We pit the hotly-anticipated Jeep ute against the rocky tracks at Eagle View to see just how much sense this long-asked-for model makes.

With the sheer popularity of dual-cab utes for worksite, family, and recreational use in Australia, the Jeep Gladiator is a vehicle that the famed American marque and its parent company FCA will be banking on the success of amidst a greater plan of trying to win buyers with long-term ownership concerns back over.

However, while the majority of utes sold in Australia are typically priced in the mid-forties and fifties such as the country’s two best-selling vehicles, the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger, the top-spec Rubicon model you see here starts at a whopping $76,450 before on-road costs – with the lavishly-equipped model tested here pegged at $86,455 – this clearly isn’t aiming at the mainstream buys, although that’s actually far from an issue.

Instead, the logical rivals for the Gladiator are pumped-up examples of regular utes like the Nissan Navara N-Trek Warrior and Ford Ranger Raptor, the 79 Series Toyota LandCruiser that similarly utilises a dual-live axle suspension setup and is comparable on price also, and its fellow American expats the RAM 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado 1500. It might be a niche buy but it’s actually got quite a lot of competition, then, and with a brand name more directly associated with off-roading than any of the mainstream sellers and a wider dealer network Down Under than the converted American offerings, you can see why people have been crying out for a Wrangler with a tray on the back for so long.

Merely calling it a Jeep Wrangler with a bed on the back is doing it a disservice, however, as is its interior for the most part, the behemoth Gladiator sits on a different chassis that’s longer in the middle and stronger at the back to help it handle a loaded tray as well as it’ll handle a trip to the bush. The changes are, in fact, enough to have given the 5591mm-long Gladiator its own chassis code – JT – which is perhaps no surprise as its 3488mm wheelbase represents a 481mm increase over the long wheelbase Wrangler’s. And to think that the Americans refer to this thing as a ‘mid-size pickup’…

There is still, of course, a lot of elements of the Wrangler to be found here though. The entire front end is practically identical with the same seven-column grille and round headlights, exposed bonnet latches, and squared-off wheel arches up front. The easily-removable doors, windscreen, and roof panels remain as well, giving the Gladiator the unique position of being the only open-top ute on the market right now.

Sit inside and all is generally carried over from the Wrangler as well – the dashboard, centre console, seats, and all associated levers and switchgear is carried over largely unchanged save for a few details such as the drawing of the Gladiator’s long side profile atop the gear selector.

There are a few clever features of the interior that show how much thought Jeep has put into designing this thing that are worth highlighting as well. For instance, given the removable doors and roof there is a full-width lockable storage compartment under the rear seat for storing your things safely with the car’s doors off, and there’s even a place in it to safely store the bolts you have removed.

As part of the optional $3835 Lifestyle Activity Group that adds a sturdy spray-in bed liner along with a (non-lockable) fabric tonneau cover, there’s also a removable Bluetooth speaker that sits in its own charging cradle behind the rear seats against the bulkhead which is a clear indicator of the Gladiator’s positioning as a recreational vehicle as it’s perfect for a spot of tailgating.

Now, as I mentioned the tray tacked onto the back of this thing, it’s pertinent to get into some specifics about it. Measuring in at 1531mm long, 1442mm wide, and 861mm high, it’s just a touch smaller than what you’d find on most conventional dual-cab utes, but it’s still a perfectly respectable size. Given you’ll find a bag for storing the roof panels in once removed back there as well, that’s perhaps the tray’s biggest asset – being a place to keep your removed body panels, rather than having to leave them back at home.

However, the biggest drawback is unarguably its fairly low payload of just 620kg in Rubicon form, despite being able to tow the class-standard 3500kg braked. While a noticeable amount below the expected one-tonne of most utes that Aussies buy, it’s not miles off the mark of the coil-sprung Ranger Raptor and Navara Warrior – just remember, though, that with four passengers on board and any accessories fitted that this number will be reduced further.

For carrying things like camping gear or – as the tyre treads marked out in the bed imply – a couple of dirtbikes, it’ll be perfectly fine then, but don’t expect to see many of these kicking about construction sites anytime soon.

And besides, using a vehicle this visibly fun-oriented for the daily grind or as a tradie tool is far from using it to its full potential – what this thing is really best at is getting down and dirty off-road, and has it got the gear to get that job done or what?

For Australia, the sole engine option is the familiar 3.6-litre naturally aspirated ‘Pentastar’ V6 which makes 209kW at 6400rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm, which is backed by an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission.

Far more important, though, is the Gladiator’s ‘RockTrac’ dual-range four-wheel drive system. In Rubicon form it features Dana 44 axles with locking differentials both front and rear, while a disconnecting front sway bar is also fitted to this range-topper. The four-wheel drive system itself is operated by a proper lever, too, which you’ll be able to have far more faith in than a tiny rotary dial when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. An uprated set of Fox shock absorbers are also fitted as standard to the Rubicon, too.

While I didn’t exactly have the time with it to head to the middle of nowhere during my week with it, I did head out to the Eagle View 4WD Track on the outskirts of South Australia’s Barossa region – a picturesque but rocky and at-times very challenging course if you opt to pit your rig at some of the optional sections.

But before hitting the dirt, I had to make the drive out there which revealed a few very interesting things about the Gladiator. While I try to go into every car I test with my mind a clean slate, I must admit to having some preconceptions about what it could well be like based off my experience with the last ‘proper’ Jeep I drove – the JK Wrangler, which while incredibly impressive off-road left a little to be desired once back on the tarmac.

However, any comparisons to Jeeps of old were thrown right out of the window very quickly. Just driving around town you can get a feel for how surprisingly responsive, reassuring, and well-weighted the steering feels for a vehicle with a live front axle, and for just how compliant its ride is as well.

Throwing it at some corners, it must be said that the super-long wheelbase helps the Gladiator feel incredibly stable, and that it remains far flatter through the corners than I ever expected it would, never really displaying all that much body roll. Sure, if you push it hard into corners it’ll tend towards understeer but that’s hardly surprising at all. Ultimately though, calling it the best-handling vehicle with both front and rear live axles that I’ve driven at least in recent memory isn’t a stretch at all – the Suzuki Jimny and 76 Series Toyota LandCruiser are examples of others from just the past year as a point of comparison.

The Pentastar V6, it must be said, is a perfectly decent engine and one of the things I’m happier to see carried over from the JK generation. While it mightn’t be enough to make the 2215kg Gladiator Rubicon feel like a rocket ship, it’s more than up to the task of getting it going with relative ease as it feels athletic and free-revving, and the slick ZF eight-speed auto it’s paired to does a pretty excellent job of keeping it in its sweet spot.

I must say that its auto start-stop system, which is normally something I detest, is actually among the best I’ve encountered. It doesn’t feel too clunky and is incredibly quick to fire back into life when the light goes green and you move your right foot back onto the throttle, so I’m happy to give it a tick of approval there.

However, it’s not like the start-stop system does much to help counteract the Gladiator’s colossal thirst – after 590km behind the wheel of the big beast, I was averaging a hefty 14.9L/100km, and while that’s a figure that wouldn’t phase those in its home market given America’s cheap petrol prices, here in the land Down Under where petrol is pricey and, as such, diesel utes reign supreme, it’s not exactly ideal.

For as much as I like the petrol engine, it’s a shame we won’t be receiving the 600Nm turbo diesel V6 that the US will as I think that would really transform its appeal to Australian buyers, while to go in the complete opposite direction, I feel like a petrol V8 would hold a lot of appeal here, too.

Something that did impress me as I made the long drive out to Eagle View was just how well-managed the wind-noise is as well given this is an incredibly boxy vehicle where the majority of major body panels are easily removable. However, it is worth noting that the roar from the BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tyres it was wearing was utterly inescapable over 100km/h.

But the deafening tyre noise is a small price to pay in order to have some proper rubber on its smaller 17-inch wheels when it comes to hitting the trails as the tyres were one thing I had no issue with at all once I was finally out with it on the rough stuff.

Airing down slightly from the regular 37psi used on road to 28psi at the recommendation of the track’s owner, one thing I was never worried about at all was traction thanks to the chunky treads on the muddies – along with, of course, the front and rear differential locks which were incredibly quick to engage and disengage as required.

I spent practically the whole day with it in low-range and found that I typically relied on third gear for the most part – that’s because shifting down to first gear when in low range delivers an impressively low 77:1 crawl ratio, which comes in incredibly handy for steeper uphill climbs or downhill descents, meaning that even in third and fourth there’s still plenty of torque to work with.

While its coil-sprung ride, as I mentioned, is pretty compliant on sealed roads, it must be said that the sheer bumpiness of this very rocky track was enough to shake it around a touch when I first set out and left the front sway bar connected. After quickly disconnecting it at the push of a button, however, not only did it help improve the front axle’s amount of articulation as intended but it helped it transfer far fewer of the bigger hits from the front end through to the cabin as well.

As you’d expect with a Jeep given its characteristic front-end design, its 40.7-degree approach angle is most impressive, and although a few others had clearly whacked its optional $1625 steel front bumper into some obstacles, I didn’t clip anything with it. Its 25.1-degree departure angle proved to be enough to handle what I threw it at, too, although its 18.4-degree breakover angle due to the sheer length wheelbase might leave some concerned.

However, while its breakover angle wasn’t an issue for me, the length of the wheelbase surely was as it made one challenge I pitted it against on one of Eagle View’s optional sections impassable.

A downhill descent – I didn’t think to measure it with my phone’s spirit level, but I’d guess it would have been at least 40 degrees – with a slight right-hand bend, a dip on the left side at the top and the right side at the bottom, and a massive protruding boulder in the middle, the Gladiator’s wheelbase meant that once the near-side front wheel went down into the dip, the rear left was well and truly up in the air, and every time I inched further forwards, it would start to lean over more and slip further right towards that big boulder.

Not wanting to scratch up its lovely Punk’n Orange paint – or, y’know, completely destroy multiple body panels – I ended up having to back out of it and head back whence I’d came, but the fact it was able to pull itself back out of it easily enough is testament to its abilities. Simply, it’s the gargantuan length that let it down.

In every other regard, though, it’s an incredibly capable and most importantly fun vehicle for this sort of recreational off-roading. Remove the roof panels and doors and the open-air experience is ideal on a sunny day like when I was testing – if only I’d remembered to bring more sunscreen! – and the number of off-roading gadgets beyond those that are merely driveline-related, such as the front-facing ‘TrailCam’ system to give you a better view of upcoming obstacles, made it far less stressful and more enjoyable as well.

Quite simply, the Gladiator surpassed all expectations I had of it, and I couldn’t be happier about it. While I knew it’d command itself with confidence off-road – aside from when its length was a factor – I wasn’t expecting it to be just as nice to drive on sealed roads as it is, which was a very welcome surprise.

While there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s noticeably more expensive than – and not quite as usable as – most of the usual dual cab ute suspects, when you consider the position it occupies in the market space as a tool for fun rather than trade, it really does make a lot of sense.

It’s a very good thing, the Gladiator, and particularly in Rubicon form as tested here, but perhaps most importantly it’s an excellent sign that the Jeep brand is now heading in the right direction.

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon List Price: $76,450 | As Tested: $86,455
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Tech & Features - 8.5/10
  • 7.5/10
    Practicality - 7.5/10
  • 7.5/10
    Value for Money - 7.5/10

Pros: Performs as confidently off-road as Jeeps of old but is infinitely better to drive on-road, tough looks are paired with a refined interior, the open-air factor only adds t the fun
Cons: Long wheelbase leads to some manoeuvrability challenges off-road, no V6 diesel option for Australia, low payload won’t help it appeal to traditional dual cab ute buyers

In a nutshell: While the Gladiator is unlikely to tempt many out of their HiLuxes or Rangers given the low payload and high price, but for those looking for a Jeep that can haul more, a ute with more off-road chops than most, or simply something that’ll turn everyone’s heads, the Gladiator is a real winner – and one that is just the vehicle Jeep needed in its lineup Down Under.

Photos: Patrick Jackson & Georgia Ristivojevic (G & Co. Creative)

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Fiat Chrysler Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses and Eagle View 4WD Track entry fees were covered by the author.

Please note that all testing – including at Eagle View – was done prior to the second South Australian lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus during which this article was first published.

Patrick Jackson
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