The Jeep Gladiator is the convertible bakkie that makes you want to shave your head, grow a beard, and walk around in a denim shirt with the arms ripped off.

There is always much chatter online among bakkie fans when a new model hits the streets. However, none has been louder and more polarised than the discussion surrounding the new Jeep Gladiator, recently launched in Mzansi. Boasting Jeep’s trademark off-road prowess and arresting looks, the Gladiator is poised to dominate the local market. However, there is one caveat: it comes with a hefty price tag. At the launch event, we kept that in mind to gauge whether the new bakkie is worth the price and whether it is destined to be the new king of the hill.

A Modern Gladiator with Old-School Charm

While bakkies come in all shapes and sizes, none are as distinct as the new Gladiator. Right off the bat, the bakkie is instantly recognisable as a Jeep. There is no mistaking that grille and headlight design up front. As with the Jeep Wrangler, the Gladiator’s design is significantly influenced by the retro designs of Jeeps of old, with sufficient touches, like daytime running lights, to create a more modern appearance. It is a design philosophy that has stood the test of time, demonstrated by the success of the Wrangler.

We were immediately enamoured with the flared arches, which house meaty off-road tyres that give the bakkie a dominant presence on the road. Another highlight is the collapsible windscreen and the ability to detach the doors and roof panels for an open-air experience. There’s no doubt that you would look dapper driving around without doors. There is even a soft top on offer, making this the only “convertible” bakkie available. Part of the Gladiator’s charm is its imposing dimensions, stretching to 5,540 mm in length, with a wheelbase of 3,490 mm. It is an absolute behemoth that will likely be challenging to navigate in a small parking lot. There are nine colour line-ups on offer, all with macho names such as Firecracker Red and Sarge Green. Interestingly, the Gladiator is offered only in the range-topping Rubicon trim.

Dressed for Battle

Given the nature of the Gladiator, the cabin design leans more towards utilitarianism. However, this is not to say that it is spartan, as several amenities accompany the Rubicon trim. The rugged dashboard houses an 8.4” touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and navigation. Included are three USB ports up front with two more in the rear, a premium nine-speaker Alpine sound system, dual-zone climate control, and a 7” digital driver’s display which the driver interfaces with through the multi-function steering wheel. The heated seats are dressed in leather upholstery, with the front seats featuring adjustable bolster and lumbar support. Everything feels rugged and durable, which is expected of such a vehicle that will inevitably spend much time in rough terrains. 

There is decent practicality too. The rear bench can be lifted to reveal lockable storage bins for additional storage. The load bay is lined with a scratch-resistant coating for oversized items and comes with a hard roll-up tonneau cover for extra security.

Hitting the Road Hard

Powered by Stellantis’ V6 Pentastar petrol engine, this brute kicks out 209 kW and 347 Nm. If this sounds familiar to Jeep aficionados, it is because these are the exact performance figures of the Wrangler engine, coupled with an eight-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the permanent all-wheel-drive system.

On the road, the Gladiator benefits from the low-end torque, which sufficiently accelerates the vehicle from a standstill, and overtaking is relatively uneventful when out on the highway. The bakkie, however, is not much of a highway cruiser as noise, vibration and harshness levels get pretty high the faster you go. That fancy option of removing the roof and the doors sadly comes at the expense of noise insulation. You hear a lot in the cabin from the tyre roar of those chunky 35” off-road tyres and wind noise from the boxy design, which lacks aerodynamics. The ride quality was pleasantly supple for a ladder frame chassis, with the five-link coil suspension absorbing the bulk of wear and tear on challenging surfaces.

Flexing its Off-Road Muscles

Of course, the Gladiator is a purpose-built vehicle whose true abilities come to light when you take it off-road. As you would expect, this beast boasts impressive off-road stats. With 249 mm ground clearance, a 43.6-degree approach angle, and a 26.0-degree departure angle, the Gladiator can dominate any challenging terrain faced when out in the bundu. Should you encounter a river or stream, the 800 mm wading depth ought to manage most challenging water obstacles. 

Also available for the off-road experience are Fox aluminium shocks, third-generation Dana 44 axles with Tru-Lok locking differentials, and a segment-exclusive sway bar disconnect feature. These are a few of the features that we were able to exploit at the challenging Hennops Off-Road Trail near Hartbeespoort Dam. Considering my scant experience with off-road trails, I was relieved to discover how easily the Gladiator handled everything we threw at it. This is not to downplay the role of human expertise in off-roading, as there are enough YouTube videos to show how things can go wrong when you abandon logic or disrespect physics. Be that as it may, it is clear that save for thoroughbred aftermarket bakkies, the Gladiator has a legitimate claim as the off-road king in this segment. 

Last Word

Since its launch, the price tag of the Gladiator has been its primary talking point. At a cool R1,259,900, this is the most expensive (and only) convertible bakkie you can purchase. Does the package justify the price tag? Our simple answer is – yes. 

The recommended approach with the Gladiator is to view it as a well-engineered machine designed for a sole purpose. Sure, there are more luxurious and better-equipped bakkies selling for less, but none of them holds a candle to what the Gladiator can achieve. You are paying for a formula that has been polished for generations and that few others can replicate. The heritage and the desirability of the Gladiator are what you pay for, and in our opinion, it is well worth the bang for your buck. 

We will stress, however, that apart from its fantastical design and the ability to dominate the wild, there’s no “but wait; there’s more” to this bakkie. If you’re looking for a boulevard cruiser, then you may be better served by one of the more road-ready bakkies available and save yourself a few Rand in the process. Besides, the Gladiator is already over-subscribed with an expectation of 35 cars per month for the next 12 months.

Report by BRYAN KAYAVHU | Images © Jeep South Africa




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