Kiwi new car buyers have connected well with the concept of four-wheel-drive double-cab utes.
That’s no surprise, there’s a global trend towards the traditional pick-up; take the United States, for example, trucks have been the biggest selling vehicle year-on-year for as long as I can remember.
If a ute tempts you but you’re not in the market for any of the Thailand-built models that land in New Zealand en masse, there are alternatives, and a couple of the famous names out of the US are commercially available here including the Dodge Ram and Jeep Gladiator.
This evaluation focuses on the latter and, yes, the traditional Jeep Wrangler is available here as a ute, a double-cab to be exact. What’s more, the Gladiator, as it is named, is a convertible, the hard-top roof can be removed to take advantage of those balmy summer days looming ahead.
The Gladiator is an extension of the Wrangler, it carries all of the rugged underpinnings that make that vehicle the off-road champion, yet the Gladiator is loaded with electronic tech and all of the comfort items today’s buyer demands in a car.
There are two Gladiator models – Overland and Rubicon. The evaluation car was the latter and it lands here at $92,990, the Overland will save you $3k.
The Gladiator Rubicon comes with a high level of spec, items that you would never imagine in a car of this type are fitted such as full leather trim, heated seats, heated steering wheel, satellite navigation, large touch screen that doubles as front and rear camera displays, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, just to name a few of the onboard items that will satisfy all the family.
Yes, the Gladiator is a substantial family vehicle, there are five seats and it gets a good amount of room front and rear.
There’s also a high degree of refinement in the Gladiator, sound has been engineered out of the model, while attention to detail has been a key manufacturing ingredient. With the roof in position the Gladiator provides a saloon car-type driving experience, it is draught-free and quiet to ride in.
If you are picky you can tell it is a convertible of sorts, but the Gladiator hasn’t lost sight of its design function, it is still the capable off-roader that has serious cross-country punch.
Long gone is the inline six-cylinder engine that powered Jeep vehicles for generations. Today’s engine is a Pentastar-labelled 3.6-litre V6, it is state-of-the-art, impressing with its smooth operating manner. It’s hard to make a big engine work hard without sounding gruff, but the Gladiator’s unit is a beauty.
It is also a powerful engine, Jeep rates it at 209kW with 347Nm of torque, easily enough power at both ends to shift 2215kg in a healthy manner. For the record, the Gladiator is capable of a 9sec standstill to 100km/h time.
I guess the trade-off is that it isn’t the thriftiest engine — Jeep also claims a combined cycle usage figure of 12.4-litres per 100km. I couldn’t get anywhere near that, with the gauge often showing an average of around 14l/100km. Usage isn’t quite so alarming on an open road cruise, the instantaneous readout was showing just 9l/100km at 100km/h, the engine spinning over slowly at just 1750rpm.
The big six drives through an eight-speed automatic gearbox, which has a low ratio transfer case that delivers power to each wheel through live axles front and rear. The old leaf springs also disappeared a generation or two ago, the Gladiator gets coils at each corner.
Even though beam axles are an old design they are located well with a multitude of linkages and shock absorbers, and if you are a keen off-road enthusiast you will know live axles have the best articulation, the Gladiator won’t disappoint when it comes to tackling that off-road track.
It is also listed with 283mm of ground clearance and it has approach and departure angles that allow it to tackle formidable terrain. The suspension is also perfect when tackling broken roads. The spring and damper rates are such that it soaks up the bumps and ruts, delivering a well-cushioned in-cabin ride.
All of the four-wheel-drive functions can be activated from inside the cabin, there are a multitude of sequences, some push-button and, of course, the low ratio transfer case can be activated by a secondary lever that sits beside the main gearshift lever.
Jeep label its four-wheel-drive system as Rock-Trac Active On-Demand, that’s a bit bewildering in terms of what it actually means, but the reality is it is widely known as the best 4x4 system on any vehicle in today’s mainstream market. I didn’t do anything extreme off-road, but did drop down to a shingle area on one of river beds, it easily conquered the uneven terrain without stretching grip parameters.
At $93k, the Gladiator Rubicon is a large outlay, and it may take some convincing it is the ideal vehicle for the family, but you are buying something that has a multi-purpose.
I used the deck area to transport a chest of drawers as part of my daughter’s shift from one flat to another, it’s that kind of versatility that draws buyers to the ute. It must also be taken into account that the Gladiator has a 620kg payload and 2721kg tow rating.
The Gladiator is a sophisticated, almost luxurious ute which incorporates an engineering package that is second to none when it comes time to leave the seal. Its drive system also promotes safety when elements are at their worst.