Here at DRIVEN we often get invited to international media launches. Because New Zealand is very far away from… well, everywhere, these events usually involve a day or two of travel each way, a day or two on the ground and a lot of frantic activity.
There’s often a surreal quality to the whole thing, as carmakers attempt to give their latest models a unique aura. It’s hard work. Honest.
What’s arguably more surreal are those very rare occasions when the international launches come to us. Because you’re getting the same mind-boggling scale… but in the familiar environs of your own back yard.
Which brings us to Jeep’s new Gladiator. It’s the first Jeep factory-designed and built pickup truck - or “ute” to us Kiwis - for 18 years and it was launched to the international media in Central Otago.
That meant spectacular driving roads and scenery, some proper off-roading - and a fleet of 20 Gladiators fresh from the factory with their steering wheels on the wrong side.
There’s a touch of the surreal about the Gladiator anyway. Yes, it’s a ute in roughly the same segment as the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux. But it’s also the world’s only convertible pickup truck; more than that, one where you can also fold down the windscreen and remove the doors.
So don’t expect any work-trucky versions. Like Jeep’s last pickup, the Cherokee-based Comanche from 1986-92, this is all about high-end lifestyle. Jet skis, beach parties and definitely cappucinos in the city.
As you might surmise from the pictures, Gladiator is mostly Wrangler from the B-pillar forward (including the dashboard).
But it’s unique from there back, including a more sophisticated five-link rear suspension system that owes a lot to the Ram 1500.
It’s big. The wheelbase is 479mm longer than Wrangler, it’s 691mm longer overall… and more interestingly, 175mm longer tip-to-tail than a Ranger. Gulp.
Gladiator is not quite as adept off-road as a Wrangler, thanks to that rear overhang (departure angle drops 3 degrees to 26deg, for example). But it’s still staggeringly capable in the rough and the gap isn’t massive unless you’re a true “Jeeper” who wants the ultimate off-roader.
For example, Jeep fully accepts you’ll be dragging that tray up riverbanks or dropping it onto boulders. No problem; there are “rock rails” right around the underside and you shouldn’t be afraid to use them. Well, we weren’t.
Gladiator gets the same 209kW/347Nm 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine as Wrangler, matched to a slick eight-speed automatic transmission.
Final specification for NZ isn’t decided, but expect at least the choice of Overland or Rubicon specification: the former for a more comfort-oriented experience, the latter for serious rock-hopping.
In either version, the level of off-road ability provided is high enough to ensure that Gladiator isn’t quite as sharp on-road as a high-end Ranger or Volkswagen Amarok. That’s opportunity cost, folks.
The slow steering keeps you busy on winding roads, the rigid front axle wanders a bit at speed and there’s still quite a lot of wind noise.
The more tarmac-biased rubber on the Overland beats the Rubicon’s chunky footwear for on-road refinement, though.
On the whole, the Gladiator is a lot smoother than a Wrangler on demanding Kiwi roads, thanks to the longer wheelbase and more compliant rear suspension.
If you’re getting too bogged down in the technical and dynamic details, you might be missing the point. The Gladiator is supposed to be larger than life.
One of the highlights of the launch fleet was a red Rubicon that looked like it had crashed into a Mopar warehouse: minimalist “tube” doors and a sports exhaust worthy of some of Fiat Chrysler’s Italian models. And yes, it all seemed to make perfect sense in this context.
There are plenty of surprise-and-delight features even when your Gladiator has doors: there’s a rear seat with a lockable storage bin so you can leave the roof down when it’s parked, an (optional) removeable Bluetooth speaker that charges while docked in the vehicle… you get the idea.
The Gladiator is class-leading for tow capacity and payload in the US, but it’s not quite up to Kiwi standards. It can haul 2.7 tonnes braked, which is well short of the 3.5t that’s the norm for the one-tonne ute class. And speaking of that one tonne thing… the Jeep only has a payload of 620kg, which is even less than a Ranger Raptor.
You’ll be able to decide whether that’s an issue for you; but how much does a mountain bike weigh really?
Gladiator owners will probably have really nice mountain bikes, because this new Jeep is probably going to be quite expensive. No firm word on pricing for the model’s mid-2020 launch in NZ, but the US the Gladiator is a bit more expensive than the equivalent Wrangler - and that’s priced from $72,990-$92,990 here.
PRICE: TBC, but more than a Wrangler ($72,990-$92,990).
GEARBOX: 8-speed automatic, part-time 4WD
ENGINE: 3.6-litre petrol V6
ECONOMY: 12.4 l/100km (US EPA Combined)