The new Jeep Gladiator, Wrangler-based four-door pickup truck is serious about its duties. From ferrying families to hauling gear, it's a rugged every-day vehicle that can take on a lot. We should know. We just took one off-roading at Badlands Off Road Park in Attica, Indiana, courtesy of FCA. It was a day we looked forward to because off-roading is a serious hoot, an altogether different (and just as thrilling) experience as high-speed track days. FCA and Jeep representatives were present, along with guides from the Jeep Jamboree team with whom the brand partners for adventures.
Jeep wants you to know that they get pickup trucks and that not all are created equal. More than just talk, FCA (Jeep's parent company) thought we'd like to put the new Gladiator to the test in its natural surroundings... anywhere off pavement, that is. Badlands is the perfect proving ground to do so, given that the expansive adventure park is located on over 800 acres of varied terrain that was once a gravel and sand quarry. The setting is ideal given the fact that you can hit steep dirt grades, creek beds, slippery rock cliffs and just about anywhere in between, all within close proximity to one another.
Both Gladiator models on site for us to drive were top-trim, super-rugged Rubicon models. The Gladiator might be a brand-spankin' new model (Jeep hasn't had a pickup truck in a quarter-century), but the stuff underneath is old-school toughness made current by some serious off-road tech. Both solid axles that undergird the require the use of old-school recirculating ball steering, which is a system that's stronger and more durable than common rack-and-pinion setups. It's just that no one really uses them anymore because they cost more and lack precision for good on-road manners.
But we had no interest in going on-road, and all our time would be spent in the rough stuff. Our first task was to take our caravan of Jeep and Ram vehicles (Gladiator, Wrangler, Renegade, Ram Power Wagon, and Ram Rebel) up a steep dirt slope. None of it presented a problem, especially with the automatic and manually adjustable Selec-Terrain Traction Management System that distributes power to the wheels that require traction depending on what the Gladiator is tackling. Mud, snow, sand, and rock are all manageable thanks to the intelligent system.
Our next obstacle was an incline riddled with large rocks, but the Gladiator didn't even break a sweat thanks to the V6 Pentastar engine sending 285 horses to all four wheels in different percentages as the Gladiator climbed up post haste. But it's not just the Rubicon that's tough. Every Gladiator trim level gets Dana 44 heavy duty axles in front and back, tough stamped steel skid plates to protect the underbody's sensitive parts, and tow hooks in front and back in the off chance you get stuck somewhere. In Rubicon trim, the Gladiator gets front and rear locking diffs, disconnecting sway bars for maximum articulation, and Fox shocks for serious wheel travel. It's also capable of fording water up to 30 inches, as we would eventually discover is true.
The Gladiator Rubicon has what's known as a Rock-Trac 4x4 system (third-generation Dana 44 front and rear axles with a "4LO" ratio of 4:1, 4.10 front and rear axle ratio,Tru-Lok locking differentials), a 4:1 transfer case, and better suspension travel than the other trim levels. All Gladiators are Jeep Trail Rated, but the Rubicon is just more capable in the rough stuff. Though the wheelbase of the mid-size pickup is longer than the Jeep Wrangler Ultimate, which can present breakover angle issues when off-roading, The approach angle is 43.6 degrees and the departure angle is 26 degrees, more than capable enough for what we were doing for the day.
Water fording is not something to take lightly, though most drivers don't really pay attention to it. Big mistake since you can easily hydrolock your engine and completely ruin it. None of our vehicles was outfitted with custom snorkels, so we drove them into the water "as is" (which, in Jeep-speak, means eminently capable) and always kept in mind our speed while in the drink.
We made it easily through about 20-25 inches of muddy water without a problem, and not a single soul got stalled. Just to give you an idea of the Gladiator's talents in this area, it bests the rugged and specialized Chevy Colorado ZR's fording depth by four full inches. That's impressive considering the fact that the ZR2 is a $50K, limited-production off-roader, while the Gladiator Rubicon can be purchased at any Jeep dealer. The four-inch difference could mean the difference between getting stranded and going home with a smile on your face.
We also spent seat time in one seriously green (it's called Mojito! paint) Wrangler Rubicon and the big and burly Ram Power Wagon. Though they both differ greatly in size, each one of them is remarkably capable when it comes to punishing terrain and water. What you don't sacrifice is comfort since both vehicles are new for 2019 and have the kind of creature comforts you'd expect of a passenger vehicle. We even drove the Wrangler with the front windshield down, a whole new way of seeing things.
We hit some steep rocks and locked out the differentials to prevent from sliding backward, and used the throttle evenly to get up without a problem. Every one of the vehicles we drove seemed like they weren't even trying. Even the little Renegade Trailhawk is a little beast of a 4x4. It now as a new 1.3-liter turbo four, replacing the old 1.4. It's punchier, smoother, and plenty capable of powering the small ute up and down serious grades. Though it doesn't have true locking diffs, the software management of the front and rear wheels is brilliant, sending power when the system senses it needs it.
The little Trailhawk also gets 30mm of suspension lift, lower gearing for every one of the 9 speeds, real skid plates, Hill Descent Control, all-terrain rubber, and the brilliant Selec-Terrain system. Those who own the Renegade Trailhawk should absolutely exploit its capabilities and get it to the great outdoors.
The Power Wagon is surely a monster, especially with its optional V8 HEMI engine that spits out 410 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque. But it's not just power under the hood. The Power Wagon powers through off-road obstacles like a champ with a fusillade of features including a 4.10 axle ratio, front disconnecting stabilizer bar, Ram Articulink Suspension, skid plates, a manual shift-on-the-fly transfer case, Hill Descent Control, Tru-Lok front and rear axles, and even a WARN 12,000-lb capacity front electric winch for those moments when you (or someone else) is stuck. It might not be as nimble as a two-door Wrangler, but it got through some pretty tight spaces along the day's course.
We loved the Gladiator the most for its versatility (Jeep Wrangler chops, 5-foot pickup bed hauling ability). Though the 3.6-liter V6 Pentastar gasoline engine has to work harder due to the added weight, it was more than enough to do what we planned for the day's events. The Rubicon version is the one we'd choose, even though bone stock Gladiators with 4-wheel drive should be more than most drivers will ever need. The fact that the little Renegade in street tires exceeded our own skill levels off-road should be testament to how great Jeep products are.
More good news comes in the form of a diesel engine that will power the Gladiator in 2020. The 3.0-liter six-cylinder diesel with 260 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque will get mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. That's more torque than the gas engine and just a tad less horsepower. We have yet to see what its efficiency numbers are.
At the end of the day, we came away exhilarated after driving all the vehicles. No one got stuck, no damage was done, and each vehicle did what it was created to do, handle more than just asphalt and gloriously so. If you haven't had the chance to off-road, head over to Badlands for a day (or more) the whole family will love. If it just happens to be in a Jeep Gladiator, that much more so.