Jeep may promise much, but Gladiator bakkie delivers next level

Packing legendary 4×4 capability, read through the PR bumf and Jeep also promises that this clever, functional, and versatile, fuel-efficient, and powerful open-air Gladiator Rubicon offers a most compelling option in the South African bakkie market. They even go as far as calling it aerodynamic. Which is surprising for a brick.

There’s definitely no mistaking that it’s a Jeep. Slick daytime running LED head and fog lamps punctuate the necessary seven-slot grille to set Gladiator out the most capable Jeep bakkie ever. Even if one can hardly call it aerodynamic, no matter how hard Jeep tries to convince you otherwise. But it’s genuine Jeep, so who cares, anyway?


Gladiator is Long. Very Long!

It’s long. Very long. Park its old nemesis Land Rover 90 alongside and Gladiator continues backward for a good Smart car’s worth of metal. But it’s cool. Super cool!

One of Gladiator Rubicon’s neatest aspects has to be the ability to strip the hard top roof and doors off and lay the screen down. It’s pretty labour intensive, as we know from the wagon, but time and conditions prevented us from trying to take the hard top off. Hopefully there will be a summery next time soon!

For the record, two Freedom panels and quick-release latches enable the rapid removal and replacement of the hardtop. That allows dozens of different door, top and windshield configurations. The hard top even has a manual rear-sliding window. And a separate Sunrider top is included for easy convertibility.


Rubicon Packs All the Bakkie Bits

The bakkie bit incudes a wide, damped power-locking three-position tailgate. A welcome durable load bed features tough, strong, durable integrated Trail Rail Cargo Management tie-downs and under-rail lighting. It’s topped with a special scratch-resistant layer and a roll-up rigid loading cover.

It may be long and broad enough, but that load bay is a tad short. We noticed that we couldn’t fit certain taller items under the cover that a Ranger, for instance, accommodated with ease. There’s a full-size spare wheel in a cave under the bed capable of housing up to a 35-inch aftermarket wheel and tyre.

Gladiator’s surprisingly plush and luxurious cabin is just as versatile, intuitive, and comfortable. Quality soft-touch materials abound. We enjoyed the matt contrast of the body colour panel across the dash. It’s a combination of old school cool and purely practical functionality in a fine modern rendition of neat buttons, switches and knobs.


A Surprisingly Chic Cabin

Red cross-stitched black leather-clad contoured seats get adjustable bolster and lumbar support. Ours were even heated, as was the matching chunky multifunction steering wheel. It sits behind 7-inch LED display dials. They’re more than 100-way adaptable to display precisely what you want, from tyre pressure to a digital speed readout and much more.

The multifunction steering allows for hands on the wheel adjustment of Gladiator’s infotainment. The enhanced processing higher-resolution 8.4-inch fourth generation CarPlay and Auto Uconnect touchscreen comes complete with a USB-C and two USB ports.

The rear seats boast segment-leading rear legroom. Their backs fold forward and bottoms up, to deliver secure storage options. The folded backs even double as an additional load floor. The LED lit rear bay also has storage nets, over and above all the storage nooks and four durable mesh door pockets.

It’s well safety specced too. More than 80 active and passive and security features include Blind-spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path detection, a reversing camera, Adaptive Cruise, and Electronic Stability Control with electronic roll mitigation.


Gladiator Earns Trail Rated Badge With Colours

There’s no secret why the Gladiator Rubicon was awarded a cherished Trail Rated badge. Its legendary Jeep 4×4 capability is unrivalled off the track. Finger the waterproof starter button and the lusty old 209 kW 347 Nm 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 turning sings to life.

It’s no slouch on the road, mind you. Besides the roar of its chunky BFG Mud Terrain TA boots and the sound of a gale as the wind does its best to dodg the beast at speed, it’s fairly well planted and surprisingly alive. Sure, steering is slow, and it lurches around a bit, but Rubicon becomes feisty when pushed and accelerates strong to its electronic cut-off, just short of 160 km/h.

None of this has anything to do with this beast’s real Rubicon-rated pedigree. Although Jeep promises that its unique combination of two overdrive ratios in Gladiator’s eight-speed automatic do improve versatility and reduce road noise.

Although not quite ground-breaking, the Jeep bakkie packs in a 693 kg payload and will tug a 2712 kg braked trailer when fitted with a Max Towing Package. It also comes with heavy-duty off-road rear and winch-ready steel front bumpers with tow hooks and skid plates.


All About that Unstoppable Jeep Myth

The rest of this Rubicon is all about that unstoppable Jeep myth. At the other end of the scale, the auto box is tuned to optimally drive Gladiator’s legendary 4×4 set-up to deliver an unstoppable 77.2:1 crawl ratio in low range. Towing and 4×4 performance meanwhile benefits a 4.7:1 first gear ratio coupled with a 4.1:1 final drive.

Drive selection between all the many modes is simple and effective via Selec-Speed Control. Gladiator’s Rock-Trac 4×4 system features heavy-duty third-generation Dana 44 axles with Tru-Lok differentials. Electronic sway-bar disconnect improves suspension articulation, while Rock-Trac full-time torque management ensures exceptional grip in low-traction conditions.

Sitting on a literally indestructible ladder frame, the Jeep claims that Gladiator Rubicon is its most capable bakkie ever. 787 mm longer and riding on a 493 mm longer wheelbase than the wagon, the load bed centre is positioned behind the rear axle. For improved weight distribution. They say that this makes for a more composed ride when loaded.


Gladiator Has Absolutely Go Anywhere Ability.

The Gladiator retains Jeep’s five-link live axle coil suspension front and rear. The front end has one lateral and four longitudinal control arms with full width forged steel track bars. This controls lateral axle movement to ensure minimal angle change through the suspension’s full ambit of travel.

Rear suspension has two upper and two lower forged steel longitudinal control arms, and a lateral control. The control arms are located below the frame rails, while the Fox Shocks face forward for consistent damping, best ride comfort and load management.

Gladiator’s 43.6 degree approach, 20.3 degree breakover and 26 degree departure angle together with 249 mm ground clearance and 800 mm allow for absolutely go anywhere ability.

Overall, we were a little taken aback when we first learned about the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon bakkie. It all seemed a bit much. It is after all just a bakkie flirting with R1.3 million?


As Economical As Ferrari F1 is Tactical

At first, we were also alarmed by its almighty appetite for petrol. And that in spite of Jeep’s best efforts to call it ‘economical’. That’s as bad as Jeep’s distant F1 cousin Ferrari team boss Bionotto claiming that his team’s strategy has worked so far this year. No. it did not. And no, this Jeep is anything but economical!

That also has us wondering why Jeep never brought it as a turbodiesel? Or at least offered its 195 kW 600 Nm 8.5 l/100 km oil burner as an option. That, in this market, would be hugely attractive. Even in the face of the new diesel V6 Ranger and Hilux GR-S. Sadly, this vehicle will only become the next Raptor’s punching bag. Which is neither right, nor fair.

However, as our time with this immensely capable, and versatile machine elapsed, we came to really like it. Warts and all. We’d even go so far as to say that we started to fall in love with it. Sure, it is a highly acquired taste. It’s also hell expensive. And very heavy on fuel. And it is limited by its current one petrol model fits all range in a clear turbodiesel world.

But this Jeep Gladiator Rubicon is also one hell of a character. So, if you happen to need something that will offer this kind of unstoppably versatile, highly unique go-anywhere, carry-anything in superb style attitude, we’d recommend it in the bat of an eye. – Michele Lupini

Images: Giordano Lupini

ROAD TESTED: Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Engine: 209 kW 347 Nm 3.6-litre petrol V6
Drive: 8-speed Automatic 4x4
Payload:          693 kg 
Braked trailer:   2,712 kg
0-60 km/h:        3.53 sec
0-100 km/h:       8.41 sec
0-120 km/h:       12.02 sec
400m:             15.9 sec @ 138 km/h
80-120 km/h:      4.00 sec
120-160 km/h:     6.30 sec
VMax:             155 km/h
Fuel:             12.4 l/100 km
CO2:              288 g/km
Warranty/Service: 5y 100K/3y 100K km
LIST PRICE:       R1.299M
RATED:            9
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