Words and Photos: via PracticalMotoring.com.au
In the Wrangler and its CJ predecessors, Jeep took a military vehicle and gave it to the world to enjoy, producing one of the most capable off-road toys you can buy off the showroom floor.
The seven-slotted grille on the front of every model that the American car maker builds all started with the Willys Civilian Jeep (CJ). While it has transformed over the decades, the Wrangler quickly became a cult car in four-wheel-driving circles.
Rubicon lettering down the flanks of our test vehicle’s bulging bonnet is testimony to the off-road development which occurs on the USA’s Rubicon Trail – rated one of the world’s most difficult trails to cross in any vehicle. The Rubicon River in central Victoria we're visiting isn't going to challenge that famous track in terms of difficulty, but it’s the type of place a lot of weekend warriors come to play.
Rubicon – in a Ute
Born from the same lineage and tested to the same Rubicon standard as the Wrangler is the Rubicon variant of the latest Gladiator ute, which rides on a stretched version of the Wrangler’s ladder frame chassis with some extra parts borrowed from the larger RAM 1500 pick-up truck. These include rear upper and lower control arms in a five-link coil suspension setup supported by Fox shock absorbers (on all four points) that the Wrangler misses out on. There are other improvements, such as dynamic engine mounts, hydraulic body mounts, and high-strength alloys for decreased lateral movement.
Compared to the usual jittery ride an unladen leaf-spring ute delivers, there’s an underlying subtle, smooth ride to the Gladiator Rubicon that puts it head and shoulders above the competition in the dual cab ute market. However, as it stands almost two metres tall, the Gladiator does exhibit some body roll when turning, although it settles quickly, and the extra-long wheelbase underneath helps with comfort and compliance when cruising.
Jeep’s stalwart 3.6-litre Pentastar petrol V6 makes another appearance here and is, for now, the only drivetrain available on the Gladiator for the Australian market, although the US and some other markets offer a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6. That long running petrol engine is matched to an eight-speed automatic, which is the only transmission available for Australia, as we miss out on the six-speed manual offered in the US.
Producing 209kW at 6400rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm, the Pentastar in the Gladiator is hauling a couple of hundred kilos less than the same engine in the Grand Cherokee L, for example, so there's a sharp response from the engine on full throttle. The eager V6 makes the big ute a lot more fun than it should be over dirt tracks, helped also by a relatively quick steering rack and good feel through the wheel on loose surfaces. Revvy and spirited, the go matches the show, which is not so common in the ute world since the departure of the Commodore and Falcon.
Tops Off, Looks Tough
Finished in a modern take on ‘army green’, the Gladiator Rubicon has just the right amount of “Arnie” vibes. In our test around the Rubicon River, it drew universal appreciation from onlookers.
Of all the Gladiator’s features, the most unique and entertaining is the ability to transform into a stripped-down Jeep. Roof panels over the front seats pop out with just a few clicks of the locking levers give the ute the same drop-top feel as a roadster when removed.
A four-piece toolkit is used to remove the rear main roof, so the entire cabin is open to the elements with only rollbars above you if you wish.
For a real military-vibe Willys experience, the doors can be removed, too, simply by unclipping the wiring harness and popping them out of their hinges.
Finally, for the brave-faced, the windscreen can be folded down on the bonnet. What other car in the world can you do that in? There is one, actually – the Wrangler.
The similarities between the Rubicon-spec Wrangler and Gladiator are evident the moment you step inside. Unique to Rubicon variants of both are red dash panels, with all the switchgear, upholstery, dash design and small details pretty much mirrored between them as well.
The 8.4-inch infotainment screen is clear and bright – great for roof-off driving – and has off-road-centric sections such as pitch and roll gauges, plus off-road pages that display numerous screens of information to help you get off the beaten track and back again.
Where the Gladiator starts to differ is in areas like extra leg space in the rear and an optional wireless speaker that clips in underneath the driver’s side rear seat and self-charges for that impromptu tailgate party you didn’t know you needed.
What’s unique to the Wrangler are the differences underneath, doing without the ute’s extra parts to settle out the ride, which is already quite good for a serious four-wheel-drive wagon.
In terms of motivation, the Wrangler also uses a Pentastar petrol V6 with the same outputs, but being a good 200kg lighter than the Gladiator means the engine shines in a straight line getaway.
As per Rubicon standards, the current Wrangler Rubicon has off-road gear including Dana 44 axles, Tru-Lok front and rear locking differentials, electrically operated front sway-bar disconnect and 17-inch alloys with 32-inch 255/75 R17 BFGoodrich tyres.
Low range is accessed by way of a proper 4:1 transfer case with a 77.2:1 crawl ratio, which is brilliant for slow going.
Driving into the bush, we take both Rubicons onto some very slippery terrain with technical rock crawling and water crossings with varying approach angles. Both Rubicons excel once the going gets tough, with all of the capabilities easily accessed via toggle switches, gear levers and buttons.
There is no doubt that Jeep's Grand Cherokee and Compass have become premium SUVs with credible off-road ability that will get you into plenty of remote locations, but for those who want to have fun and really push the limits of their vehicle, the Gladiator and Wrangler Rubicon are as unstoppable off-road as any SUV or 4x4 you can drive - unaltered - off the showroom floor.