I was driving 80mph when a white Jeep Gladiator blasted by me in the right lane.
“How dare he? And it such a vehicle!” Bitterness and disdain washed over me like an acid flashback washes over a Deadhead boomer. “Who buys these things?” I shouted, shaking my fist at the inside of my windshield.
Visions of silly decals, angry headlight kits, and aftermarket wheels and mud tires that never seem to get dirty danced in my head. I had a long-held opinion that Jeeps were very expensive toys that didn’t make a good daily driver. When I saw that white Gladiator pass me in the slow lane I felt the familiar ire rise in my heart. “Oh look at that, jeep stuck a box on the back of their Wrangler.” I was wrong.
To me, Jeeps fell into about three categories:
- Mall Crawlers – usually a Wrangler Dressed out to look off-roady but never really make it off the asphalt
- Clapped-out Cherokees- which are usually heard or smelled before they’re seen. Often lifted with last week’s mud still visible on the fenders. Sometimes driven by zealous teenage boys.
- Legit offroaders – the hardcore, don’t tread on me, I took my swaybars off for “more articulation bro”, no-top when it’s 30 degrees out types. Usually seen with bald mud tires. Their owners should be avoided unless you’re ready to enter an inescapable pit of conversation about approach angles, locking differentials and lamentations about body lifts.
In October, Texas’ finest automotive journalists descend on the Texas Hill Country. It’s called the Texas Truck Rodeo, and it’s a crucible where one truck is elevated above all others and selected as the Texas Auto Writers Truck of Texas (read “the world”). The Jeep Gladiator would be there and I wanted to drive one.
I got to spend some quality time with this firecracker red ragtop Rubicon. Initially, the proportions look a little funny but you get used to it. In 10 years when they change it, we’ll look back at this design and say, “why couldn’t they have left it alone.” Jeep engineers have done a good job staying true to the no-nonsense, functional design aesthetic while embellishing it here and there to offer some style.
Thankfully, the kitschy stuff kept to a minimum and the marketing impulse to stencil Jeep on every panel has been curbed. When you sell something that looks like nothing else (aside from a Mahindra Roxor but that’s another article) you really don’t have to advertise that way. Batman didn’t have to paint “Batmobile” on the side of his ride, the wings, afterburner and menacing black paint give it away.
Inside the Gladiator Rubicon, you’ll find a heated steering wheel and heated leather seats. Pretty swank for a vehicle with removable doors. In the dash, there’s an 8.4 inch display that controls the Alpine sound system. It displays the navigation and some other goodies too. A delightful array of buttons and switches for locking the differentials and disconnecting the swaybars occupies space ahead of the shift levers.
Seats are firm but comfortable. The second row has space for adults. This jeep comes with the optional wireless Bluetooth speaker that tucks away into a special compartment behind the second row. Pretty neat, but it’s a $295 option I might skip.
Under the hood, there’s a 3.6 liter V6 connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This sends power to the front and rear Dana 44 axles with electronic locking differentials and electronic swaybar disconnects. The power on-road is good, and offroad the Jeep feels plenty torquey. Fox 2.0 shocks come standard on the Gladiator Rubicon.
Vehicles on mud tires ride rougher and make extra noise. Combine that with a ragtop and you get what should be a cacophonous ride. I’m not saying the gladiator Rubicon is bending the laws of physics, but it is much quieter than I anticipated. It’s surprisingly smooth when you consider it’s off-road capabilities. I listened closely as I drove on asphalt and only identified one rattle. This Jeep was fitted with adaptive cruise control which makes for a relaxing interstate experience. Instead of the rattly, squeaky Jeep I expected, I was met with a level of sophistication and comfort I hadn’t anticipated.
When it’s time to play in the dirt, the Gladiator shifts effortlessly from two to four-wheel-drive on the fly. There’s gratification in grabbing the lever of a manually shifted transfer case that a push-button doesn’t deliver. It’s also reassuring to know that electrical gremlins won’t stand between me and four-wheel drive when I need it most.
I especially liked the forward-facing trail cam. It’s like having a spotter outside on the trail. Jeep even fitted it with a little washer nozzle to clean it off when the going gets muddy. The Jeeps handled the off-road course without breaking a sweat.
Jeep claims the Gladiator Rubicon gets 17 mpg around town and 22 on the highway. These numbers aren’t great, but next year Jeep is offering their first diesel option which they claim is going to be the most efficient Wrangler ever.
Zealots and kooky branding aside, there’s nothing like a jeep. Be ready to save your pennies and nickles though because Jeep isn’t in the business of giving these things away. The base price for a 2020 Gladiator Rubicon is $44,600. If you want it dressed up the way this one is, you’ll be in it for closer to $59k. Of course, you don’t have to go with a Rubicon package and a no-frills Sport model can be had for $33k.
Due to some silly biases developed in my adolescence, I have largely ignored Jeep. After getting to know the Gladiator I see that it’s peerless offroad and remarkably civilized when you hit the pavement. It’s so nice to be pleasantly surprised. It almost takes the sting out of being so wrong. Almost.