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First drive: Jeep takes own path with Gladiator ute

Strong 4x4 capabilities mix with Wrangler style in Jeep’s unique American pick-up

15 Jan 2020

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in NEW ZEALAND

JEEP has high hopes for its big new Gladiator – the Wrangler-derived 5.5-metre-long 4x4 dual-cab pick-up truck that will land on Australian beaches in the second quarter of this year.

 

While pricing has yet to be divulged, in the United States most Gladiator models are at least $US1000 more expensive than their Wrangler five-door wagon counterparts, meaning Australians can expect sub-$70,000 pricing for the entry-level Overland model and around $75,000 for the range-topping Rubicon.

 

According to Jeep Australia president and CEO Kevin Flynn, keen pricing, sharp specification and unique Wrangler lifestyle and off-road capability attributes against less iconic-looking competitors such as the popular Ford Ranger Raptor and newly released Nissan Navara N-Trek Warrior should see the Gladiator make a sizeable impact in Australia.

 

“There’s a lot of interest, and how we handle this now post-international drive is going to be very, very key,” he told the Australian media at the Gladiator’s global launch in New Zealand.

 

“I think this vehicle gives us a real opportunity to polarise peoples’ thinking and get us really back into consideration.

 

“That’s because it is so different, because it is so competent, because it is so Jeep. This vehicle is going to do a great job for us in terms of (giving us access) to another segment to compete in, but actually also a bit of a reset for us in the market.

 

“This vehicle is key, with a number of other product activities we are going to do around it. If you look at the timings of some of the things we are planning to do, by the time this is coming in to sale, we are going to be in a lot fitter position, and therefore in a lot better position to maximise (Gladiator).”

 

Mr Flynn’s predecessor, Steve Zanlunghi, told GoAuto earlier last year that Australia is set to be the largest market for the Gladiator outside of North America, underlining the dual-cab pick-up truck’s sales importance in this country.

 

Described as both “100 per cent Jeep and 100 per cent truck”, the Toledo, Ohio-built Jeep ute measures in at 3487mm long, 1875mm wide and up to 1933mm high, and sits on a 479mm-longer wheelbase than the Wrangler, at a sizeable 3487mm.

 

For now, the body-on-frame Gladiator is unique in the world by being the only vehicle of its type that can be turned into an open vehicle – via the removal of the roof and (where legal) doors, as well as the flattening down of the windscreen.

 

From the nose to the B-pillar, almost all parts are shared with the sixth-generation JL Wrangler released in May 2019, though the JT Gladiator does have a different grille treatment. From the rear doors back, it’s all truck, with the Dodge Ram 1500 providing some of the chassis elements including a modified rear suspension system.

 

Under the bonnet is the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine as found in the Wrangler, mated to a ZF-supplied eight-speed automatic transmission.

 

In the latter, it delivers 209kW of power at 6400rpm and 347Nm of torque at 4100rpm. Stop/start fuel-saving tech is included but it is likely no manual gearbox will be made available.

 

Electro-hydraulic powered steering is a via rack and pinion arrangement, and to aid off-road progress there are coil springs and live axles at both ends, with a five-link design out back.

 

Whether the Gladiator mirrors the Wrangler’s off-road spec has yet to be seen for Australia.

 

Expect Command-Trac on the Overland, featuring a low-range transfer case with 3.73:1 final drive ratio, front and rear Dana solid axles and an off-road traction system.

 

The Rubicon should bring Rock-Trac, ushering in electronic front and rear locking differentials with an optional limited-slip diff, 4:1 low-range gearing ratio with crawl ratios, heavy-duty Dana 44 axles, electronic sway bar disconnect for greater wheel articulation and 32-inch all-terrain tyres on 17-inch rims.

 

Approach, rollover and departure angles are 40.7, 18.4 and 25 degrees respectively. Wading depth is 762mm. Underbody skid plates are fitted, while the spare wheel is mounted beneath the load tub in such a way to minimise rear overhang.

 

That load area, by the way, was designed to accommodate two trail bikes.

 

The Rubicon’s towing capacity is said to be 3175kg and its payload is an unremarkable 526kg, underscoring its position as a recreational vehicle. The Overland can tow up to 3500kg, and carry 620kg.

 

Inside, the five-seater Gladiator apes its Wrangler sibling with a horizontal dash treatment, bringing a large touchscreen multimedia system, as well as a raft of standard fitments such as keyless go, rear parking sensors, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, reverse camera and sat-nav.

 

Lockable storage compartments are found beneath the rear bench seat, and a removable Bluetooth wireless speaker lives in a special charging docking station behind the rear backrest.

 

Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) will also be included, being Overland spec, lifting the ANCAP crash-test rating above the Wrangler’s dismal one-star result – due in part to AEB not being made standard across the latter’s range.

 

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS

 

Speaking of range, out in the wilds of New Zealand’s Otago region on the South Island, the US-market spec, left-hand-drive Gladiator V6 Rubicons that Jeep flew out for the international launch out of Queenstown certainly felt right at home. Beefy, rugged and well-proportioned, you could almost hear the mental cash registers ringing as heads turned in admiration for a prolonged second look.

 

Yet even out in the wide, open spaces, the JT looks l-o-n-g long – its 5.5m length putting the Jeep in mind of larger trucks like the Ford F-Series rather than a Ranger Raptor rival.

 

While not really any wider than a Wrangler, the American pick-up will struggle to park in the dense inner-urban jungles of Australia.

 

Stepping up and inside either the front or rear seats is akin to doing so in the latest Wrangler, except there seems to be even more legroom out back than before, which is a bonus.

 

Up front, sat on comfy yet supportive buckets, the Rubicon isn’t lacking for much else either, thanks to a modern and attractive dashboard that’s good to behold, easy to operate and a cinch to live with.

 

Full marks for the clear dials (with digital speedo), user-friendly multimedia system and excellent ventilation.

 

From an aesthetic point of view, too, it’s a pleasing piece of retro-inspired work, without falling into try-hard pastiche like some of the German/UK reboots have.

 

However, will RHD Gladiators suffer from the same foibles as the JL Wrangler by having no seat height adjustment for the driver and obstructed foot-room due to the wide transmission tunnel? We’ll have to wait to find out, because neither were issues in our LHD vehicles provided on launch.

 

By the way, folding the fabric roof for cabriolet-style alfresco motoring couldn’t be easier – just unlatch and pull back – but remember that it takes a taller person to operate the unassisted manual version as per our Rubicon, since the fabric concertinas up, pointing straight into the air. It’s a bit of a stretch to reach up and yank that down and back into place.

 

On the move, three things strike you about the Gladiator Rubicon on regular, sealed roads and highways. First, the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol needs lots of revs to really hustle along; second, the off-road bias of the chassis makes the steering feel vague and slow on road, while at speed through corners, this Jeep is a handful and thus feels a little out of its depth; and third: there’s considerable noise coming through from the tough 4x4-rated tyres.

 

It seems that a Ranger has far more precision and composure as well as considerably greater refinement on the tarmac. And being diesel, the Ford relies on a steady stream of torque rather than (albeit smooth) high revs to help get things moving.

 

At least the Gladiator’s ride quality was nice and cushy.

 

Roll on the anticipated Gladiator V6 turbo-diesel. And we’re expecting better things from the Overland and other non-trail-hungry variants of Jeep’s super-ute.

 

While it’s no driver’s machine on road, the Rubicon – as the name suggests – is a boss off it.

 

Fording rivers, the JT hardly raises a sweat. It scrambled up partly-flooded terrain with craters and boulders like it was born to do so, requiring nothing more demanding than a flick of a switch here and a push of a lever there to get the right 4x4 gubbins in place.

 

And returning back down again, there was always the right ratio handy to stop the vast thing from sliding into the scenery. Very impressive stuff.

 

No loss of off-road capability there, but we’re holding high hopes back on the bitumen for the non-bush-bashing Gladiator Overland and other non-Rubicon versions.

 

In the meantime, the latter’s striking presence, contemporary interior with its family-friendly packaging and outstanding go-anywhere engineering will be hard to beat among the one-tonne pick-up truck fraternity.


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