Not so long ago, a small group of us spent a weekend tackling the famous, or infamous, Rubicon Trail, a 35-km stretch of gut-busting off-road terrain just west of Lake Tahoe, Calif. We somehow managed to load up our two- and four-door Jeep Wranglers with camping gear, ropes and such, though with cargo space the size of a 737’s overhead bin, we struggled to squeeze it all in.
How nice it would have been to have had a Wrangler pickup, say one with a bed equipped with flexible tie-downs, 115-, three-pin outlets and lighting for unloading at night and loading up in the morning. That was before the Gladiator.
Jeep now has its Wrangler-based four-door pickup, and short of being a committed Greta Thunberg, the charming and committed climate-change activist, I cannot imagine the person who dislikes or even disapproves of the look, feel and back-country performance of the Gladiator.
The visceral responses a Gladiator or a Wrangler elicits from even the most committed environmentalist — one who, say, believes you should hike the Rubicon, never tackle it in a 4×4 — is of a kind with how many also feel about, say, a Porsche 356 Speedster or a ’65 Ford Mustang. The feeling is right there, in your gut and it’s a good one.
I was in love from the moment I climbed behind the wheel, right up to the instant I eyeballed the base sticker price ($52,495). I gasped. Then I looked for a defibrillator when I saw what a stuffed Gladiator Rubicon 4×4 costs: $69,040. If the U.S. Army in WWII had paid for Jeeps, or as they were known then, Willys, at that rate, the war would have bankrupted the country and Germany and Japan would have won the war.
Look, I absolutely adore the Gladiator. It’s a remarkable design and engineering achievement. But dear god, 70-large for a Jeep pickup seems as steep as the worst stretch of the Rubicon Trail.
At that price, a Gladiator is out of the price reach of rock climbers in Squamish, who often sleep six or eight to a trailer, just so they can afford to hang themselves from the spectacular formations overlooking the valley and the nearby fjord. At that price… Well, I was hoping and expecting something in the low-$30,000s. But the starter model is $47,245.
The thing is, I was imaging a Gladiator in simpler times, one quite basic. Jeep’s most capable rigs have moved on from that and the Gladiator is at the top of the ridge when it comes to modernity and capability.
This is an off-roader for the Bill Gates set, not a ponytailed, 20-something Billy Climber who lives out of a truck and is happy to snuggle into a sleeping bag in a tent in the middle of nowhere – sometimes pinned and hanging from a piece of rock. No foamy required.
My tester had the requisite vertical-bar grille, the round headlamps and square taillamps, and, also, third-generation Dana 44 axles; Tru-Lock electric front and rear-axle lockers; Trac-Lok limited slip differential; an electronic sway-bar disconnect; and massive off-road tires. This rig is capable of crawling up, over and around anything or fording 76 cm (30 inches) of water.
Go ahead, hitch up 3,469 kilograms (7,650 pounds) of trailer if you want and do so while carrying 725 kg (1,600) of payload in a five-foot steel bed with a covered plug-ins, integrated and flexible tie-downs and a protective spray-in bedliner.
I, of course, played about with the fold-down windshield and I had to learn not to slam the lightweight, high-strength aluminum doors held in place by external and very authentic hinges. Also made of aluminum are the hood, fenders, windshield frame
Jeep officials tell me the aluminum content helps check weight, but even so, fuel economy is rated at a thirsty 13.7 litres/100 km city, 10.7 highway. That from the 3.6-litre V-6 mated to an eight-speed autobox. The 3.0-litre diesel V-6 coming next year promises something better.
The cabin isn’t exactly the automotive equivalent of a Rubicon campsite, either. I am a huge fan of the Uconnect system that includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and the choice of 7.0- or 8.4-inch touchscreens with pinch-and-zoom capability. For 70-Gs I got the 8.4 screen and it’s superb. Not only can you get a rear backup camera, but also a forward-facing one to show you what’s ahead on the trail.
Yes, yes, the Gladiator delivers a joyous wallop ever time you climb in. And I do mean climb. One of my passengers was a rather short woman in the five-foot range, who literally had to use the grab bars to hoist herself aboard, and even then I provided a delicate push. She giggled every time at the fun of it, too.
Alas, the price tag is no laughing matter.
2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon 4×4
Base price: $52,495. As tested: $69,040, including $1,895 destination charge.
Engine: 3.6-litre V-6 (285 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque).
Transmission: eight-speed automatic.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.7 litres city/10.7 highway.