Mucking it up with the Jeep Gladiator, Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, and Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

October 11, 2019

It was rainy, the forest was overgrown, the trail was rutted with pools of mud. In other words, it was perfect for off-roading.

The contenders on this typical Midwestern fall day were the refreshed 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro Double Cab, the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, and the new Bison package on the 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. 

While all three are packaged for off-roading, these mid-size pickup trucks have distinct personalities. 

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

The Gladiator is the much-anticipated new kid on the block, with the best technology, gadgetry, and looks. It’s a longer Wrangler with a bed, and has the off-road pedigree to boot. Unlike every other truck, it's one spec only—one bed size and one cab configuration. Also unlike every other truck, it is a convertible with three removable roof options. As the new kid, it thinks a lot of itself, as reflected by the Rubicon tester’s $60,000 price tag. It also makes the old driver feel like a new kid. 

The Taco is the stalwart, the tried and true, the old. The best-selling small truck is for people who just want a small truck. It hasn’t changed all that much since 2005, even with a new engine, improved suspension, and a few more creature comforts added in the 2016 update. For 2020, the TRD Pro gets new 10-way power adjustable seats that can raise or lower for better sightlines based on the driver’s height. Also new is the awesome Army Green color, which is the perfect off-roading color. The Taco can handle just about anything, will last forever with minimal trips to the shop, and overall is solid, dependable, and capable—everything truck shoppers want, unless, of course, they want something new.

The Colorado returned in 2015 and quickly became a hot alternative to the Tacoma, with better infotainment, a cleaner and larger interior, and a more comfortable overall everyday ride, thanks in part to its Multimatic shocks. The $5,750 Bison package is made in partnership with American Expedition Vehicles, an off-road aftermarket manufacturer, that includes wider track width, 2-inch higher suspension, more comprehensive skid plates and more. While the Colorado ZR2 has more trim, bed, and cab options, the Bison comes only as a crew cab with a short box. 

Off-road in some Midwestern muck at a closed course on the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill., the mid-size trucks lived up to their DNA. While they all handled the the course that was part wooded slop and part open banking prairie, the ZR2 Bison diesel did not perform as confidently as the TRD Pro or the Gladiator Rubicon. 

A foot of rain over the weekend swelled the rocky creek into a deep brooding river, so the off-road course had to be diverted away from the water fording element. There was a 20-foot long by 6-inch puddle to traverse, however, that kicked up enough mud to plaster my sleeve through the open window. The narrow trail serpentined through a rising and falling forest, then kicked out to a mesa where the trucks had to climb the high side then make a wide sloppy U-turn before coming down and banking those rutted prairie curves. These higher speed tests was far more thrilling than the lead-follow laps on the track, and provided some insights into how these trucks would be driven in the real world. Overall, the course was a lot like driving on Midwestern hunting grounds. Each truck had to gear down into two-wheel low, or rear-drive limited to low speed, which is best for climbing and descending.  

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

The Gladiator is powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 with 8-speed automatic transmission churning 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. It has a 4:1 axle ratio like heavy duty trucks that provides plenty of low-end torque, and Dana 44 Wide front and rear locking axles. The 17-inch by 7.5-inch wheels were wrapped in 33-inch mud-terrain tires. It got up and down the muddy bank without a slip and did everything you’d expect from a Wrangler Rubicon. All those wild youthful fantasies of conquering where few men have ventured comes true in the Gladiator, and the front camera mounted in the grill ($595) and projected into the touchscreen—replete with a lens cleaning spray—provided safety in negotiating tight turns walled by trees. 

In these conditions, the 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro Double Cab provided as much confidence as the Gladiator for a much lower price. The $725 snorkel, which Toyota calls a desert air intake, was mostly for looks, and the TRD Pro was old school in the sense that to engage 2L we had to put it in neutral then wait a few ticks as the 4x4 system with a 2-speed electronically controlled transfer case got ready to work its magic. Unlike the other two, the TRD Pro only had a selectable rear locker, no front locker, and had smaller 16-inch wheels wrapped in 30-inch all-terrain tires. At higher speeds of about 30 mph on the mesa, the 3.5-liter V-6 with 6-speed automatic transmission making 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque hustled and bounded like a dog let off its leash. It was better at negotiating the trees than the Gladiator, maybe because of the shorter proportions. Both it and the Bison are half a foot shorter with nearly 10-inch shorter wheelbase than the Gladiator. The Gladiator rides taller and is not as wide. 

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Of the three, the Colorado felt the most truck-like on the course, which is not ideal for an off-road model. The Bison has front and rear selectable lockers, but on our course it slid much more than the other two models, and had trouble climbing the muddy bank, with the rear sliding horizontally instead of grabbing and lifting the cab up the hill like the other two. Even with the 17-inch wheels and 32-inch all-terrain tires, it did not inspire the same confidence, and would’ve made me think twice about attacking anything steeper. The approach and departure angles aren’t as good as the Tacoma, and the Bison diesel seemed to labor more than the other two. Maybe it was the higher axle ratio than the other two; torque is what you want off-road and the 2.8-liter turbodiesel inline-4 with 6-speed automatic transmission making 186 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque is far more than the competitors.

2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison

On our course, the $60,380 Gladiator was the best, but not by $10,000 more than the $49,708 TRD Pro Double Cab. Most of the Rubicon’s $15,000 upgrades are cosmetic, comfort, and convenience. The only off-road necessities would be the 8-speed automatic ($2,000), and forward-facing trail camera ($595), which is awesome for seeing what the hood obstructs, especially in the woods. All-weather slush mats aren’t a bad option for $150. So it could cost the same as the TRD Pro, but then it’d be missing all those conveniences, comforts, and roof options that make the Gladiator unique.

2019
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2019
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