Ask a child to draw you an off-roader and it’ll turn out something like the Jeep Gladiator. Why? Because kids keep in all the cool stuff that, according to rule-following engineers, accountants and marketing managers, isn’t suitable.
Stuff like off-road capability, a roof that comes off, and a tub behind to carry motorcycles or other Insta-worthy toys.
Because biggest is best it must be longer than rivals — at 5.5-metres the dual-cab Jeep Gladiator convertible is some 20cm longer than the Ford Ranger Raptor — and stuff this economical diesel nonsense, let’s throw a proper petrol V6 in for high revving fun.
Make sure the windscreen folds down and you can take the doors off. Not strictly legal on Aussie roads but since when was following rules any fun?
The Wrangler-based Gladiator is wonderfully fit for purpose. It’s set to arrive in Australia by mid-year to wrestle sales from the Ranger Raptor, Nissan’s hardcore Navara N-Trek Warrior and the enormous RAM pick-ups increasingly sighted doing urban peacocking rather than towing giant horse floats.
As our Aussie Gladiators aren’t ready yet, Jeep staged an off-road odyssey through New Zealand’s South Island in left-hand-drive examples.
Frustratingly, there’s no word on final line-up, specification and price for Australia. Don’t expect an entry-level Sport grade (as in the Wrangler) but there should be generously equipped Overland and hero off-roader Rubicon models.
Both are Jeep Trail Rated, meaning they’ll climb mountains. A fair guesstimate on price would be $70,000-$80,000 plus on-roads, right in $76K Ranger Raptor territory.
First impression of the Gladiator: it’s mammoth, befitting its name, with bonnet and passenger compartment going on for days.
The tub isn’t giant or high-sided and the payload is just 620kg. Jeep says 95 per cent of motorcycles fit and among the accessories is a bike rack tray with built-in storage below.
In the cabin, there’s a good mix of ruggedness and comfort, with chunky rubber surrounding a screen that supports smartphone mirroring, firmly padded leather seats and soft plastic on the dash top. There’s an oversized steering wheel, gear shifter and metal door handles.
With unmistakeable front styling and whopping angled wheel arches, it exudes off-road competence yet its on-road manners surprise — this is not your agricultural-feeling Wrangler of a decade ago.
With the soft-top in place, most road noise is excluded, notably in the Overland with road tyres. The V6 and eight-speed auto sing along smoothly and, even with the Gladiator’s ladder frame, the five-link rear suspension (originally from the Ram 1500 truck) soaks up bumps with barely a jiggle.
It’s a pleasant cruiser with reasonable handling, feeling safe and robust.
Leaving the bitumen, we savour the Gladiator’s party piece. In a few seconds, the soft-top is folded back and sunshine fills the cabin. I don’t think I’ve piloted a stranger convertible.
Being open to the elements in Mount Aspiring National Park enhances the panorama, even if the awkward folded soft-top resembles a fabric air brake above the rear door. Hard top panels are your alternative and are equally easy to remove.
We take a Rubicon through rock-lined swollen streams (it’ll wade to 760mm) and comically steep terrain. It has locking differentials front and rear, all-terrain tyres, steel rock rails, the advanced Rock-Trac 4WD set-up — and the front sway bar disconnects for better articulation and suspension travel.
The Gladiator’s extreme length means its steel rails and bash plates get a workout over jagged rocks and tight turns need a few reversing efforts. But the outrageous ability is clear.
It takes a massive shove to engage low-range but the Rubicon rewards with effortless climbing and no untidy wheelspin.
With extreme 4WD ability, open skies and fresh air, Jeep lifestyle meets picture postcard terrain.
Much like an impractical and expensive sports car, the Gladiator’s a passion purchase. It’s a rugged and chunky beast with space for your toys, plus it’s supremely capable off-road and well-mannered enough on it.
It may not score well in crash testing (the Wrangler got only three stars from ANCAP) and it will be expensive to buy and run with its eager 3.6-litre V6. There’s no confirmation of a turbo diesel, which seems the obvious engine here.
But the kid in you still wants one, right?
Jeep Gladiator Overland and Rubicon vitals
Price: $70,000-$80,000 (est)
Warranty: 5 years/100,000km
Safety: Not tested, adaptive cruise control, AEB, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert
Engine: 3.6-litre V6, 209kW/353Nm
Originally published as The world’s strangest convertible