By Derek Price
If there was any doubt in my mind that the Jeep Gladiator is the most exciting pickup truck to hit the market in years, a one-day drive dispelled it.
There’s no question.
As a natural-born skeptic, I went into my drive with some suspicion about whether the inherent tradeoffs in the automotive world — power vs. fuel efficiency, style vs. practicality, everyday comfort vs. high-performance handling — meant Jeep could get both the truck side and the off-roading side correct in this wild mashup of a vehicle.
Somehow, the Gladiator nails both parts.
On the trails, this pickup benefits from its close ties to the Jeep Wrangler, one of the best off-roading platforms ever conceived by man. Compared to the two-door Wrangler, the Gladiator’s longer wheelbase and extra weight are liabilities in extreme conditions, but its limits are still stratospheric compared to most trucks.
Hardcore Wrangler fans will find a lot to love about the pickup-truck cousin, including its ability to ford 30 inches of water, an approach angle of 43.6 degrees and 11 inches of ground clearance.
Just as importantly, it offers the Wrangler’s famous open-air driving experience. You can remove the doors and the top — and even fold the windshield forward, if you want — to be at one with the world around you. If you need a better 360-degree sensory experience, you’ll have to get a dirt bike.
The bigger question, though, is whether the Gladiator can satisfy truck buyers in the same way it pleases Jeep enthusiasts. To do that, it needs to be more than a Wrangler with a small bed tacked onto the back end.
With a stout steel frame and a specially designed five-link coil suspension in back, the Gladiator wins best-in-class bragging rights with the ability to tow 7,650 pounds. That bests the Toyota Tacoma’s 6,800-pound max and the Chevrolet Colorado’s 7,000-pound limit.
And it does so without making the ride too bouncy or harsh, a common problem in both off-road vehicles and machines designed for towing. I found the highway ride surprisingly quiet and livable for daily commutes, making this truck more useful than a weekend toy.
Its Achilles heel is its relatively short five-foot box length with wheel arches that protrude into the cargo bed, but some smart features make it more usable than you’d imagine at first glance. The tailgate can be locked in three positions, for example, to allow for supporting flat cargo such as plywood over the wheel arches.
Strong tie-downs, under-rail lighting, and optional features including a power outlet and Jeep’s Trail Rail tie-down system make the bed versatile and durable.
Inside, I like the mix of smart storage ideas — including locking bins behind the back seat — with classic Jeep styling cues. Round gauges and vent bezels on a very simple, horizontal dash evoke the idea of iconic American off-roaders, despite the plethora of digital screens and high-tech features befitting a freshly designed vehicle.
Power comes from a 3.6-liter V6 engine, which felt more than competent with its 285-horsepower output routed through an eight-speed automatic transmission in my tester. Purists will also be glad to see a six-speed manual available in the Gladiator.
A 3.0-liter diesel engine is on its way in the near future, Jeep says. Hopefully it will deliver better fuel economy than the gasoline engine, rated at 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway with the automatic transmission.
Pricing starts at $33,545 for the base Sport model with a manual transmission. An automatic adds $2,000, and the destination charge tacks on another $1,495.
Other grades are the Sport S for $36,745, the luxury-oriented Overland for $40,395 and the built-for-trail-climbing Rubicon for $43,545.
At that price, will it be a sales hit? Considering Jeep sold out of its 4,190 Launch Edition Gladiators in less than a day, priced around $61,000 apiece, the odds are in its favor.
At A Glance
Wheelbase: 137.3 in.
Length: 218 in.
Width: 73.8 in.
Height: 75 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (285 hp, 260 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 17 city, 22 highway
Why buy it?
It mixes the incredible off-road capability of the Jeep Wrangler with with practicality of a truck. It’s the most capable mid-size truck on the market today.