Four months ago, on a blissful Saturday morning, a fellow motorist altered the course of my life with one decision. While stopped at a light on my motorcycle, I was hit head-on by an innocent vehicle that had been redirected from the oncoming lane by a driver swerving to avoid a barrier.
Driving mistakes happen every day, but in this instance, it was likely the fact that the swerving operator was drunk that prompted her error. My memory of this incident (and the first week of hospitalization that followed) is non-existent. The impact traumatically injured my brain and pinched a nerve in my lower spine, rendering my left leg numb and frail for several weeks. Had I not been wearing high-quality protective gear, my injuries would have been significantly worse.
The healing process has been slow and painful, but I’m alive – and indescribably thankful to be so. Patience was not a natural gift of mine, but through recovery, I’ve acquired plenty of it. Which brings me to the Jeep Gladiator (you know, the vehicle you thought was being reviewed before this sob story).
When Jeep revealed the Gladiator at the LA Auto Show last year, I was in attendance. As the truck drove on stage, clambering up some plastic boulders to perch on its mark, giddiness took hold of me. Here was a vehicle built to thrill, not to accommodate. Not since the early ‘90s had Jeep built a pickup, and the Gladiator certainly looked worth the wait. Powered by the same 3.6-liter V6 as the Wrangler JL, the Gladiator was offered with a choice of six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmissions. Unlike its midsize pickup rivals, the Gladiator was also packaged exclusively with a five-foot bed, four-wheel drive, and full-size double cab.
Patiently (again, not my strength at first), I awaited my chance to get behind the wheel. A week before the accident, I scheduled seat time and excitedly began mapping drive routes. I’d take the rig on a little road trip to Big Bear Mountain. There, I’d hit some of my favorite off-road trails to test its Jeep pedigree. I wound up testing a hospital bed instead, but I didn’t forget my plans for the Gladiator.
Now, finally able to walk and drive safely, all that patience is paying off. There’s a bright red Gladiator Rubicon parked outside and only an apocalyptic earthquake will keep me from getting dirt on every body panel. But first, there are 100 miles of paved roads to traverse.
This particular Gladiator is equipped with a fabric roof and eight-speed automatic transmission. One of these options is ideal for extensive travel, the other is not – any guesses which is which? Optimizing power and efficiency, the smartly tuned automatic ticks between gears imperceptibly when the driver isn’t controlling shifts via steering wheel-mounted paddles. Even if I wanted to hear the gear changes, though, it wouldn’t be possible due to high levels of wind and road noise within the cabin. Thankfully, the Alpine sound system does a fair job overcoming the background audio while the intuitive UConnect infotainment, well-padded leather seats, and handy driver assistance features make life on the highway a whole lot more pleasant.
After a steady climb towards Big Bear’s summit, the Gladiator finds some dirt, enters four-wheel drive, and drops its top. There’s something magical about getting a tan while playing off-road (and if I was really serious about sun bathing, I’d take off the doors and fold down the windshield). Without anything in its bed to dampen the Fox suspension (which won’t be an issue for the overland community), the Rubicon is somewhat stiff at speed; bumps make their way to passenger behinds with little cushion.
Eventually, the trail gets rocky, my pace slows, and it’s time for low range gears. Though the Gladiator is burdened by a longer wheelbase and shallower departure angle than the Wrangler, the Rubicon’s rock sliders, 33-inch tires, and healthy ground clearance fill me with confidence. And when faced with tougher obstacles, front and rear sway bars can be disconnected for better wheel articulation and both front and rear differentials can be locked to help a slipping tire. True, if you want an outright rock crawler, you’re better off with the Wrangler Rubicon, but there are few camping spots on earth that would be off limits to the Gladiator.
There are other, cheaper ways to get your overland fix (my Gladiator tester ran about $57 grand), but nothing comes close to the big kid fun of the Jeep – and after months of sitting on a couch with little more than my imagination to entertain me, fun is precisely what I need.
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