The mid-size truck market is on fire, and Jeep just poured gasoline into the flames with its red-hot Gladiator pickup truck.

The most anticipated truck launch of the year happened last week out in northern California when Jeep invited automotive journalists to drive the new Gladiator in some challenging off-road conditions. It was wet, it was rocky, it was muddy and there was elevation on this off-road test drive.

Jeep couldn’t have it any other way.

For years, Jeep fans have been asking “Where’s the Jeep truck?” Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep brand, told automotive journalists gathered for the Gladiator launch. It’s actually been 27 years since Jeep last sold a truck in the United States. It’s been a long wait for Jeep loyalists, but after spending a full day in the Gladiator, the wait was well worth it. Tallon nailed it when he described the Gladiator as “100 percent Jeep, 100 percent truck.”

The journalists were turned loose in Jeep Gladiators after an early-morning press conference and walk-around. First, we drove about 100 miles on twisting California highways into the Sierra Nevada mountains, then hit a challenging and sloppy off-road course with mud, ruts, rocks and elevation…and lots of rain.

In some pretty challenging conditions, the Gladiator showed its off-road chops in a big way. There was enough rain in Sacramento last week to make a Louisiana boy feel right at home. The off-road course set up by Jeep soon had 16-inch-deep ruts 16 inches deep. But with all the off-road capability you need, the Gladiator made quick work of those ruts, the rock climbs and other off-road challenges.

The Gladiator is like a Wrangler with a truck bed, but it’s much more than that. After just a few hours on the technical off-road course I found that the Gladiator’s off-road abilities certainly rival those of the iconic Wrangler. Also – like the Wrangler – the Gladiator’s doors, windshield and roof all are removable, offering a true open-air truck experience.

The Gladiator has the same 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine and is available with an 8-speed automatic transmission or a 6-speed manual (a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 is coming later this year). The V6 develops 285 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. All Gladiators are 4WD.

Four trims will be offered: the base Sport which starts at $33,545, the Sport S which starts at $36,745, the Overland which starts at $40,395 and the top off-roader Rubicon starting at $43,545. Those starting prices are for the Gladiator with the manual transmission. Add $2,000 for the automatic.

The Gladiator Rubicon can climb over some serious obstacles with an approach angle of 43.4 degrees, a breakover angle of 20.3 inches, a departure angle of 26 degrees and a ground clearance of up to 11.1 inches. With electronics high up in the vehicle, the Gladiator can ford water up to 30 inches without snorkels or other special equipment.

But it doesn’t stop there. Remember that 100-percent Jeep, 100-percent truck thing?

When it arrives in dealerships later this summer, the Gladiator will have a best-in-class towing rating of up to 7,650 pounds and a 4X4 payload of 1,600 pounds. It’s got a 5-foot steel bed and a damped aluminum tailgate. Since Jeep realizes owners like to personalize their vehicles with Mopar parts, Jeep coordinated the launch of the Gladiator with Mopar, which will have more than 200 parts and accessories ready to go when the vehicle goes on sale.

The Gladiator will have three available tops, two hard and one soft. A camera in the Rubicon trim is mounted in the 7-slot grille, giving the off-road driver a look at what’s directly in front of the wheels. It’s a valuable addition in some off-road conditions, where wheel direction can mean the difference between getting through a tough spot or getting stuck, or worse.

Infotainment and connectivity are by FCA’s Fourth Generation Uconnect system, one of the most intuitive on the market. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are supported. Touchscreens with crystal clear graphics are either 7 or 8.4 inches.

Jeep designers paid special attention to the small details. A tool kit is included to remove the doors and roof, and there are places in the vehicle to store the small pieces. If you’re one of those “a place for everything and everything in its place” types like I am, you’ll be thrilled that you don’t have to keep track of all the bits and pieces.

Safety tests haven’t yet been completed, but the Gladiator has a full complement of airbags, a backup camera, roadside assistance and other safety technologies.

Jeep sales in the U.S. were up 17 percent last year, with more than 1.5 million Jeeps sold, and this new mid-size off-roader will likely be a big seller when it begins arriving in showrooms in May. Watch for more on the new Gladiator in the WHEELS section later this summer.

2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport S

Engine: 3.6-liter Pentastar V6

Horsepower/Torque: 285/260 lb.-ft.

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Price: $36,745 (plus $1,495 freight)

EPA Mileage Estimates: 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway/19 mpg combined

Estimated Highway Range: 484 miles