By MATT BUBBERS, MARK RICHARDSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, December 7, 2018
LOS ANGELES -- After a 26 year absence in which fans incessantly clamoured for its revival, the Jeep pickup truck is finally making a comeback.
The new Wrangler-based pickup is called the Gladiator and it looks as if it belongs on the front lines carting Navy SEALs around some jungle. It's what Dwayne Johnson would look like if he were a truck. What or who the Gladiator is meant to be fighting, we're not sure.
At Russell Crowe's character said in the movie Gladiator: Are you not entertained?
This is the auto industry giving customers what they want because it's profitable. There's nothing especially innovative or disruptive or eco-friendly about it.
Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, has never worked on a project like this in his 25 years at the company. "It's not a project that came from the product planning department; it's not that at all.
It's been the enthusiasts who've been yelling at us: I want a Jeep truck."
To the casual eye, it's a Jeep Wrangler with a flatbed stuck on the back, but while it shares powertrains and drivetrains and a cabin with the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, it is a separate model. It will come on sale next spring, with pricing announced closer to the date.
Like current Wranglers, there will be four trim levels: Sport, Sport S, Overland and Rubicon.
The Gladiator is only available as a four-door; it's 78 centimetres longer and its wheelbase is 49 cm longer, to accommodate the five-foot steel flatbed and aluminum tailgate. There's enough space in the back to carry a pair of motorcycles, and the Gladiator's payload is increased to 725 kilograms from the 522 kg of the Wrangler Unlimited. Maximum towing capacity is also greatly increased, to a potential 3,469 kg from the current 1,588 kg rating.
Gladiator uses a five-link coil suspension at both front and rear. It's similar to the system on the Wrangler, but at the back axle (still a solid Dana 44 unit), it includes two upper and two lower forged steel control arms with a track bar. Everything under there is retuned for the different balance of the longer wheelbase, and there are four skid plates for better protection. The eventougher Rubicon has rock rails at the sides and on the corners.
"We know our customers have no shortage of gear, and an abundant desire to take it with them. ... For that, the versatility of a bed was a natural fit, and as Mark Allen puts it, Jeep and Truck go together like peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, and Guns N' Roses."
Like the Wrangler, the Gladiator will be offered first with a 3.6litre Pentastar V-6 engine, capable of 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A 3.0-litre Ecodiesel V-6 engine will be available in 2020, capable of 260 hp and a huge 442 lbs.-ft. of torque. The Wrangler's new 2.0litre turbocharged engine will not be found in the Gladiator, but there will still be a choice of either an eight-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission.
Again like Wrangler, the doors and roof and even the windshield can be removed for Jeep's unique open-air experience, and all the interior comforts and amenities introduced on the new JL edition will be available for the Gladiator.
A BRIEF HISTORY Production of the last Jeep pickup, the Comanche, ended in 1992.
"Sales of the Comanche had fallen off dramatically since Chrysler purchased American Motors in 1987," said Brandt Rosenbusch, Jeep's in-house historian. "The Comanche was in direct competition with the Dodge Dakota and the company decided to put its resources behind the Dakota."
It didn't make sense for the newly merged Chrysler and AMC to each have two trucks in their lineups so the Jeep pickup had to go.
In the 1950s, Jeep made a cabover-engine farm truck known as the Forward Control. It's one of Mark Allen's favourites from Jeep's back catalog. "It was done at a time when anything went," he said. "When you drive, your knee was right behind the headlights. It's so ugly it's cute, but you'll never see anything like that again."
There were several other Jeep pickups throughout the sixties and seventies, including the original 1963 Gladiator, the collectable 1981 CJ-8 Scrambler and, finally, the 1986 Comanche. There hasn't been a proper factorybuilt successor until now.
AVAILABLE IN THE SPRING The 2020 Gladiator will arrive in Canada in spring. It's a gigantic machine in person, with enough room for two motorcycles in the bed (albeit with the tailgate down). Since nobody leaves a Wrangler the way it came from the factory, Mopar has a catalog with more than 200 accessories including lift kits, extra lights and fancy wheels.
Despite its size, the Jeep is classified as a mid-size truck and will compete against the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and coming Ford Ranger. The Jeep, however, is the only pickup of any size with removable doors, roof, and a flip-down windshield.
It won't be the cheapest option in its class. The price hasn't been announced yet, but expect it to cost more than the $42,000 Wrangler Unlimited.
The Gladiator is not intended as a work truck, rather "it's going to be marketed more as a lifestyle truck, not as something you need but something you want," Allen explained. "We'll probably never show it full of mulch and cinder blocks."
For all the talk of electric vehicles and ecofriendly urban mobility at the Los Angeles auto show, trucks are still the largest sector of the new-vehicle market.
They spill significantly more CO2 into the atmosphere than cars do, but pickups and SUVs are what's hot.
When naming the truck, the team tossed around other ideas - Scrambler and Comanche - but settled on Gladiator. Allen said: "I'm so confident in the truck you could've called it almost anything, it doesn't really matter."
Similar to the Wrangler, the Gladiator will come in four trim levels and the doors, roof and windshield can be removed.
The most recent Jeep pickup was the Comanche, which was discontinued after Chrysler purchased American Motors in 1987 because the company viewed the truck as a direct competitor to the Dodge Dakota.