BUYERS GUIDE - UTES & CAB CHASSIS MEDIUM
Jeep has re-entered the Australian 4WD ute market after an absence of 35 years. The newly announced Gladiator is based on the Wrangler four-door, but with an extended wheelbase.
In its March 2020 press release Jeep claimed the 2020 Gladiator was the first Jeep light truck to be brought to Australia, which ignores a less than successful history.
Hundreds of imported CJ10s, J10s and J20s were converted to right hand drive at a dedicated factory in Brisbane in the years 1978 to 1985.
Some models were even called ‘Gladiators’.
After Chrysler took over Jeep, the project was abandoned.
When owned by American Motors, Jeep had several cracks at competing with Land Rover and Toyota 45 Series utes and tray backs in the early 1980s, without success.
Problems included supply shortages, a fragmented dealer network and product quality. One dealer suggested to the Brisbane Jeep execs that they issue life jackets with every Jeep, because of the propensity to let in rain water!
We can remember testing a J20 ute in the early 1980s. It had some fit and finish issues, but performed well on and off road and was much more comfortable than a Land Rover or a Toyota 45.
The J20 test vehicle had a soft top and was optimistically painted in Australian Army khaki, but the Army went for Land Rovers instead.
For Jeep’s sake, we can only hope that the post-2020 effort has more success.
The initial Gladiator release models in May 2020 were 100 Launch Edition vehicles and all were top-shelf Rubicon specification, with limited edition badging and design accents. RRP was a heady $86,450.
Lower spec’ Overland models were released later in 2020 and the three-litre turbo-diesel was announced in the USA, but with no Australian release date.
“Australia is the first right hand drive market to receive the Gladiator, which is a one of a kind lifestyle truck offering an open air experience,” said Guillaume Drelon, director of brand and product strategy.
The Jeep Gladiator Launch Edition came in a choice of three colours: Diamond Black, Bright White and Firecracker Red, with body-colour fenders and body-colour hard top; 17-inch mid-gloss-black aluminium wheels; steel front bumper; black leather-trim seats; heated front seats and steering wheel; Trail Rail System; lockable rear under-seat storage bin; roll-up tonneau cover; sprayed bed-liner; auxiliary switch bank with four programmable switches and 240-amp alternator.
Rubicon-spec’ off-road capability came courtesy of a Rock-Trac 4WD system; heavy duty, third-generation Dana 44 axles with 4.10:1 final drive ratio; Tru-Lock locking differentials and 4:1 transfer case gearing, giving overall reduction in first low of 77.2:1.
The Rubicon package also included electric front sway-bar disconnect.
Inside the cabin was Jeep’s fourth-generation Uconnect system with 210mm touchscreen; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; a nine-speaker Alpine premium sound system; keyless entry; forward facing TrailCam camera; blind-spot monitoring; rear cross path detection; ParkSense rear park assist system, advanced brake assist; forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control.
Power came from Chrysler’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine, providing 209kW of power and 347Nm of torque and driving through a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission.
Being based on a medium-wagon chassis the Gladiator had a meagre payload of 620kg and a maximum towing capacity of 2722kg.
We took no issue with the towing capacity, because 2.7 tonnes is more than enough trailer weight behind any medium-sized crew-cab ute, but the payload was limited by the fact that the Gladiator’s five-link, coil-sprung rear end came from the RAM 1500, not the higher-rated RAM 2500.
A couple of good ol’ boys, two trail bikes, a full fridge, full fuel tank and a pair of swags and your Gladiator will be at its rated gross mass!
In the USA, the Gladiator’s GVM and towing capacity were calculated to slot it below its RAM 1500 stablemate, but in Australia, RAM is a competitor, because it’s not imported by Fiat Chrysler Australia. Also, the Gladiator looks underdone for the money, in comparison with other medium-sized utes.
At launch the pricing was $75,450 for the Overland model; $76,450 for the Rubicon and $86,450 for the Rubicon ‘Launch’ edition that we evaluated.
Lower-priced ‘S’ model and Night Eagle for 2021
Jeep Australia released the Jeep Gladiator Sport S, providing a much-needed, reduced-price version of the Rubicon launch model. The ’S’ version started at a more affordable RRP of $65,450.
The Sport S came with Forward Collison Warning Plus, Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop, Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Path Detection.
Powered by the 3.6L Pentastar V6 petrol engine, with eight-speed auto, the new variant featured Selec-Trac Active on-demand 4×4 system with advanced full and part-time 4WD systems, heavy-duty Dana front and rear axles, tyre pressure monitoring, underbody skid plates, rock rails and more conventional 47.8:1 overall reduction in low-range first ratio. (The Rubicon has a much deeper-reduction 4:1 transfer case and 77:1 reduction.)
Exterior highlights included 17-inch silver aluminium wheels, a black three-piece hard top, black fender flares and LED exterior lighting. Paint colours other than black or white attracted a $750 surcharge.
Comfort and convenience features included a fourth-generation UConnect 175mm (seven-inch) touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, automatic headlamps, push-button start and dual-zone climate control.
The optional $2950 Lifestyle and Adventure package added a roll-up tonneau trail rail cargo tie-down system, lockable rear underseat storage bin, spray-in bedliner, wireless bluetooth speaker, auxiliary bank of four programmable switches, 240-amp alternator and a 700-Ah battery.
The optional $2450 Comfort and Technology Group package added a fourth-generation Uconnect 210mm (8.4-inch) touchscreen, tinted windows, hard top headliner, security alarm and remote start system.
In mid-2021 Jeep announced a new Night Eagle (isn’t that an ‘Owl’?) variant, with standard features above the Sport S: upgraded rear suspension with a 4.10:1 rear axle ratio, remote start, 17-inch black aluminium alloy wheels, gloss black grille, deep tint sunscreen windows, Uconnect 8.4” Touch Screen Display and Satellite Navigation.
The mid-2021 Gladiator Rubicon featured heated, leather seats and a heated steering wheel.
The Night Eagle and Rubicon had slightly improved payload capacity of 693kg – up around 70kg – which wasn’t great, but better than no increase.
The Rubicon test vehicle
Our evaluation Gladiator was a Rubicon with all the ‘fruit’ that took its price to Launch-model levels. We took it over our on- and off-road test course, two-up with no load and then with increasing weights to around 400kg.
Doing pre-trip checks was easy, with fluid levels simple to check and the standard tyre pressure monitoring system making sure the tyres were OK. This TPMS had an off-road feature, allowing pressure reduction without the annoyance of an alarm’s constant appearance.
Ergonomics were as good as it gets, with the dashboard switches grouped logically. We loved he fact that the transfer case was operated by a lever that had an ‘N’ position and all the off-road switches were just in front of it.
The rear seats split-folded and hid a lockable storage space underneath. A wonderful touch was a detachable, rechargeable Bluetooth speaker that could be taken from the vehicle to the campfire, for instance.
The large cargo tub was spray-lined and fitted with adjustable tie-down tracks, lighting and a folding tonneau that was locked in place by the centrally-locked tailgate.
The Gladiator was unique among its competitors in offering above-waistline bodywork that could be partly or completely detached.
Two ‘targa’ roof sections above the front seat were easily unclipped and removed and the rear seat bodywork was also detachable, using small tools that were provided. All four doors were externally hinged on pins, allowing easy removal. The final trick was a folding windscreen that could be clipped to two bonnet anchors.
The downside of this bolt-together bodywork was reduced stiffness and an accident safety rating of only three stars, compared with most of its competitors’ five stars.
On and off road
Getting comfortable was simple, thanks to mechanically adjustable height and reach seating, including lumbar adjustment for the driver, plus a tilt-telescope steering column. Mirrors gave very good rear view.
The Gladiator’s considerable 5.6-metre overall length and 3.5-metre wheelbase concerned a couple of our testers, but they were cheered to discover front and reverse cameras that gave a crystal-clear view of where the Jeep was going.
The front camera was also very handy in extreme off-road situations, showing the driver any obstacles that were obscured by the bonnet.
Like all North American coil-sprung utes the Gladiator felt softly sprung and dropped rear suspension height at full GVM. However, monotube Fox shocks controlled spring movement very effectively, so it rode and handled very well, at all load levels.
For those who would like to run their Gladiators at full GVM all the time, we reckon a set of after-market RAM 1500 full-load rear coils would do the trick. For varying loads the standard setup was more than adequate.
Adaptive cruise control, blind-side alert and other electronic aids made town and highway driving easy.
Using a blend of 2WD and 4WD operation, highway driving and off-road, with and without loads, our test fuel economy worked out at 13.5L/100km, giving around 600km range.Towing a two-tonnes-plus trailer would increase that consumption figure by around 50-percent, we estimate.
On road, the Pentastar/ZF powertrain worked beautifully, providing ample acceleration, with very smooth, almost imperceptible gearshifts.
Handling was flat and directional stability was much better than we’ve experienced with shorter-wheelbase Jeeps. On rough roads, where the front axle moved around somewhat, we found that operating it in full-time-4WD eliminated unwanted steering input from the front end.
Four-wheel ABS discs – not the common disc-drum combo – worked progressively and the handbrake was powerful.
Off-roading is embedded in Jeep’s DNA and the Gladiator had a full dose. Its Rock-Trac transfer case had market-leading low-range reduction of 4:1 and that, in conjunction with final drive ratios of 4.1:1, first gear reduction of 4.7:1 and the torque converter’s stall ratio, resulted in overall reduction well over 100:1.
It had low-speed uphill and downhill creeping capacity, and wheel travel well beyond any of its competitors’ abilities.
Live axles on coil springs give the best wheel travel in the market and that travel was enhanced in the case of the Gladiator by an electrically-detachable front anti-sway bar that allowed maximum axle travel in situations where anti-sway was less important than articulation.
Driving off road was made even easier by the Gladiator’s Selec-Speed Control system that determined low-range speed by means of gear lever and traction control, giving ‘foot off’ rough terrain control. Speed could be increased or reduced by playing the gear selector’s + – direction.
We found that the system worked very effectively in steep country, controlling uphill and downhill creeping speed for around 30 minutes, when the front and rear diff locks were also engaged and for around half that time without the locks aiding traction.
When Selec-Speed Control ran out of actuator power, or the brakes got hot, it ‘bailed out’ and the driver had to resume normal pedal control. Most severe off-road stations wouldn’t demand Selec-Speed Control for more than few minutes at a time, so it’s operating time limit shouldn’t be a problem.
The ‘Off Road +’ button converted the display screen from navigation or infotainment to 4WD system details.
Other off-road plusses we loved were standard lift-out mats and carpet covering floor drain holes; recovery points front and rear that didn’t require anyone to crawl under the vehicle; a standard steel front bumper with detachable steel end caps; steel rock-sliders, not just tacked-on side steps and an underbody steel spare wheel that wouldn’t be harmed by grounding on a rock, unlike an aluminium wheel that could be cracked by rock impact.
During our evaluation it became obvious that, despite the Gladiator’s somewhat ‘heady’ pricing, it was the only ute we’ve ever tested that was bush-ready out of the box. It’s not uncommon for new-4WD-ute buyers to spend upwards of 20 grand or more on bush essentials that the Gladiator has as standard.
At the end of our test the only additional items we’d like for long bush trips would be a light- and radiator-protecting hoop on the bumper, an LED light bar and a larger-capacity fuel tank, to extend range. Alternatively, the Gladiator could easily house a pair of tub-integrated auxiliary fuel tanks in its tray.
We don’t think it would be a good idea to look for a massive increase in the Gladiator’s modest 2835kg GVM, because it might spoil the vehicle’s excellent dynamics. Perhaps, a modest upgrade in rear axle suspension capacity might work for those who have heavy towball weights or who want to carry 400kg in the tray at all times.
Ideally, we reckon the Jeep Gladiator should be used for unladen or medium-load daily work and coupled to a two-tonnes van or camper trailer for bush trips.
Check out our test video: