Building a bakkie with personality is tougher than it sounds, and so the 2022 Jeep Gladiator was always going to be divisive. Brash, unapologetic, and digging enthusiastically into a lengthy history of Jeep 4×4 heritage and iconic styling, the Gladiator could be at best a new bakkie hero, or at worst an overdue pastiche. Buckle up because things get bumpy.
The Gladiator looks good. Really good
Some drives you go into with a little bias on your sleeve. I’m not your typical bakkie buyer, but I do think the Gladiator looks fantastic. No, I don’t really need one, but I wasn’t averse to being so swayed by deep Jeep joy that a trifling detail like that could be overlooked.
It’s no less chunky and charming in the metal. The Gladiator is like a kid’s toy truck come to life, instantly recognizable with its keystone grille and circular headlights. There’s only the off-road-centric Rubicon model available locally, with different combinations of body-colour or black cladding, tweaks to the bumpers and fenders, and other trim details – accessories if you must.
All, though, are convertibles. Jeep offers a choice of interchangeable roofs: a soft top, which peels back like the top of a stroller; a body-colour three-piece hardtop. Then the option to have removable panels that expose the front seats to the sky.
Like the Wrangler, though, you can go even further. Whip out the Torx bolts and you can remove the Gladiator’s doors; do the same for the windshield, and that can fold down flat. You’ll need goggles if you want to avoid an eyeful of bugs and road grit, mind.
Jeep does everything it can to encourage you to do it, too. The necessary tools come as standard, and there’s a handy box – complete with molded legends showing which bolts go with which part of the car – to safely store the fastenings after you’ve removed them.
It’s not the only clever detail. There’s a long, shallow storage space under the rear bench – which lifts, single-handed, with a 60/40 split – and an optional removable, locking bin with adjustable dividers that can slot there. A little more storage is found behind the seat backs, along with a removable, rechargeable, and waterproof Bluetooth speaker; the seats lock upright so that, even if you’ve taken the doors off, there’s still somewhere safe to leave your bag or purse.
No mere Wrangler with a box
The familiar design might lead you to assume Jeep took the easy option: bolt a box onto the back of the Wrangler and call it a day. Even Jeep itself concedes that would have been the simplest route – and the fastest. The automaker could’ve used the previous-generation Wrangler “JK” platform for a bakkie version years ago.
It would’ve looked the part, Jeep says, but it wouldn’t have performed like a proper Jeep bakkie should. Instead, a new platform was paired with a classic name from the automaker’s vault, and so the Gladiator was born.
The body-on-frame uses high-strength steel and is 41-inches longer than the Wrangler 4-door’s platform. More than 19-inches of that extra length goes into the wheelbase. It’s tougher than the Wrangler frame, too, given that the loads it’ll be expected to carry are heavier.
At the back, the box is a compromise around practicality, aesthetics, and performance. Jeep intentionally kept the sides relatively low in comparison to other recent pickups, sacrificing bigger volume numbers in favour of a bed you could reach into from the sides. It’s spacious enough to hold a claimed 95-percent of motorcycles on the market, while being rated for up to 693 kg of payload. Meanwhile, the Gladiator will tow up to 2 721 kg.
The box itself is steel, with four steel cross-members. However, the tailgate – like the fenders, hood, windshield, and doors – is aluminium, to keep the weight down.
On the road, a Wrangler-like ride
The weight, and that body-on-frame platform, add up to a predictable driving feel when you’re on the road. Like the Wrangler, it can be a bouncy affair. That lends itself well to sensible cruising but counts the Gladiator out of more eager driving. Coupled to the heavily assisted electro-hydraulic power steering, which has a lot of play, and you end up feeling disconnected from the road.
It’s a shame, as there’s no shortage of power. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 offers 209kW and 347Nm of torque, and it’s more than sufficient to get the Gladiator going. I’d have liked to have seen the Wrangler’s four-cylinder hybrid offered, but right now there’s just the one engine to choose from. A petrol.
As for economy, that depends on how you spec out your Gladiator. I spent the day in the kitted out eight-speed automatic, with the sound exhaust pipes, and never found myself questioning its choice of gear. There, our fuel consumption was at a subjective 13/6l per 100 km/h. To be fair, our route included a lot of mixed driving and off-road activity.
Mud and rocks and now it all makes sense
It only took a minute or so away from asphalt to realize where this bakkie really shines. Faced with mud, rocks, and puddles of indeterminate depth, the bakkie’s softer suspension and lighter steering-feel immediately proved their worth.
Every Gladiator is 4×4 as standard, as you’d expect. This comes with a lever to shift between 2WD High, 4WD High, Neutral, and 4WD Low. The Rubicon adds a separate control panel, with which you can lock either the Front + Rear or just the Front diff, disconnect the sway bar, or turn on Off Road+ mode. The latter automatically adjusts the settings depending on whether you’re on high- or low-friction surfaces like rocks or sand.
Automaker off-road courses typically aren’t all that challenging. After all, it’s in their best interests to show their truck clambering serenely over just-tricky-enough terrain, perhaps kicking up a back wheel for some suitably dramatic photos. Which is exactly what happened.
As the lead Wrangler peeled off to the side, I found myself facing what resembled the aftermath of a rock fall, or maybe an earthquake-shattered Stonehenge. An unruly tumble of jagged stones, huge and uninviting, and with just enough mud left by earlier drivers to leave the glistening pile looking treacherously slippery. I’d expected chunky gravel; this was post-apocalyptic collapsed parking structure.
Gladiator in 4WD Low, the diffs locked and my nerves steeled, I pushed forward. Tipping down over the opposite side, the rocks suddenly angled steeply. The Rubicon gets 17-inch wheels. I could feel them fighting gravity as the Gladiator leaned precariously to the right. “Slower!” bellowed Jeep’s spotter. My foot, already burying the brake to the wash-out floor, tried in vain to press even harder; any remaining movement was down to the unstable surface shifting beneath us. Fortunately, I had no co-driver to squeaked with alarm.
By the point where we were level again, it was time to tackle the next obstacle. More haphazardly strewn rocks; more disconcerting angles; and more ruts and furrows. The Gladiator has 249mm of clearance and can wade into water up to 800mm deep. That, and the tenacious grip from the tires meant even the unctuous mud couldn’t hold me back.
Practicality is king
If you’re considering the Gladiator but not swayed by the price tag, you’ll be happy to know that at that point you have power locking and power windows, tinted glass, power heated mirrors, dual-zone HVAC, and keyless entry. Outside you get LED headlamps and fog lamps, with halo-like daytime running lights. LED rear lights – with integrated cross track detection sensors.
Elsewhere there’s leather-trimmed seats, a 115V AC outlet in the back, too, as well as up to five USB and USB-C ports spread around the cabin. Soft-grip grab handles on the pillars and ahead of the front passenger were well-utilized on the off-road course.
For convenience there’s a spacious 7-inch screen, with an 8.4-inch touch panel and navigation an available upgrade. Eight speakers are standard; a nine speaker Alpine system, with subwoofer, and 552W of power is optional. Uconnect can look a little busy, but it’s fast and fairly sensibly laid out. There’s both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support.
Happily, Jeep also includes plenty of physical controls. The HVAC system gets dedicated buttons and dials – all chunky enough to be used even if you’re wearing gloves – while underneath are the power window buttons. It takes some getting used to their placement, but that’s the price you pay for having removable doors.
It all looks good. Just on the charming side of quirky, in fact. Second row legroom is a little tighter than in a 4-door Wrangler, but still adult-sized.
As for safety, Jeep has Blind-spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path detection, standard ParkView rear back-up camera with dynamic grid lines, Adaptive Cruise Control and electronic stability control (ESC) with electronic roll mitigation.
2020 Jeep Gladiator verdict
You can’t accuse the Gladiator of not delivering on its promise to be “the Jeep of bakkies.” It looks the part, is as capable off-road as you’d expect it to be, and blends outright practicality with distinctive – and at times playful – features that leave the Hilux, Ranger (not the Raptor, soz), Mahindra’s offerings and other rivals feeling positively dull in comparison. Throw in the cavalcade of Mopar accessories, and you’ve also got a truck with huge customization potential. Just what the Jeep faithful had been hoping for, in fact.
If there’s a frustration, it’s that the Gladiator’s focus on off-road ability has a clear impact on on-road performance. A button which firmed up the steering and tweaked the damping would make a world of difference. Yes, Jeep made a great bakkie, but new potential buyers – lured from their SUVs and crossovers by the attention-grabbing design – could well be turned off by how the Gladiator feels from behind the wheel.
I can’t argue that the Gladiator doesn’t achieve what it set out to do. Nor that it will probably sell in bucketloads to Jeep fans. As an outsider to that clique, though, I’m a little sore that Jeep didn’t take the chance to make a vehicle which straddled truck heritage and a more general desire among drivers for something with character, but which doesn’t feel like a utility. Perhaps in doing so it would’ve undermined the pickup’s whole identity in the process. What I do know is that it’s easy to like the Gladiator, but it’s only when you take it off-road that you really come to love it.
Retail Price starts from R 1,259,900.
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