The 2020 Jeep Gladiator fills a gap in the Jeep range that Australians have been asking for over decades now.
An ill-fated effort with the Jeep J10 in the late ’70s and into the ’80s didn’t sell well, and was far from a commercial success. However, the impetus that is being directed toward the Gladiator means it’s going to be an important pillar for the brand moving into the ’20s.
Jeep Australia hasn’t yet confirmed whether we will get the Gladiator with a diesel engine here, and pricing won’t be announced until closer to launch, but it’s safe to say that potential buyers are already working themselves into a lather at the thought of a ‘proper’ Jeep pick-up.
Our drive is part of the international launch program outside breathtaking Queenstown, New Zealand, during once-in-100-year floods.
As we experienced with the Wrangler Rubicon launch in Tasmania, few manufacturers would put their vehicles through such torture at launch. I found myself numerous times thinking that the only reason we were ploughing through the conditions we were, was because we were driving Jeeps.
As you’d expect, any Jeep wearing Rubicon badges gets the very best of everything the brand can throw at it, in terms of off-road prowess. You get coil-spring live axles front and rear, 33-inch tyres, proper ground clearance, part-time 4WD with a lever-selectable 4:1 transfer case, and locking diffs front and rear.
Rubicon models also get a swaybar disconnect system up front, robust underbody protection, and a super-low 77:1 crawl ratio. Just the thing for fording flooded rivers and bombing through mud then…
Don’t make the mistake of assuming the Gladiator is nothing more than a Wrangler with a tray on the back of it, because it isn’t. It is, in fact, significantly different to drive than a Wrangler. Interestingly, the longer wheelbase, one of the things that makes it more comfortable on-road, could potentially cost it off-road.
The stability that it gains on-road translates to hard off-road work, too, though. And while you need to be aware that the ramp-over angle isn’t as broad as a Wrangler, you’d need to try pretty hard to find terrain that will stop the Gladiator off the sealed stuff. Most drivers will run out of talent long before the Gladiator runs out of ability.
And it is more comfortable on-road, too. You’d have to drive them back-to-back to drill down into the minute details, but the Gladiator irons out imperfections more effectively, it rides better, and it feels more stable at highway speed, too.
While the new Wrangler is a better on-road driver than any model before, the Gladiator steps that up another few notches again. Keep in mind, too, that we’re driving the Gladiator on-road with off-road-focused tyres, so the improvements in refinement and ride are noteworthy.
The Gladiator’s chassis has been modified significantly beyond the Wrangler’s to ensure the longer wheelbase would still work safely with load rating and proper off-road work. The rear suspension is also different from a JL, too.
Sam Purcell suggested when he drove the Gladiator overseas that it "feels more supple and balanced than any other dual-cab aside from a Ranger Raptor", and he’s right. There’s a reassurance that the Gladiator delivers off-road, and its ultimate off-road ability means that this will be the only choice for buyers who want a ute tub, but also the very best off-road performance out of the showroom.
Like the Wrangler, the Gladiator makes light work of the toughest terrain off-road, and it makes drivers look more capable than they are in otherwise daunting conditions, too. The combination of the deep low-range gearing, articulation, grip and ground clearance make for confidence-inspiring exploration off the beaten track.
Queenstown and its surrounds were seriously under water for the duration of our launch drive – some rivers were impassable and rockslides had closed a few of the tracks – and yet you’d really only want to be in a Jeep to attempt to work your way through the boggy conditions.
Certainly in factory standard trim anyway. You can build a custom four-wheel drive to go almost anywhere, but the Jeep brand retains its ability to go the furthest in showroom guise.
Traditional Jeep signatures like the boxy design, old-school doors and general cabin ambience remain, so as always you clamber in behind the wheel before you can get comfortable to take stock. The seats themselves are well sculpted and the high-riding driving position is comfortable, too. Forward visibility, especially, is excellent.
Importantly, as it does in the Wrangler, the interior (switchgear, plastics, carpets, trim and materials) all feel hard wearing and solid. There’s an unapologetic, no nonsense, workmanlike manifestation inside the cabin – something I’d say is almost necessary for such a rugged 4WD.
The Gladiator gets FCA’s latest 8.4-inch iteration of Uconnect touchscreen infotainment. There is some specific off-road pagination within that we’ll look into further when we get the Gladiator into the CarAdvice garage. While it’s not as up to date as the very best systems out there, it does work well and is easy to navigate.
Move into the second row, and there’s room for adults to sit comfortably. If you’re super tall, the rollover hoop will feel like it’s closing in on you, but that’s only the taller among you.
Then, of course, you get to the ute tray, which is useful in standard trim, and just begging for the multitude of options the aftermarket will direct toward it. We’ve already started to see some of them appear at SEMA 2019, and I’d expect more canopy, drawer, power and utility options to keep coming.
The petrol engine and gearbox are paired well, and while it’s easy to sing the praises of a diesel variant – or indeed push for the inclusion of one in the range – there’s nothing to complain about with the petrol. It’s smooth, refined and powerful. I also liked the throttle modulation and power delivery off-road, where the pedal didn’t feel too sharp and reactive.
The eight-speed ensures the engine isn’t too peaky, and while it will rev hard to redline, you don’t need to drive it that way to get the job done off-road. Up to highway speed, it retains a fairly relaxed gait.
The Pentastar V6 weighs in at 3.6 litres, and makes 209kW and 353Nm, so the numbers are healthy.
The official fuel claim is 12L/100km, and given the proficiency of the eight-speed automatic, it’s safe to assume you’ll get reasonable efficiency out of the engine on the open road – but it will be a little thirstier in heavy traffic around town.
Where I think the Gladiator rams home its strongest point the most is in its versatility. A Wrangler is a proper off-road-focused 4WD that doesn’t pretend to be anything else, but at the same time it doesn’t offer the flexibility that so many Australian buyers crave.
Therefore, you might not have been able to get over the line if you needed a vehicle that could do a bunch of other things well enough to live with five days a week, and then get to the two days a week in the scrub, sand or mud.
However, the Gladiator has a useful and comfortable second row, and it also has a tray that can be used to set up your ultimate camping or adventure requirements. It will also tow (possibly around the 3000kg mark for Australia), and it happens to be more proficient on-road, too.
The pricing might deter some if our assumptions are correct, but the Gladiator does everything it claims to do – and it also satisfies that Australian need for a Jeep with a ute tub. It also looks like a proper tough truck, which is something Australians are more and more attracted to.