The Jeep Wrangler has always been its own thing and that’s probably the main thing which accounts for its enduring popularity as the times we live in become ever more collectivized and homogenized.
But how about a more practical Wrangler?
One that can haul more stuff and pull a lot more stuff?
Enter the Gladiator.
What It Is
The Gladiator is a stretched version of the four-door Jeep Wrangler with a five foot bed accounting for most of the increased length, and giving the Gladiator much more cargo-carrying capacity than the Wrangler.
It’s basically a mid-size, crew-cab truck, but with some uniquely Jeep features you won’t find in any other mid-sized truck—including the ability to go topless and doorless, just like the Wrangler.
The extra length and wheelbase also makes the Gladiator a more stable platform for pulling more than the Wrangler. It offers a class-best 7,650 lb. maximum tow rating, more than twice that of the Wrangler, despite the two vehicles having otherwise similar underpinnings and the same drivetrains.
Another Gladiator point-of-departure is its standard manual transmission which is standard in every trim, not just the base trim.
You can buy an automatic if you prefer not to shift for yourself, but the Jeep is just about the only vehicle in the class that doesn’t force you to buy an automatic. An automatic is all that’s available in most of the others in this class, including models like the Ford Ranger and Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon. The aging Nissan Frontier is among the few remaining mid-sized pick-ups that isn’t automatic-only.
All Gladiator trims also come standard with a V6 engine, not a four cylinder engine.
A 2WD Jeep being almost as silly as peanut butter without the peanuts.
Prices start at $33,545 for the elemental S trim, which comes with hand-crank windows and manual door locks in keeping with the Jeep ethos of ruggedness and simplicity.
Power options are available, of course, but it’s neat that Jeep doesn’t force-feed them to you.
The $40,395 Overland comes with luxury touches such as leather trim and ambient interior lighting, as well as a 7-inch LCD touchscreen and 18-inch alloy wheels in place of the steel 17-inchers that come standard otherwise.
For maximum off-road capability, there’s the Rubicon, which comes with locking front and rear differentials, 11.1 inches of ground clearance, off-road Fox shocks, rock rails and skid plates, 33-inch all-terrain tires and an electrically disengaging front sway bar, to allow for greater front suspension articulation when rock crawling.
As the Iron Sheik used to say, it’s the real deal.
The Gladiator name isn’t.
It was first used back in the ‘60s when Jeep converted a four-door Wagoneer into a two-door/regular cab pick-up. That model remained in production until 1987.
The Wrangler-based (and four door) Gladiator is an all-new model.
More Wrangler — and more capability.
Comes standard with features no one else offers and you can skip features almost everyone else includes.
What’s Not So Good
Wide-load turning circle (44.8 feet for the Rubicon).
Could use a larger gas tank — to make it seem less thirsty than it actually is.
It’s the same overall size almost as a full-sized regular cab truck, but with a compact-sized truck’s bed.
Under The Hood
Regardless of trim, every Gladiator is powered by the same 3.6 liter V6 that’s optional in the Wrangler and used in many other Fiat Chrysler vehicles, including the Dodge Challenger muscle car, the Ram 1500 full-size pick-up and the Chrysler 300 sedan.
It makes 285 horsepower the old-fashioned way—with displacement instead of a turbocharger. That means never having to worry about spending money on a replacement turbo.
It also does not have a timing belt, so you’ll never have to worry about spending money to replace that, either. It uses a chain, which should last the life of the engine. This engine isn’t direct-injected, either, so there’s no worry about carbon-fouling of the intake valves after the warranty coverage runs out and having to shell out to get them de-carbonized.
FCA, Jeep’s parent company, is pretty much the only company that isn’t slurping down the electric car/climate change/fuel economy Kool Aid, which is probably why FCA vehicles (Jeeps especially) seem to have no problems finding buyers—despite not having all the “latest tech.”
Rather, because they don’t have it.
The V6 can be paired with either a six-speed manual transmission, which is standard in all trims (including the top-of-the-line Rubicon), or you can choose the optional eight-speed automatic.
Since it isn’t a ten-speed automatic, so two fewer (unnecessary) gears and so much less complexity—which ought to mean greater longevity.
The manual six-speed, however, is probably your best bet in that regard because it’s a simple, mechanical thing, whereas all modern automatics are also electronic things. If you buy a Gladiator with the six-speed, you might have to put a clutch in the thing once every 15 years or so.
But a clutch is a whole lot cheaper than a transmission.
All trims are 4WD.
Gas mileage is 16 city, 23 highway with the manual. This is roughly on par with some of the four-cylinder turbocharged competition (the Ford Ranger with its standard 2.3 liter turbo’d four with a ten-speed automatic—rates 20 city, 24 highway, for example) but the Jeep feels thirstier than it is because of its fairly small (22 gallon) gas tank.
You fuel up more often, which makes you think you’re spending more on gas. But you’re actually spending about the same as owners of other trucks with larger tanks.
They just fill up less often.
Jeep people often add jerry cans in side mounts, which is an easy way to address this issue. It’d be nice, though, if Jeep were to offer a larger tank or an auxiliary tank. After all, if you are heading for the outback for whatever reason, having 35 gallons of fuel rather than 22 could make all the difference!
Interestingly, the Gladiator’s mileage with the automatic isn’t noticeably better, which is the usual justification given for automatics with nine or ten gears. In fact, it’s slightly less: 22 MPG on the highway, and slightly better in the city at 17 MPG.
Overall, it’s a wash and the fact that the manual-equipped version will cost you less to buy and probably less to keep over the vehicle’s lifetime makes buying the automatic a question of preference rather than economy.
One last thing about gas: The Gladiator’s V6 is a regular 87 octane unleaded engine, which will save you about 30 cents per gallon vs. fueling a turbocharged engine that requires 91 octane premium.
All models except the Rubicon come with 3.73 gears in the rear axle; the Rubicon comes with a much more aggressive 4:10 ratio, to give it even more leverage at low speeds.
Finally—rumor has it that a diesel engine will be available next year.
On The Road
Some reviewers fault the Gladiator for handling like a truck, but that’s kind of like faulting an NFL linebacker for being big. People who buy vehicles like this expect a hunky experience and more to the point, want it.
Jeep provides it.
The payoff is a vehicle that can go places you’d otherwise need a dirt bike to deal with and dirt bikes can’t carry a load of firewood and don’t have eight speaker stereos, either.
Even the standard Sport trim has 10 inches of ground clearance, enough to drive over almost anything that happens to be in the way. The Rubicon’s clearance is nearly a foot (11.1 inches) and that plus the center and rear locking diffs and 4.0:1 Low range (2:72:1 is standard) make this thing almost invincible regardless of weather or the absence of pavement.
And there is also the element of being in the element. Pull the doors up and out; leave them in the garage. Roll the roof back. Feel the world around you instead of being hermetically sealed away from it.
That’s what it’s all about.
The Gladiator’s main deficit (on road) is its length.
At 218 inches long bumper to bumper, it is almost as long as one of the mightiest land sharks to ever roll off the line—the 1970 Buick Electra 225 (so named because it was 225 inches long). That plus a big rig’s turning circle make it more of a challenge to parallel park and maneuver in tight spots than the Wrangler (which is only 188.4 inches long).
But the payoff is . . . more Wrangler.
At The Curb
It looks like a Wrangler and shares the Wrangler’s interior dimensions, including the same (and much more than usual) headroom in both rows (42.8 inches). Most current vehicles — including pick-ups — have significantly less headroom in the second row due to the roofline sloping rearward.
The Gladiator’s roof is as level as the deck of an aircraft carrier.
And you can peel the roof back — and turn into the wind, just an F/A 18 about to catapult off the deck.
No other truck even offers a fabric top. It’s standard here.
A composite hardtop is available, too — and it comes with removable roof panels. The hardtop is heavy — and unwieldy. It generally requires a pulley/block and tackle system and two people to remove and install. But the fact that you can remove the roof really sets the Gladiator apart from the herd. It’s a brand-new vehicle that’s pleasantly like the brand-new vehicles of 30 or 40 years ago.
It’s physical in a way that most new vehicles aren’t.
You operate it with your hands and your muscles—not with the tips of your fingers. If you prefer to tap and swipe, this one’s not for you. But that’s precisely the appeal of the thing to people who don’t want a Soy Boy toy.
The Gladiator also has nearly enough room behind its second row to carry a Wrangler and could easily pull one.
Though its bed is only a five-footer and no smaller than the beds that compact trucks used to offer (there are no compact trucks available anymore) the bed is configurable and coverable; it can take 4×8 sheets of drywall or OSB. The tailgate can be laid down to increase the bed’s functional capacity to nearly that of a six foot bed.
It would be nice, though, if Jeep offered that. And two fewer doors.
A two-door/regular cab Gladiator with a six foot bed would be even more practical — and more in tune, conceptually, with the original Gladiator.
In addition to not having to buy power windows and locks (desirable in a real off-roader because you can still crank the windows open when the battery dies on you 37 miles from the nearest paved road) Jeep also lets you skip the safety rigmarole that’s making new cars a real pain in the ass to drive, assuming you know how to.
Jeep offers them—see the Safety Group and Advanced Safety Group—but neither is standard in any trim.
This is wonderful.
It means you avoid pestering when you change lanes without signaling first and don’t slam on the brakes because a car 100 yards ahead of you is slowing to turn off the road.
There’s even a manual-lever pull-up emergency brake.
FCA is the only major car company not force-feeding safety electronics to its customers, leaving it up to them to decide whether they require “assistance” keeping their vehicle in its travel lane or with braking and other such basic driving competencies.
Since people who buy Jeeps usually are competent and don’t require “assistance,” they will appreciate not being nannied and not being forced to pay for it even more.
Some other Gladiator coolness: Jeep lets you buy the high-end audio system (552 watts, nine-channel amp and subwoofer) in all trims. You aren’t nudged up to a higher trim to get the good tunes.
Also, the tunes are portable. The Gladiator has a removable/wireless bluetooth speaker system, too.
The Bottom Line
The Gladiator isn’t just another truck.
It’s a Jeep truck.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.