RETURN OF THE WARRIOR

IS JEEP’S NEW GLADIATOR WORTH THE WAIT? WE HEAD STATESIDE TO FIND OUT

WORDS CHRIS COLLARD

AT THE END of World War II, Willys Overland emerged as a major player in the US automobile industry. Having produced more than 600,000 vehicles specifically for the war effort, its role as a peace-time manufacturer would need to expand. In 1947, the first Jeep rolled out of its Toledo, Ohio, the rest, we will say, is history. pick-up was phased out in the 1960s and replaced by the full-sized Gladiator, which claimed numerous “J” designations and a 26-year tenure. The mid-size Comanche, introduced in 1982, ended production in 1994 and the seven-slot grille would be ‘bedless’ for more than a quarter of a century.

Jeep has since hung a few carrots in front of pick-up devotees with its annual batch of concept vehicles. The J12 Scrambler, NuKaizer and Crew Chief 715 prompted the question: when was Jeep going to get back in the pick-up game? Enter the 2020 Wrangler JT Gladiator.

CHASSIS, DRIVETRAIN AND CAPACITIES

WHILE most money would have been bet on Jeep simply stretching the four-door Wrangler and dropping a bed on the back, the team in Toledo knew that being competitive in the ute market would require, well, building a ute. They worked with Ram to design a chassis worthy of solid payload and towing capacities, as well as Dana and FOX for upgraded axles and shocks. As with new-generation Ram trucks, the frame is comprised of high-strength steel to reduce weight and increase rigidity.

Raising the hood reveals a Pentastar 3.6L V6 tuned to an impressive 213kW and 353Nm. The D478 six-speed manual is standard fare (manual cog gearheads rejoice), while the 850RE eight-speed auto is an option (US$2000). Gladiator won’t see the turbocharged four-cylinder found in the JL, but Jeep states that 2020 will bring the 3.0L EcoDiesel in US models. However, Jeep isn’t giving specifics on powertrains for the AU market just yet. Transfer case options are the NV241 Command-Trac (Sport and Overland models) and the NV241 Rock-Trac (Rubicon).

Down below are Gen III Dana 44 axles fitted with 3.73:1 or 4.10:1 gears depending on model. As with its JL sibling, the suspension is coil-sprung links with monotube gas shocks. Rubicon models will host features we’ve grown to love: a 4:1 low-range transfer case, electronically actuated Tru-Lok differentials, one-button disconnectable front sway bar, Fox 2.0 shocks and 33-inch Falken all-terrain tyres.

ENGINE Under the Gladiator’s aluminium bonnet is the reliable Pentastar 3.6L V6 petrol engine.

INTERIOR Styling cues share the DNA of JT predecessors, while the dash has gauges and switches all in view and reach of the driver.

STORAGE There are lockable compartments below and under the rear seat, which can be locked in the up or down position.

WALKAROUND, INTERIOR AND TECHNOLOGY

GLANCING at the Gladiator from the front it looks much like its JL brethren. But closer inspection reveals wider slots in the grille for increased air flow when needed (towing). An aluminium hood, doors and tailgate are other weight-reduction measures. Mindful features are a three-position tailgate, roll-up tonneau cover and power outlet in the bed. Up front is a Jeep Trailcam, which allows you to preview the terrain directly in front of the bumper. Adhering to its historical roots, the doors and roof are removable and the windscreen folds down to provide a full view of the heavens and track. The entire process takes about 10 minutes and needed tools are provided in a tool kit. If you get caught with the top off in a rainstorm, no worries, the carpet can be removed for drying and the cab washed down.

The interior takes cues from several of the JT’s predecessors. The dash is a shorter aspect ratio similar to an old Willys or CJ, yet instruments and controls are in full view and at arm’s reach of the driver. The fourthgen Uconnect features up to an 8.4-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Siri, along with steering wheel controls, allows the driver to keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Another cool option is a grab-n-go Bluetooth speaker to keep the tunes flowing around camp. Numerous USB and 12V ports are standard. Locker controls are out of the Rubicon’s playbook; a toggle below the Uconnect screen allows for rear, front, or dual locker engagement. A single button turns everything off.

Seats are quite comfortable, and the rear provides enough room for a full-size adult. Grab handles on the A- and B-pillar are solid, but I prefer the optional soft handles that mount directly over occupants on the roll cage. There is plenty of secure storage in the form of lockable compartments behind and under the rear seat. The seat can be locked in the up or down position to keep sticky fingers from accessing your gear when topless. As with all new Jeeps, the Gladiator has engine start/ stop (ESS), ABS, ESC, blind-spot monitoring, reversing camera, adaptive cruise control, and a host of modern safety features.

ON THE TRAIL THE GLADIATOR IS EVERYTHING WE’D EXPECT FROM A WRANGLER

ON THE ROAD AND TRAIL

WITH 160km of pavement before we turn off on the dirt, we had plenty of time to evaluate the Gladiator’s street prowess. First impressions were that the extended wheelbase and firm suspension provided a very stable and comfortable ride. Tracking on constantradius corners was predictable, simulated emergency braking and lane changes didn’t turn knuckles white, and noise levels (soft and hardtop models) were on par for a Wrangler. It is louder than its closed-cab competitors, but lest we forget that in 10 minutes we can take the top off and kick the windscreen down.

Diving into mid-size truck territory, Jeep took it to task to ensure capacities would up to the competition. The Gladiator’s stats come in at 725kg payload and 3500kg towing capacities (with Max Tow option). Heavyduty progressive-rate coil springs manage the additional burden, and the track bar and mounting system are straight from RAM’S 1500 half-ton. Brakes are upgraded, now with 345mm rotors out back and 330mm up front.

The Pentastar V6 is no slouch and merging on the freeway is effortless, but it did work a bit harder with a 2270kg ski boat in tow.

We spent the afternoon in a Rubicon, motoring through March mud and crawling over rocky technical terrain in the Californian Sierra Nevada. On the trail the Gladiator is everything we’d expect from a Wrangler. When needed, toggling the lockers kept all four tyres turning in unison, and the coil-link suspension did an admirable job of keeping them in contact with the tractive surface. While a solid front axle is not as cushy as its IFS rivals on the highway, this reviewer (who learned to drive on the Rubicon Trail) feels it is far superior than an independent suspension in cross-axle conditions. It also offers greater latitude with regard to raising ride height and other modifications. Approach and departure angles are 43? and 26? respectively (another best-in-class), but breakover, due to the 3480mm wheelbase, lags at 20.3?. We didn’t test fording depth, but Jeep states it will clear 760mm of standing water without issue.

The auto’s 4.71:1 first gear combined with the Rubicon’s 4:1 transfer case provides Wrangler’s best-in-class crawl ratio of 72:1 (84.2:1 with the manual). The Sport and Overland offer a respectable 52:1, which to the best of our knowledge also beats most of the competition. Although the Sport and Overland are not available with Tru-Lok diffs, I’ve driven Wrangler JLs equipped with the Trac-Lok system (optional) over highly technical terrain and found it works exceptionally well. I do need to note that even with 280mm of clearance, the longer wheelbase and reduced breakover angle put the skid pans in contact with the hard deck a few times. The turning radius 1356cm also requires some forethought in tight quarters. However, a mild lift would greatly reduce any clearance issues.

We’ve been waiting years for Jeep to jump back into the pick-up ute world. When it did, its focus was on capability and capacity. Capability was confirmed when a pre-production unit was entered in one of the toughest races on the planet, King of the Hammers. We love the fact that you can put a canopy and rooftop tent out back of a Jeep. After three days behind the wheel in a variety of conditions and terrains, we’d say the Gladiator JT was worth the wait.

2020 JEEP GLADIATOR PRICE ESTIMATE

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS TO ESTIMATE HOW MUCH THE GLADIATOR WILL COST IN AUSTRALIA.

AMERICAN pricing has been unveiled for the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, indicating that Australians could expect to pay around $60,000 for the entry-level model.

Australian prices are yet to be released, but if we follow in the footsteps of our mates across the Pacific – and compare Wrangler prices in the USA and Australia – we can take a more educated stab.

The entry level price for a Gladiator in the States is US$33,545 (Sport model), while the top-of-the-range Rubicon at US$43,545 will lighten your wallet further. Sandwiched between these two models is the Sport S, priced at US$36,755, and the Overland, priced at US$40,395.

The Wrangler Sport in the USA fetches US$31,445 (the Gladiator equivalent is US$33,545); while the Wrangler Rubicon retails for US$41,445 (the Gladiator equivalent is US$43,545). So, as you can see the Gladiator asks for about US$2K more than the Wrangler.

In Australia the four-door Wrangler JL Sport S retails from $53,450; the four-door Overland asks for $62,950; and the four-door petrol-powered Rubicon $63,950.

Like-for-like and taking into account exchange rates, we can expect to pay close to $60K to get into the range, and closer to $70K for the four-door Rubicon.

When it lands locally the Gladiator will be available in Sport, Sport S, Overland and Rubicon configurations, with a 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 and eightspeed auto. At this pint we can only hope for a manual gearbox and the 3.0L V6 diesel.

The Australian launch is expected in 2020.