WATCH: Jeep Gladiator puts up a fight like no other bakkie

A wait of four years, even by South African standards, is a long time, but that is exactly how long aficionados have had to remain patient for the Jeep Gladiator.

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Revealed at the Los Angeles International Auto Show in 2018, the Gladiator not only revives an iconic moniker last used in 1985 – 2005 if you include the seemingly production ready looking concept – but serves as Jeep’s first bakkie since the XJ Cherokee-based Comanche exited production in 1992.

Moreover, the Gladiator is a Jeep bakkie first for South Africa, but as a means of keeping it simple, parent company, Stellantis, has streamlined the range to a single derivative that at R1 259 900, officially becomes the country’s most expensive double cab.

Simple allocation

As such, the Gladiator only comes with a single powertrain; the stalwart 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 that produces the same 209kW/347Nm as it does in its sibling, the Wrangler.

For now, the 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 offered in the United States, and previously in the current Grand Cherokee, is a no-no until improvements in local diesel quality is made.

ALSO READ: Wait almost over: Jeep Gladiator debuting on 21 June

Also ruled out is the six-speed manual gearbox offered in the States, meaning the Gladiator comes as standard with an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

The final piece in the mono-puzzle is the trim level, the flagship, off-road focused Rubicon, whose go-any capabilities comprises the Rock-Trac on-demand four-wheel-drive system, the heavy duty Dana 44 front and rear axles, Tru-Lok front and rear differentials, Fox shock absorbers and electronic sway-bar disconnect.

Clever, with distinction

Available only as a double cab, Jeep has, however, afforded the Wrangler a choice of two roof options; a three-piece removable hard-top and the Sunrider soft-top that gives the Gladiator the distinction of being South Africa’s first and only convertible bakkie.

In typical Jeep fashion, both roofs can be removed and the bolts stored in a dedicated storage area underneath the flip-up rear seats.

Hard cover loadbox cover comes standard.

The same applies to the doors, which can be detached completely and even carried in the removal process thanks to what Jeep calls Lift-Assist handles under each armrest.

In addition to the windscreen being foldable onto the bonnet, Jeep has been clever by equipping the mentioned bin with a petroglyph that corresponds and acts as storage hold for each bolt once the doors and roof are off. What’s more, the bin comes with a number of dividers that splits it into five sections.

Rubicon’s 32-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres are wrapped around 17-inch alloy wheels.

The final nifty item is a wireless Bluetooth speaker hidden behind the rear seats. A standard feature, it too is removable and clips back in back without much hassle.

If still not impressive enough, the “most capable Jeep ever made” boasts a heavy-duty tow bar standard, a hard-top tonneau cover, covered external power sources and a rubberised loadbin.

Storage are underneath the rear seats.

For South Africa though, Jeep has revised the Gladiator’s payload from the maximum 725 kg in the United States to 693 kg, but kept the towing capacity for a braked trailer unchanged at 2 721 kg. This also applies to the 800 mm wading depth.

Loaded with spec

Leaving little for wanting is the Gladiator’s specification sheet, comprising heated front seats, a nine-speaker Alpine sound system, auto on/off headlights, ambient lighting, a heated steering wheel, four auxiliary inputs, dual-zone climate control, remote engine start, a seven-inch TFT instrument cluster display and an 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Interior is similar to the Wrangler but boasts the red dashboard inserts as standard.

On top of this, the Gladiator also gets a tyre pressure monitoring system, Adaptive Cruise Control, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Blind Spot Monitoring, a reverse camera, Forward Collision Warning and Rollover Mitigation.

Road can be too far

For the long awaited unveiling, the launch this week involved a trek to the Hennops Off-Road Trail outside Hartebeespoort Dam, which included extensive use of gravel roads to get there.

In truth, it was worth it as the Gladiator features a number of foibles on the move. Aside from the cluttered looking dashboard and some of the ergonomics – such as the placing of the window switches – the steering, as in the Wrangler, felt lifeless and vague.

No need to worry. It was meant for this.

However, I was informed by my driving that this has been done deliberately so as to avoid the wheel being wrenched out of the driver’s hand when off-roading.

Not so the wind and road noise thanks to not only the soft-top roof, but also the 32-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres wrapped around the 17-inch alloy wheels.

Despite its grunt, the Gladiator’s turn of speed is adequate rather than fast compounded not only by its off-road hardware and 2.2-ton mass, but also the gearbox that tends to hunt under urgent acceleration or when down-shifting.

Selecting four-wheel-drive still done via an old-school “second gear lever”.

At the same time, it feels lethargic and with a strained rather than a sweet sounding soundtrack at three digit speeds. All this however stops the moment tar gives way to dirt.

Aside from the vagueness making sense, the combination of the solid axles and coil springs lends the Gladiator a pleasant ride off-road and a sense of “it belongs here”.

Off-road

Once at Hennops, the Gladiator’s true talents showed as the series of axle twisters, water crossings and the route itself failed to deter it from bottoming out or getting stuck.

Gladiator’s departure angle comes to 26 degrees, with the breakover rated at 20.3 degrees and approach at 43.4 degrees.

With a departure angle of 26 degrees, breakover of 20.3 degrees, approach of 43.4 degrees and a ground clearance of 249 mm, the Gladiator felt at ease hanging at actuate angles with its rear wheels in the air as it did traversing the rocky and dusty course.

Off-Road page provide comprehensive readouts

It was during this time that the Off-Road Pages on the Uconnect system, which provides pitch, roll, steering angle, diff-lock, temperature and altitude readouts amongst others, became the centre of attention as yet another thoughtful feature.

Wading depth is 800 mm.

For its final assault, the Gladiator had to progress up the daunting Hill 49 littered with sharp, puncture waiting rocks and dongas.

Ground clearance is 249 mm.

With both diff-locks switched on, low range engaged and the V6 providing more than enough shove it seemingly didn’t want to show on the road, it effortlessly made it up without bogging down or emerging a wounded soldier.

Conclusion

Despite its price having emerged as the biggest point of content, the Jeep Gladiator makes no excuses for being what is it and with little competition in spite of the Ford Ranger Raptor and even the Toyota Land Cruiser 70-series being mentioned.

Jeep Gladiator badge

A clear-cut “heart-over-head” buy, initially limited to 35 units a month, the Gladiator comes in a choice of nine colours; Black, Snazzberry, Bright White, Granite Crystal, Silver Zynith, Sting Grey, Firecracker Red, Hydro Blue and Sarge Green with the pricing including a three-year/100 000 km warranty as well as a five-year/100 000 km service plan.

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