First drive: rock crawling and mud slinging in the 2020 Jeep Gladiator
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As the dual cab ute segment fills up with more recreational-focused models, Jeep is adding its Gladiator to the mix — just don’t call it a Wrangler with a tray on the back.
The Gladiator is Jeep’s first double-cab four-wheel drive ute in 27 years and it is on sale now in the US before arriving in New Zealand next year.
Jeep NZ’s distributor, Ateco, is getting ready for the ute to enter a market that has seen Ford’s Ranger ute as the top-selling vehicle for three straight years.
“As the New Zealand market is dominated by utes, the Gladiator will offer a premium off-road option for the discerning ute buyer,” Ateco Group sales and marketing manager, Lawrie Malatios told Driven.
Prices and specs for the New Zealand Gladiator will be announced closer to launch date. But what will make the Gladiator stand out in New Zealand’s busy double cab ute segment is that it comes with two convertible variants. One is a soft top that folds behind the rear passengers, and the second one has removable roof panels and a fold-down windscreen.
Like the latest Wrangler JL, the doors of the Gladiator are also removable, making it the only ute with open air driving.
Jeep USA decided in 2017 to add a ute to the medium-sized pick up truck segment and it took just a year to create the Gladiator, using the double cab four-wheel drive Wrangler JL as the base for the ute.
Jeep extended the Wrangler’s tail-shaft, brake and fuel lines, and exhaust system to fit the 5669mm long Gladiator.
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Compared to the Wrangler Unlimited, the Gladiator’s wheelbase is 492mm longer and an increase in 787mm in overall length. But it shares the Wrangler’s water fording of 763mm and 282mm ground clearance.
The Gladiator’s 1525mm long tray is constructed of steel. It features under-rail lighting, a 115V/400W power outlet, and built-in tie-down points.
This tray makes it ideal for recreational market — and that’s where Jeep is aiming for, whether it is mountain bikes, kayaks, surfboards or off-road bikes.
It’s not the first Gladiator for the brand. The nameplate was on the J-series from 1963 to 1987. But the latest Gladiator isn’t made for the tradies.
At the press conference for the launch in Sacramento, California, the head of Jeep Brand North America, Tim Kuniskis, said the Gladiator was “unquestionably a truck and instantly recognisable as a Jeep. The all-new Gladiator is the ultimate vehicle for any outdoor adventure. There was tremendous demand for this unique vehicle. Born from a rich and proud heritage of tough, dependable Jeep trucks, Gladiator combines rugged utility, versatility and functionality resulting in the most capable mid-size truck ever.”
But at that press conference, Jeep made it clear that “it’s not just a Wrangler with a tray on the back” instead the engineers and designers had created a stand-alone ute.
From launch, the Gladiator range will be powered by Chrysler’s 3.6-litre V6 petrol with 209kW of power and 347Nm of torque and paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission.
By late 2020 or early 2021, it will get a 195kW Fiat-sourced 3-litre EcoDiesel V6.
It has a towing capacity of 3470kg, and payload of 745kg, while in true Jeep style it comes with the same Command-Trac and Rock-Trac 4x4 systems as the Wrangler JL. That means third-generation Dana 44 axles, Tru-Lock front and rear diff locks, Trac-Lok limited-slip rear diff and Jeep’s segment-exclusive sway bar disconnect system.
There are three models — the Sport S, Overland or Rubicon — and all are five seaters. Jeep will also offer its accessory Trail Rail Cargo Management System, spray-on bed-liner, bed divider and tonneau cover as part of its 200-part MOPAR accessories catalogue. The Gladiator Rubicon variants have 33in off-road tyres plus underbody bash plates, front and rear recovery hooks, a steel rear bumper and winch-compatible front bumper.
From the front, the Gladiator could be mistaken for a Wrangler and carries over a similar interior. Inside, the cabin of the Gladiator comes with cloth or leather upholstery, heated seats and steering wheel, and a rear bench. In-cabin storage comes via a 60:40 split-fold rear seat (with lockable under-seat storage) plus USB and 12V power outlets. It has front and rear cameras (while the front has its own washer) plus blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control and electronic stability control.
Driving from just outside Sacramento to a “ranch” near the Eldorado National Forest, the Gladiator drove similar to the Wrangler, albeit with the extra weight in the back from the tray. On the freeway at speeds up to 120km/h, the steering felt too soft and, like I said in my review of the Wrangler JL, I would have preferred a stiffer sport option.
But on the ranch, we swapped from a Sport S into a Rubicon and that’s where the Jeep heritage came to light. As you can see from the cover photo of Driven and the images here, the off-road route was rock bashing at its hardest — something you wouldn’t encounter in New Zealand unless you were lost in the Kaimai Ranges!
And what about in New Zealand? My pick would be the soft-top folding roof variant as it’s unique and would dominate the recreational ute segment.