep down the highway is a throwback to the days when you actually needed to drive, unlike the more modern Ranger that you can almost forget about in a straight line. On the one hand, the Jeep requires more effort, on the other, it’s nice to feel needed. Off-road, the Jeep’s steering suddenly becomes much more pleasant, filtering out jolts and jarrings from rocks. Even in an FX4 off-road package Ranger, the rough-road ride in the Jeep is better, though this Overland isn’t as soft as a Rubicon with its sway bar disconnects could be.
The Jeep is louder than the Ranger on the highway, especially when it is windy, where the hardtop generates significant noise. Without a breeze outside, it’s surprisingly quiet, but that doesn’t happen often. We assume the Jeep’s standard soft top would be even louder, though easier to remove and store.
We’re more than happy to take that noise tradeoff, though, because the Jeep is more enjoyable otherwise on-road, much more fun off-road, and because you can remove the roof and the doors, and you can’t beat that for the fun factor, even if it means you need to slow down more for corners the rest of the time.
While value is always subjective, price isn’t. A Gladiator Sport with the automatic starts from $51,635, with a CrewCab Ranger XLT from $38,329. That’s a wide gap in price, and the largest gap in content really is the versatility and fun of taking off your doors and roof. Start ticking options, and our XLT Ranger tester rang up to $48,489 while our Jeep was $62,190, both before destination. Could you shrink the gap by going easy on the options list? Yes. Could you close it completely? No, especially if you want the even more off-road capable Gladiator Rubicon, which can get even closer to the $70,000 mark. Then again, look at what Porsche charges you to cut the roof off, and that roof is tiny in comparison.
These are both capable, enjoyable, comfortable compact trucks, but they make for strange comparison-mates. Because while the Jeep can do everything a compact truck can do, it offers so much more. Like Wrangler buyers who are more likely to cross-shop a Mustang than anything else from Ford, the Gladiator is so much unlike anything else, that you either really want what it has, or you aren’t interested at all. Either you want the looks, or you want the roof, and the capability and space finally let you justify those for your daily driver, or you have no desire to spend that money or get those features and you’re much happier in your Ranger.
If you want the roof, and we do, nothing else can offer it. So the extra cost is worth the special feeling the Jeep offers. Otherwise, the compromises in noise and the busy steering (and the price) don’t really make sense. If you’re ready to wave at everything with two round lights and seven bars in the grille, go Gladiator. Otherwise, take the lone Ranger.