It’s exactly the sound you don’t want to hear, especially when you’re in a 4WD you don’t own: the screech of steel and rock grinding away at each other, peppered with the thudding of bigger hits.
I’m sitting at the top of a steep, rocky climb out the back of Moab, Utah, during the 55th Easter Jeep Safari. I’ve come over to the other side of the world to spend some time behind the wheel of the Jeep Gladiator, which will be coming to Australia in 2020. It’s a new 4x4 ute, which means it’s going to be an important one in Australia.
Reaching the top, I start turning sharply to help alleviate the breakover tummy rub. But, with a huge 137.3 inches of wheelbase (3487mm), the hit is inevitable. There’s a thud, and then a slow grind as we continue to crawl forward, up and over.
Most media events and 4WD test drives are not like this. While brand representatives will wax lyrical about prodigious off-road ability with puffed-out chests during press briefings, the time you spend behind the wheel is often short, and on a loop that feels suspiciously like it was crafted so you don’t bottom out or risk getting stuck.
But this drive is different. Along with steep climbs and drops on the iconic slickrock (which is ironically quite grippy in the dry), there are some big steps and tricky situations to negotiate here. We regularly bottom out, and need to be crafty with our line.
We’re driving the best variant of the Gladiator (or Wrangler, for that matter): Rubicon. It’s got all of those traditional 4WD values that many 4WDers know and love: coil-sprung live axles at both ends, more ground clearance with good quality 33-inch all-terrain tyres. There’s a part-time 4WD driveline, with a lever-operated 4:1 transfer case and locking differentials. There’s also a disconnecting swaybar on the front, steel protection where it counts, and a prodigiously low 77:1 crawl ratio.
This comes on top of the 4WD-oriented live axles and coil springs, and chassis designed around good off-road clearance. The stock Wrangler is a good off-road unit, but the Rubicon is pretty untouchable. Interestingly, the Gladiator comes with a Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tyre in lieu of the usual BFGoodrich tyres that the Wrangler gets. You can option mud-terrain tyres in the same size from the showroom, as well. Hallelujah.
Up ahead of us on the track, a two-door JL Wrangler, augmented by a factory two-inch lift and 35-inch tyres, pops up and disappears over hilly and beautiful red-rock countryside. It’s not even looking like bottoming out, as it crawls up and down big rocky slopes and offset steps. The Gladiator, armed with factory 33-inch rubber and suspension, is making regular contact with earth, but at no point does it stop or get properly hung up.
While your breakover and departure angles of the 5.5m-long Gladiator are naturally worse off, extra wheelbase can be a real benefit off-road at the same time. Compared to a 'shorty', the Gladiator feels very stable and predictable on steep angles, and you’re often able to pop your front wheels over tricky spots before the rear end gets caught up. I’ve got a 4WD with a 127-inch wheelbase myself, and love it off-road.
While we are on the subject of wheelbase, don’t think the Gladiator is just a stretched Wrangler. The chassis has been reworked quite a bit from the B-pillar backwards to make the overall length and load rating work. It’s beefed up in important spots, and the rear suspension is of a different design to a JL Wrangler.
Interestingly, the control arms and general five-link geometry at the rear are pinched directly from a Ram 1500; the part numbers for the control arms are even the same. Although the Wrangler also has a five-link set-up, the Gladiator’s rear suspension has more of a bent towards being able to handle the duties of a working ute more than the Wrangler. Forward-facing shocks and longer, uncranked control arms with huge bushings are parts of this picture.
The rear probably won’t outright flex as much as a JL Wrangler, especially when unladen, but don’t forget a longer chassis will have its own inbuilt articulation. Regardless, the Gladiator feels much more supple and balanced off-road than any other dual-cab ute – except maybe for the Ranger Raptor. Maybe. The surface we’re on is grippy, but this Gladiator feels very confidence-inspiring off-road. I’m not a ‘Jeep’ guy, but bugger me if this isn’t going to be the most compelling proper 4x4 to land in Australia in a long time.
When the media drive was finished, I felt like the Gladiator still had a bit more to give in terms of pushing its off-road capability. In a quest to find out, I managed to scam myself a seat with some guys driving bog-stock Gladiator Rubicons along Poison Spider, a tough technical track in Moab where 37-inch tyres and a 100-inch wheelbase reign supreme. We’ve got less rubber and much more wheelbase. Our first run was great, but this next track would be properly challenging.
With big steps and tight switchbacks to negotiate, the Gladiator continued to impress. With the full gamut of traction aids deployed, the ute pushed itself up some huge steps – some of them made quite slippery from a good coating of loose sand. This is a track where any other dual-cab ute would simply fold up into a mess of busted panels or be at a high risk of rollover. We were the only stock 4WDs on the track, save for one old TJ Wrangler that was also doing admirably well.
What I really like about the Gladiator is that Jeep has spent a lot of time preparing it for these inevitable hits and slides off-road. The most vulnerable mid-belly, sills and rear corners are all protected with stout, clean-looking and well-designed steel. Your approach angle is rarely a worry: the front wheels sit nice and forward, which is another reason for the super-long wheelbase.
This all means when you’re forced to bump your way over a big obstacle with some extra momentum, you can do it with a bit of confidence. Equally, Dana 44 differentials at each end, in their third ‘Advantek’ generation, have an 8200Nm rating through their 220mm ring gear, which is the right kind of gear you want underneath.
The places I found copping the worst off-road hits were the rear lower control arm mounts, which sit most exposed on the underside of the chassis rail. Other manufacturers have mounted these higher on the chassis (think Defender, Patrol), which does help with clearance a little. When you compare it to a JL Wrangler, you see how much more exposed the Gladiator’s mounting point is. The mounting itself is pretty strong at least, and handled the dozen-plus hits we gave it with no worries.
Off-road driving done, we’re back on the bitumen to head into town, and the evaluation isn’t over. Regardless of how good a vehicle might be off-road, it still needs to be a decent jigger on the highway. Tony Crawford was super impressed with how composed and refined the Gladiator was in Sport Spec at a recent drive, so I had high hopes.
The Rubicon rides higher on 33-inch all-terrain rubber, which makes it a bit less refined, but it’s still an impressively smooth runner on-road. And kudos to the Fox-branded two-inch monotube shocks, which give good damping performance over rough patches.
Engine and rear body mounts are hydraulic, the coils are progressive, and that long wheelbase yields an overall impressively smooth ride. It’s quiet and unfussy, with steering that’s a far cry from what those who drive a live-axle 4WD would be used to. Yes, yes, there are nicer riding, quieter, more dynamic and smoother vehicles out there, but the fact that this is so good with big all-terrain rubber and live axles (truckloads of unsprung mass there) is impressive.
The interior is stolen directly from the Wrangler, which I don’t think is a bad thing. There’s a square and flat design to it peppered with rocker switches and a cluster of HVAC controls giving it a rugged machismo. The quality overall feels quite good, with nice materials that don’t wiggle or rattle.
The infotainment unit, FCA’s latest Uconnect in an 8.4-inch flavour, has all of the connectivity you crave, along with a fairly functional and user-friendly design. Bonus points for the free accessory switches, and Off Road Pages for bragging about your steepest angles. Behind the wheel, I felt comfortable. There is tilt and rake adjustment, and you've got enough range through the seat adjustments to dial yourself in.
Second-row comfort is impressive, as well. There's a good amount of knee and foot room, and head room is huge. The taller folks amongst us will worry about banging into the internal frame in front of their forehead, and visibility isn't particularly great. We specifically like the stadium-style seats that flip around multiple ways for practicality and additional storage.
I’ve always loved the impressive off-road ability of a Wrangler, especially in Rubicon form. Its rather one-dimensional usage of shorter, technical off-roading doesn’t suit the Australian buyer nearly as well as the American one. We want a 4x4 that’s good off-road, but also able to do plenty of other stuff adeptly: spend days behind the wheel without pulling out your hair; haul around your mates or family in non-complaining comfort; and load it up to the gunwales with accessories, camping gear, or a load to the tip (provincial or municipal). And as good as the Wrangler was off-road, it was limited in many other senses.
The big potential of the Gladiator lies in its much wider and deeper appeal thanks to its 1500mm tray, bigger payload and decent towing capacity. At the same time, Jeep hasn’t diluted the base Wrangler traits: iconic design and traditional, monumental off-road capability.
Whip out the Casio, because it’s time to crunch some numbers. What lies under the bonnet is often not the most important part of a 4WD’s capability. If you’ve got some really good reduction gearing through the gearbox, transfer case and diffs, then an old worn-out 2.0-litre petrol will out-drive a big, bruising V8 with no reduction gearing any day of the week.
The Wrangler Rubicon has a 4:1 transfer case and 4.1:1 diff ratios. Multiply that all up with the 4.7:1 first-gear ratio, and you've got a sumptuous 77:1 overall reduction in low-range, first gear. Compare that to anything this side of a Mercedes Unimog or Iveco Daily, and they will come up painfully short. It means you can crawl at a very slow pace up, down and over whatever is on the track, with lots of time to think about your line.
Under the bonnet you’ll find an old suspect lurking: the 3.6-litre Pentastar petrol V6. It’ll drink 91RON petrol happily, and return a quoted 12 litres per hundred kilometres (combined). We can’t really give you a solid number on what we used, because we were jumping between different cars a fair bit and spent a vast majority of our time off-road.
FCA has pumped out 8.6 million Pentastar motors since 2010, which has now been slightly tweaked up to 209kW and 353Nm. What’s helped it most is the new eight-speed gearbox, which makes the V6 more efficient and refined, and less rev-tastic. It's pretty refined and grunty enough to push the 2.3 tonnes of Gladiator along smartly.
Australians love those less refined dinosaur bones to fuel their 4WDs, which brings with it both good and bad news.
Jeep says a new iteration of the Fiat/VM Motori 3.0-litre V6 diesel, which you’ll currently find under the bonnet of the Grand Cherokee and Maserati Levante, and is due for the ASV Ram 1500, will come to fruition for the Gladiator. Additional good news is that it’ll be more powerful, with 190kW and 660Nm available. That's 80Nm more than the top-spec Amarok.
The bad news is it won’t be available at launch, and any dates offered by Jeep should likely be taken with a grain of salt. Demand for the Wrangler and Gladiator is high domestically, so the wait for a diesel Gladiator in Australia might be a long one. The Wrangler's launch in Australia got delayed plenty, and I'd wager the same thing might happen with the Gladiator.
The Gladiator Rubicon does bring a few technology advents not yet seen on the shorter Wrangler. One is TrailCam, which even has a washer jet for the inevitable mud and dust. It’s nestled amongst the seven grille slots, and can be used for wheel placement off-road, while quality of the image is quite high.
There’s also an off-road Cruise Control, similar to what Land Rover and Toyota have done for a little while. It’s like hill descent control, but also works to control throttle on the flat and uphill, with a lowest possible setting of 0.5mph, or just under 1km/h.
And what I think is the best is the Off Road+ button. Along with letting you run with a rear locker at higher speeds (good for sand driving), your throttle response gets dialled right back to the point of feeling doughy. It’s a good thing, trust me. You can slowly feed in throttle with some great control off-road, which helps when you’ve got such low gearing behind a revvy petrol V6.
What about GVM, GCM and towing capacity? Fine questions, and ones we won’t know 100 per cent until we drive the full Aussie-spec model. The figure Jeep in America quotes is 1600lb of payload, which translates to 725kg. No, it’s not a tonne. But I’ll hold my opinion until we can properly test it on Australian soil.
Likewise, with the towing capacity. The quoted 7650lb is right on the 3.5-tonne mark for Australia, but the proof will be in the pudding, along with the important Gross Combination Mass. It's nice to know that Jeep has upped the axle tube thickness of the front differential, which will no doubt help with overall load capacity.
And, of course, there is that big question mark of safety. The Wrangler really got out of the wrong side of the bed with a one-star Euro NCAP safety rating, which is difficult to see as anything but a dismal failure. The Gladiator is a different vehicle, however. And while it does share a bit with the Wrangler, there is plenty that sets it apart. Let's just hope it performs better.
The Gladiator is very likely going to be the most off-road-capable 4x4 ute that money can buy. It'll also be able to tow and haul, but the question mark is still 'how much, and how well?'. Let me tell you, I'm champing at the bit to find out.