During two and a half decades of driving a new vehicle each week, there have been a lot of Jeeps that have come to rural Hancock County and the surrounding regions. There have been two-door Wranglers, four-door Unlimited Wranglers, soft-tops, hardtops, manuals, automatics, even some with diesel engines. There have been numerous Grand Cherokees, one with the heart of a Hellcat, as well as Compasses, Patriots and even that oddly configured Commander.
Each one triggered the questions of why Jeeps are so popular. Other Wrangler owners wave to you, Grand Cherokee outsells its rivals year after year, while every new edition increases sales as Americans gravitate to the independent spirit espoused by the off-road lifestyle that Jeep has promised for years.
Early Wranglers were an acquired taste. It just isn’t reasonable to compare them to other automotive products, because, well, they just aren’t like anything else. Which is key to their popularity. Bright, look-at-me paint schemes, all the better. Tough-looking Rubicon models, better still.
Two years ago, Jeep took a huge leap of faith and really modernized a vehicle that shares its roots with WWII military designs — short wheelbase, solid axles front and rear, narrow cabin, rugged for off-road use, selfless comfort on-road. The 2018 Wrangler added electronic convenience features and driving aids, the seats became more comfortable and the space more useful, while the drivetrain, already stout by any measurement, took on a level of refinement that redefined how off-roading could be — in a Jeep.
Sales spiked. Buyers embraced the evolving design externally, which remains easily recognizable as a Wrangler, while the added content improved buyers’ contentment and factory income levels at the same time. Jeep even built a new assembly plant — drawing a line in the dirt stating that we are better, but we have not forgotten our roots.
And then last year, the first Jeep pickup in over 25 years debuted. The Wrangler-based Gladiator oozed persona. It also presented hardcore Wrangler owners with a decision: How versatile could this functional four-wheeler be with that 5-foot pickup bed atop an elongated chassis?
The short answer is pretty darned good. Until the COVID-19 virus derailed a booming American economy, Jeep was selling 5,000 Gladiators a month this year, more than double the sales of several of its more established (conventional) midsize pickups.
The bright orange paint, the rugged Falken off-road tires and the whole Rubicon theme make the Gladiator a more visually appealing Jeep. The proportions seem correct, as the larger tires fill the wheelwells, the winch-ready bumpers adding heft to the profile, while the useful pickup box looks less like a slight after-thought — as some angles might suggest.
In reality, that pickup box is perfect for accessing anything you need from a pickup. With fender-tops at elbow height, it was easy to load and then retrieve a full bed of fresh maple firewood — a chore you just can’t do with most pickups. The longer chassis delivers a smoother on-road ride, as the coil springs keep things under control. The steering is often a little ponderous on crowned roads, the deep-lug Falken’s tugging at the helm, but all is forgiven when the pavement ends.
Brimming with the usual hardcore hardware — skid plates, tow hooks, receiver hitch, 17-inch Granite Crystal aluminum wheels, Fox 2.0 shocks, Heavy Duty Dana-44 axles, 4:10 axle ratio (some gear whine) Tru-Loc axles with selectable Rock-Trac four-wheel drive, terrain-specific driving modes, plus an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, this Jeep has many tools. LED lights all around, a forward-facing camera, Alpine audio system plus navigation, removable three-piece color-matched hardtop, an efficient eight-speed automatic backing the 3.6-liter V-6, plus numerous other options raised the action price from a reasonable $33,545 base to a well-equipped $59,585.
As endearing as the Gladiator is, and useful (there are tons of dealer-available accessories for camping, glamping, and more), this price omitted both heated seats and a heated steering wheel. And traveling over the wretched rural roads around home, the Sirius satellite reception mimicked a hot summer night’s AM radio performance trying to pull in that oldies station from Toledo.
Of all of the Wranglers that have visited, the Gladiator Rubicon would be the one that could earn a spot in our stuffed garage. My navigator boldly claimed that the Punk’n colored Rubicon should reside here — for much longer than the usual week. She doesn’t get excited about much of the polished hardware that visits, but the Gladiator struck that nerve, just like it does for thousands of other adventurous owners.
Like they claim, “Only in a Jeep.”