For almost thirty years, Jeep loyalists have been kept waiting for a pickup. While the company’s lineup has grown almost exponentially, adding the subcompact Renegade here, a Wrangler Unlimited there and a compact Compass over there, the clamor for a pickup has been seemingly non-stop, while a production version from Jeep has – again, seemingly – been a non-starter. Even those Jeep intenders not yet born when the last Jeep pickup – Jeep’s Comanche, discontinued in 1992 – was built were (presumably) hoping for its arrival in-for-gawd-sake-utero.
While waiting, the Jeep Faithful were treated to any number of concepts by Jeep and aftermarket conversions built by (of course) the aftermarket. There was even, we’re reliably informed, a meeting in Trump Tower, where Ivanka threatened to leave Kushner if he didn’t buy her Toledo. Thankfully, the collective angst is behind us, and the all-new Jeep Gladiator is in Jeep showrooms now.
From all indicators, it was worth the wait. In a press preview provided by Jeep’s PR team, the new Gladiator sat in the driveway of Alexandria’s River Farm, which fronts the Potomac River, as if it had been there forever. While far more than simply a Jeep Wrangler with an attached bed, the just-rightness of its design looks, well…just right. The assembly of stampings is all properly vertical, and despite a wheelbase and overall length much greater than the already-long Wrangler Unlimited, nothing here is out of proportion, all of it looks as we would have hoped it would look.
Under those stampings is an aggressively strengthened frame, along with a rear suspension lifted – almost intact – from FCA’s Ram 1500. With that swap the Gladiator owner gets not only more cargo and towing capability, but also (arguably) a more composed ride than the more traditional – i.e., agrarian – leaf springs. But with that strength comes weight, and despite aluminum doors, hood, fenders and tailgate, the Gladiator has a base curb weight of 4,700 pounds, and the Rubicon hits 5,000. And that begs a question: did any of the Jeep guys ever look at Suzuki’s Jimny?
Inside, the crew cab – at present the only configuration available – approximates closely the interior space available in the Wrangler Unlimited. Obviously, it’s been a few decades since a Jeep product shed its military roots and reflect some uptown sophistication, but the new Gladiator takes ‘uptown’ deep into its design ethos.
In the Rubicon trim on display, the Gladiator offers FCA’s 4th-generation Uconnect system which includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a choice of 7.0-inch or 8.4-inch touchscreens. There’s also a forward-facing off-road camera available on the top-level Rubicon trim, which means you know longer have to buy your spotter a beer. Savings, then, at every off-road turn.
Under the hood you have FCA’s 3.6 liter Pentastar V6. Period. In this tune the V6 supplies 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Power is delivered to the wheels via a standard 6-speed manual or available 8-speed automatic. And while 285 horsepower would seem, at least numerically, more than enough to propel a Jeep, know that with the Gladiator’s bulk you won’t think of this driving experience as lively. It’s adequately responsive, but lively? No. Add gas, a weekend’s worth of stuff and the overweight girlfriend/boyfriend, and you can get from 0-60, but I wouldn’t put a watch on it – or wager a pink slip.
In driving a 6-speed Rubicon between River Farm and Mount Vernon, we were impressed by the Gladiator’s composure and compliance, while wishing there was a tad more powertrain; also, the 6-speed manual felt a bit disconnected. None of this, of course, was off-putting, but neither did we want to go right from the preview to a Jeep dealership with a check. This is, as Jeep notably states in its introductory press materials, the ‘most capable midsize truck ever’, but in the drivetrain there remains – we think – some room for improvement.
That improvement is scheduled for the 2020 calendar year, when FCA installs a V6 diesel under the Gladiator’s hood. The diesel will up the torque and, you’d expect, the efficiency, while making drives into the wilderness (bear with me here…) less like DiCaprio’s The Revenant and more like Witherspoon’s The Wild.
Ultimately, our initial impression of the Gladiator – despite all that a Jeep pickup has going for it – is driven by the hubris of its marketing. The initial launch is all Rubicon, with a base of around $45K and the typical as-delivered sticker approaching $60K. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot for a Jeep, a lot for a midsize pickup, and – as you’d guess – a lot for a midsize Jeep pickup. While dated, well-equipped Frontiers top out at $45,000, and are discounted heavily. And Toyota’s Tacoma, with just about everything to make it a credible off-roader, will end up closer to $50K than $60K, and that’s with Toyota building it and backing it.
Down the road, base Gladiators will trickle out. But with a starting price of a seemingly modest $35K, they’ll get to $45,000 before you can say Jeep Safari. A regular cab would be less expensive, a 7-foot bed would be more useful, and a well-equipped $40K Gladiator would be much more accessible.
At one point, every Jeep CJ or Wrangler served as a tribute – and Jeep promoted this – to the American men fighting America’s wars.
At $60K, this newest Gladiator isn’t a tribute to the men who fought the wars; rather, it’s a bauble for the children and grandchildren of those that financed them.
That’s why I’ll wait for a regular cab, with a 7-foot bed, perhaps 4-cylinder power and $30K window sticker. And yeah, I could be waiting a while…