It might seem crazy given the superstar status of pick-up sales these days but the last time iconic off-road manufacturer Jeep offered a pick-up truck was nearly three decades ago when the last Comanche rolled off the production line in Toledo, Ohio back in 1992.
To say it’s been a while is probably the understatement of the year. And no one at Jeep seems to be able to tell us why it took so long to produce another pick-up given the brand’s history in the segment that dates back to 1947, just two years after the end of World War Two when Willys Overland introduced the one-ton ‘Jeep Pickup’ based on the CJ-2A series.
Jeep followed it up with a hardcore work truck called the Forward Control in the late 1950s which was hailed as the prefect snow drift buster and a truck that would go anywhere you pointed the steering wheel.
And, believe it or not, the Gladiator badge was first introduced in 1963 and soldiered on in production all the way up until 1987 – that’s 24 years with exactly the same body style but under various different model names such as the Scrambler, based on the CJ-7 but with a longer wheelbase.
Jeep teased its fans with the Gladiator concept in 2005, though failed to send it into production despite a wave of demand from countless enthusiasts. But with pick-up sales running at record highs for more than a decade and Wrangler owners wanting even more utility, the all-new Jeep Gladiator has finally arrived, at least in the United States.
Aussie buyers will need to hang on to their cash until mid-2020 for their Gladiators, though we won’t know dates, pricing or even trim levels until much closer to its release here next year.
And, as the saying goes, it’ll be worth the wait, because on first impressions this thing is looking seriously like the new benchmark in the segment. Besides its unique looks, this is a vehicle that delivers on a whole range of fronts including even ride comfort.
Moreover, we’d go further and suggest the Gladiator is one of those rare vehicles that has the has the right amount of ‘wow’ factor to induce that must-have feeling from the very moment you first lay eyes on it - and not just from Jeep fan boys and off-road enthusiasts either, but anyone looking for one of the coolest pick-ups on the planet. And that’s before you even climb aboard this thing and crush a few boulders on your favourite off-road playground.
Aesthetically, it really does look fantastic, though you might be surprised, even shocked, by its sheer length - almost 5.6 metres (5.539m to be precise). By way of comparison, a long wheelbase version of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class only stretches 5.246 metres. So, for those hoping to park their Jeep in the garage – you’re probably going to need a bigger one.
From a design standpoint the Gladiator cuts a silhouette unlike anything in its class. It’s unmistakably Jeep, instantly iconic and only available in a dual-cab body with solid axles. It pays homage to the CJ Series with its round headlights and seven-slot keystone grille, but even that has been tinkered with to allow for better cooling due to the increased loads.
And, don’t think of the Gladiator as a Wrangler with a tray welded onto the back either, because according to Jeep, it’s so much more than that. For starters, it’s the only dual-cab ute with removable doors and roof as well as a folding windshield should you want that genuine off-road freedom so many other brands seem to aspire to.
With the Gladiator, though, it’s 100 per cent legit. Previously on the Wrangler you practically needed an engineering degree to remove and replace even the roof panels, at least in good time. Now, it’s a quick and easy task you can assign to the kids if you wish. Just flick a couple of latches and job done.
Mind, it’s still a body-on-frame design in line with Wrangler’s DNA with which it also shares a good number of parts because Jeep wanted to maximise trailer tow, cargo and payload. To that end Jeep will tell you the Gladiator is effectively a whole new vehicle requiring countless engineering mods in order to accommodate the higher level of utility required from a pick-up in this class.
Take the cooling system. It’s been upgraded with a new 850W fan for the 3.6 Pentastar V6 petrol engine it will launch with, while a 940W unit has been developed for the diesel-equipped Gladiators which will arrive later down the track. Even the power steering unit has had its cooling beefed up to deal with the additional loads of a pick-up.
Despite our drive program on- and off-road being typically abbreviated given the number of journalists and vehicles available at the event in California, it was the sheer level of on-road refinement that surprised us more than anything else. This wasn’t what we were expecting of a Jeep ute with a zero payload.
To be honest, we couldn’t quite believe it was a hardcore Jeep, let alone a Jeep ute. The way this thing soaked up bumps and broken road was even more extraordinary, given its formidable off-road prowess which we would experience first-hand later the same day. And that’s on 17-inch wheels wrapped in 255/70 Bridgestone Dueler HT 685s.
We still had our doubts, so we sought out the worst sections of bitumen in order to retest this newfound ride comfort. The results were the exactly the same even after aggressively attacking busted-up edges across semi-rural terrain in an attempt to unsettle the vehicle. No such luck. Not even mid-corner bumps taken at reasonable clip were enough to bring the Gladiator unstuck.
It goes to show the level of engineering effort that has gone into the development of the Gladiator in terms of everyday drivability and vehicle dynamics. To help with that there’s a hydraulic body mount at the C-pillar of the frame to the body. They’ve also employed dynamic engine mounts to help separate powertrain shake from body shake. And, yes, it works a treat.
But, it’s the rear suspension on Gladiator that really sets it apart from the from its Wrangler counterpart. Engineers borrowed heavily from the Ram 1500 truck’s suspension architecture taking components like the upper and lower control arms. The frame, too, has been reinforced using high-strength steel and is exclusive to Gladiator.
It’s more composed on-road than the latest Wrangler and on par or better than any of its rivals thanks in part to its five-link coil suspension set-up, while full-width track bars made of forged steel, minimise lateral movement of the axle.
The 1.5-metre tray is steel with four cross members fabricated from more high-strength steel and mounted to the frame. Even the tailgate is unique to the segment. Not for its aluminium construction but for its three-stage damped positioning functionality for easy opening and closing and carting longer cargo.
Look closely on the left-hand side of the tray lining and you’ll find the numbers ‘419’ – the area code for Toledo, Ohio, where Jeeps are made. It’s one of several cool features that pay homage to its history.
Same goes for the bonnet latches which were inspired by ski boots, in-line with the kind of lifestyles Jeep owners apparently aspire to. The designers went out and bought a bunch of different ski boots and came up with what they believed to be the best design for the Gladiator. It goes to show the level of detail afforded this vehicle during its development.
It’s not just the ride comfort that impresses with Gladiator, either, chassis balance is also better than expected, so you’re not always aware of its length, even when you’re hustling across some inherently bumpy and undulating roads in these parts.
It feels good to drive, too, with a decent level of feedback through the steering wheel and good solid progression through the brake and throttle pedals. In fact, the braking has been boosted with upsized rear brakes over Wrangler by 25 per cent along with stronger wheels to boot.
Not only that, the front leather buckets offer sufficient levels bolstering as well as solid cushioning making this cabin a thoroughly comfortable place to be – that’s both driver’s seat or front passenger – we tried both. Rear leg and knee space is good too even for six-footers with plenty of room under the seats to slide your boots under, too.
Some might find the steering a tad light on centre, at least, initially. But it’s something we quickly got used to even at freeway speeds and more importantly, it’s nice and responsive.
All Gladiators at launch were equipped with Jeep’s trusty 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine mated to an eight-speed auto transmission putting out 209kW and 353Nm of torque which is what Gladiator will launch with locally. But, you’d have to assume a decent number of buyers will likely hold out for the 3.0-litre EcoDiesel V6 which makes 194kW and a thumping 660Nm, especially as it will come exclusively with the same eight-speed auto.
However, there’s no shortage of shove from the petrol motor to get the Gladiator off the line with the usual urgency at the traffic lights, despite its mediocre torque output. Same goes for high-speed overtaking manoeuvres. The engine spins feely and the new eight-speed auto is smooth, responsive, and linear in its power delivery. Only under full throttle does it ever get a bit noisy, but even then we wouldn’t call it harsh or uncouth.
Same goes for the Gladiator’s tow rating – 7650 pounds (3469kg), but that could move up or down when it arrives in Australia depending on spec and other factors while payload is rated at 1600 pounds (776kg).
It’s all the more impressive given its 2119kg heft for the Sport Auto (2301kg for the Rubicon), which is surprisingly lightweight for a vehicle of this type and dimension, thanks to its aluminium tailgate, doors, hinges, bonnet, guards and windshield frame.
For the off-road loop we hopped into the more focused Rubicon version. But that’s not to say the standard Gladiator is any kind of lightweight when it comes to off-road prowess.
It all starts with approach and departure angles which is where the Gladiator smokes all its rivals – 40.8 and 25 degrees respectively and a breakover angle of 18.4 degrees – and that’s just the Sport and Overland versions. The Rubicon takes it to a whole new level with 43.4- and 26-degree angles while its breakover angle increases by almost two to 20.3 degrees.
Those angles were largely put to the test through a mix of deep, muddy ruts and relatively steep rock facings, but as expected, it was barely a challenge for the hardcore Gladiator.
The results are spectacular for a Jeep of this length, though, hardly a surprise given it's equipped with the same heavy-duty arsenal of off-road systems as the equivalent Wrangler, such as diff-lockers and disconnecting front sway bar. There’s also an unmatched crawl ratio of 77:1 and a wade depth of 760mm while underneath the Gladiator uses the same Dana 44 front and rear axles as the Wrangler Rubicon.
On the rock crawl sections there was plenty noise underneath but that’s just the underbody protection at work. Standard-fit on Gladiator are four skid plates protecting the front, transmission, transfer case and fuel tank. Tow hooks number up to four (two front & two rear) on Rubicon.
Of course every Gladiator is four-wheel drive and gets a full-time transfer case offering both an active full-time mode and a fixed-lock differential mode. There’s also some brand new technology dubbed Off-road +, which is able to communicate to the vehicle as to the type of terrain while tailoring a variety of systems in the truck, like re-mapping the throttle, changing shift points and recalibrating the vehicle’s electronic stability control for optimum performance in tricky terrain like sand, where throttle response is critical.
There’s also a new forward facing camera, dubbed TrailCam, that allows you to view any obstacles ahead as well as offering an integrated wash feature and virtual tyre tracks indicating the correct steering direction required.
Inside, it’s pretty much identical to the latest-generation Wrangler we drove late last year on a trip from Los Angeles to Encinitas – and we were impressed then, with the level of standard kit on board as well as a higher quality fit and finish new to the model.
Front and centre is a new 8.4-inch touchscreen housing the fourth-generation Uconnect system with quicker response rates and significantly better resolution that also features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And as you’d expect with removable doors and roof, there a lockable storage bins as well as USB ports up front and back, while LED lighting is available in the tray.
We also like the proper metal facings and bolt throughout the dash giving the Gladiator more of a semi-premium look and feel, though still with a rugged ambience about it.
And while we won’t know Australian trim levels for a while yet, we’d tick the industry-first removable Bluetooth wireless speaker that sits neatly behind the right-hand rear seat. It’s a decent size and when not removed, only serves to enhance the audio inside the Gladiator. Oh, it’s also waterproof.
Safety has always been a contentious issue for Wrangler which has previously attracted a one-star safety rating, though, given the Gladiator is available with a raft of active safety systems including adaptive cruise control with full stop, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross path detection to name some – though we’re not sure if these will be offered as standard kit on Australian-delivered models or as part of an optional safety package as they are in the US – we’d expect to see a high rating applied here.
Jeep has nailed it good and proper with its all-new Gladiator. This is an exceptional pick-up truck, unique in its ability to go where few if any rivals can while at the same time offering all the utility and ride comfort of the very best in the segment.
It’s a complete surprise.
NOTE: The safety score for this review has been revised down from 6 to 5, based on our published ratings rationale. This changes our overall score from 8.2, to 8.1. We apologise for the initial error.