It was the battle cry of a TV show from the 1990s, “Gladiators Ready” and every time I laid eyes on the army green Jeep Gladiator in my driveway that is how I felt. The Gladiator was indeed ready, ready for anything I could throw at it, and more.
It is not a perfect car by any stretch, the Kia Sorento we drove last month will eat it in urban conditions every day, but its lack of perfection is what makes it great because it is not designed as a be-all and end-all. You just need to buy one for the right reasons.
A short spell off-roading in the Yarra Ranges was all it took to fully understand the capabilities of this beast. Jeep may cop it at times for its soft-roaders, but the range of serious off-roaders is perhaps without peer. The familiar two or four-door Wrangler and now the ute-based Gladiator are the sort of cars on which this company built its reputation for toughness.
Despite the fact that the Gladiator Rubicon doesn’t fit in a normal car park, and that you virtually need a small step ladder to climb aboard, I’d be happy to own one!
So, down to it.
The Gladiator is a large dual cab ute, with enough room in the load bay to carry things like dirt bikes, but not a huge payload in terms of weight. Inside there is enough room in the second row to make a capable family car. There are three trim levels, the Sport S, Overland and the Rubicon and a range of subdued colours as well as Firecracker Red if you want to be seen, and Sarge Green like our test car which means you can hide in the bush.
That is if you can hide a car that is more than five and a half metres (5.591m) long and a shade under two metres tall (1.909m) – there aren’t many that are bigger than a Gladiator although it is skinnier than its rivals. A Ford Ranger Raptor, for instance, is 20 cm shorter and 5cm shorter yet is 10cm wider.
What that means is that when I headed off the road and up the Mississippi Track, I was worried about rolling over the first hump and whether it would get stuck. I need not have worried, the ground clearance is impressive, and only once during the trip did the belly of the car ground out at all.
The downside to that ground clearance is entering and exiting the vehicle. The sidestep is handy, but it is a climb and can make for some funny moments – thanks Rhino.
The body is aluminium, which is important to keep the weight down, not that the 2.5-tonne kerb mass is light, but considering the complexity of the drivetrain underneath it is not too bad. The gearbox is 8 speed, but there are also 3 differentials to control all the grip – and all can be locked or unlocked for extra control off roads as needed.
The turbocharged V6 engine upfront is up to the task too – on the highway, it will easily travel at freeway speeds. When it gets down and dirty, it crawls nicely with plenty of low-down torque allowing it to crawl. Fuel was a little scary when I collected the car, a full tank said 313km to empty, but the average consumption was 14.9L/100km. By the time I’d finished, that was down to 13.2 and could get well over 500km out of a tank – so that was better and showed that even though it is a monster truck if treated nicely it can be frugal.
There were so many buttons on the console for all sorts of things to do with off-roading, but only once did we even need to go to low-range while others were forced into that mode early. The tech in this car serves one purpose and one purpose only – and that is to get it to places off-road that few other cars can reach.
On the road, it is an imposing drive, but you know it is designed for off-road use and needs to be treated with caution when the road is slippery. It is easy to light up the rear tyres before the traction control kicks in, but when it does it pulls the tail neatly back into line. Speed humps are meaningless.
In terms of the safety tech, there are front and rear cameras that help reversing and off-roading, and there are sensors all around the car. Adaptive cruise control is standard across the range, and the brakes are powerful and progressive. There are only four airbags, but that makes sense when you find out that the roof and doors come off!
Not that you’d do the doors for driving around the city or serious off-roading, but it would be pretty cool on the softer high plains or on a beach for instance.
The floor has removable rubber mats which were quite handy after a day off the road, and the floor has holes in it so you can hose down the cabin. My curiosity was piqued here about river crossings, but it seems the rubber grommets which seal the car had not been replaced at some point, so it is just as well we didn’t try a river crossing.
The Gladiator is functional, but it is also designed for style and image. It looks similar to the original Willy’s Jeep from the 1940s, but with all the modern touches like LED running lights and LED headlights. The side mirrors are square, which is a bit odd, but it fits the retro theme even if they do have blind spot sensors built-in that spoils the myth.
Inside the car is also theme-based. There is a ground pattern on all the screens, which reminds you this is a car for getting away. The driving position is very upright and slightly skewed given how intrusive the gearbox is in the footwell. The steering wheel has all the buttons you’d need, and I am sure familiarity would make them easier to use.
The dash has a stunning matt red panel stretching all the way across, which brings a nice feel to the ambience of the cabin. It was the first thing my daughter mentioned.
It is important to understand what the Gladiator is built for before you judge it. It is an off-roader, not a soft-roader. It will get you and your gear to place most cars on the planet cannot get to, so strap in the trail bikes down and head into the wilderness… or pack the fishing gear and find a river somewhere that others cannot reach.
Then hose it down when you get home and run the kids to school.
As I said earlier, it is not perfect, but you could argue it is perfect for what it is and that is all that matters.
Jeep Gladiator Rubicon - $76,450 before on-road costs.