THE JT GLADIATOR marks Jeep’s return to the pick-up truck market, and the good news is it’s coming to Australia.
It should land here sometime around March or April, but we couldn’t wait until then to drive it. When we found out that our mate Bill Barbas from Melbourne Jeep specialist Double Black Offroad was driving a Gladiator Rubicon around Las Vegas while we were there for the SEMA Show, we had to steal the keys for a day.
The JT Gladiator is (obviously) based on the Jeep Wrangler, and from the B-pillars forward it’s pretty much identical. At the back there is a load bed behind the four-door cabin, and the rear-end of the chassis takes design features from the Ram 1500 truck to make it a better load hauler.
The Gladiator is classed as a midsize pick-up in the USA, so it’s grouped against the likes of Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger and Chevy Colorado, which means many will pit it against the popular Hilux, Ranger and Colorado here; but, in reality it is a very different vehicle. For a start it rolls on live axles and coil springs both front and rear, while all our popular one-tonne utes have IFS and leaf-sprung live-axle rears. With its live axles and lockers, you can expect the Jeep to be a better off-road vehicle than any other stock ute sold in Australia.
However, the Jeep can’t match the approximate one-tonne payload of our popular utes. In the US Jeep claims best-in-class load and towing capacities, but it doesn’t match what we expect here in Australia. In US-specification, the Gladiator Rubicon as driven will carry just 526kg and tow 3175kg. That gets worse with the taller 3.73:1 final-drive gearing in the Sport and Overland models – and with the manual transmission. In the US, though, you can option the Rubicon’s 4.1:1 final drive gears into a Gladiator Sport to deliver close to 700kg payload and 3470kg towing.
We don’t yet know what drivelines, specifications and options will be available in Australia, but you can pretty much rule out a manual gearbox, and it will only come with the eight-speed auto as is the case with the JL Wrangler. We can only hope we get a choice of both V6 petrol and turbo-diesel engines in the JT, with a low-spec and Rubicon grade. We’ll know more about Australian specification soon.
So, how does it go? Jump behind the wheel of the Gladiator and you could be in any JL Wrangler; it’s all the same interior layout, switchgear and view over the bonnet. The JT Rubicon we drove was powered by the also-familiar 3.6L Pentastar V6 engine mated to the eight-speed auto; so all good there, too. It isn’t until you hit the highway that the longer wheelbase of the JT proves markedly different to the JL.
The Gladiator rides on a 3487mm wheelbase as opposed to the JL Wrangler’s 3008mm, so it’s a bit more stable and surefooted on road than the Wrangler. There’s still the light steering that likes to wander at speed, as we’ve noted in Wranglers, but the bigger ute feels firmer on the road. The Gladiator is also long at 5573mm overall compared to the four-door Wrangler at 4882mm, and you really notice it in suburban carparks and on tight bush tracks.
We thought the long wheelbase would pose a problem for the Gladiator off-road, but even though it scraped over the peaks of sand dunes, the sand was soft and the Rubicon’s rock rails took the top off them without getting hung-up. Jeep claims a 20.3° ramp-over angle for JT Rubicon compared to 21.2° for the International-spec JL Rubi we get in Australia.
The long wheelbase and overall length didn’t pose as much of a problem as expected on a tight U-turn on the side of a steep hill, either. It was a track made for UTVs and buggies, but the XL Jeep could have made the turn in one bite; we only backed it up to get a straighter drop over a rock step on the descent.
The US-spec JT Rubicon is equipped with Fox Racing shocks and 33-inch all-terrain tyres; the 33-inch muddies on this car are optional. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get these goodies here as we’ve found with the local-spec JL Wrangler, which gets smaller rubber, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed that things will be different for the JT.
The quality dampers made easy work pounding over deep corrugations, ruts and rocks in the Nevada desert, and the Rubicon’s disconnecting front sway bar improved the ride and control over rough terrain at lower speeds. Front and rear lockers were also great in the rough stuff, but we found the electronic traction control struggled in some soft sand.
Whatever specification it takes when the Gladiator gets to Australia next year, a true off-road vehicle will finally materialise in the 4x4 ute market. We reckon it will sit somewhere between the common one-tonne 4x4 utes and a LandCruiser 79 in terms of price, with two variants likely; a Sport/Overland and the Rubicon. Like most Jeeps it will be bought by enthusiasts who will delve into the ocean of kit available from the factory and aftermarket, to build the Gladiator they want and need.
The Gladiator will be worth the wait and we’re looking forward to driving the JT Down Under, to see how it handles local conditions and the outback.
2020 JEEP GLADIATOR RUBICON SPECS
Engine: Pentastar 3.6-litre V6
Output: 213kW; 353Nm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
Transfer case: NV241OR Rock-Trac (Rubicon)
Axles/ratios: Dana 44; 4.1:1
Crawl ratio: 84.2:1 (Rubicon Manual)
Suspension: links, coil springs, stabiliser bars (f/r)
Tyres: 285/70R17 Falken A/T or M/T
Base weight: 2290kg (Rubicon)
Towing capacity: 3400kg
Wheelbase/turning circle: 3480mm; 1356cm
Approach/ramp-over/departure angles: 43.4°; 20.3°; 26° (Rubicon)