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Learning to Love the Jeep Gladiator

A harrowing drive in New Zealand provides a Gladiator hater with fresh perspective.

Brett BerkWriterThe ManufacturerPhotographer

It's hard to love something that craps on you if it's not, say, your own baby or puppy. Certainly, that's the case with an inanimate object like a pickup truck. The Jeep Gladiator Rubicon crapped all over me, which did not exactly inspire affection.

I'd been doing some off-roading in Mount Aspiring National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on New Zealand's South Island. (A consummate humble-brag, I must say.) This dramatic, 4.7 million-acre wilderness is, even in Kiwi summer, ringed by towering, schistic mountains rimed with snow and glaciers and filled with dense, near-millennium-old beech forests. During the relentless rains I experienced in the Land of the Long White Cloud, the heaviest recorded in decades, it was also home to flooded lakes, rivers, streams, and roadways. And, like most places in New Zealand, it was also overrun with sheep.

New Zealand is home to only 4.5 million people, but nearly 30 million wooly ruminants. Though this number is down significantly from the "peak sheep" population of 70 million just 20years ago—credit increases in suburban development, dairy farming, fruit orchards, and vineyards—it nevertheless remains a surfeit of bleaters. And while they're mainly penned in, many have outsmarted their barbed-wire brigs and gone free-range. Given that their life's work is to consume and process grass, they have a tendency to wander and spread their…output. And the Gladiator Rubicon's broad, treadful 285/70-17 Falken Wildpeaks rarely missed a plop.

The resultant splatter varnished the Jeep. It clung in verdant clumps to highly visible and avoidable locations, including the halo-rimmed high-intensity headlights, the giant-zucchini-shaped openings in the classic seven-slot grille, the domed and externally clamped clamshell hood, and the (thankfully not removed) removable doors and windshield. It bonded to noticeable impossible-to-avoid locations, such as the pebbled-plastic exterior door handles. (Yuck.) And it apparently adhered to some unnoticeable impossible-to-avoid locations, too, which I discovered when I reached down to adjust my manual seat and my palm and wrist came up sheepishly besmirched.

Apparently, when clambering into the Rubicon—which, in the interest of enhanced boulder-crawling capability, has skid plates under its rocker panels, but lacks running boards—the back of my calf had made a withdrawal from the ovine deposits under the doorsills and transported it onto the front of the vinyl-edged seat. Fortunately, there were plenty of freshwater puddles nearby. Unfortunately, they were mostly polluted with the same awful offal.

"These are the absolute worst conditions for this, but we're going to do it anyway," my assigned rock spotter said. With my stink-stained fingers, I used the dash-mounted rocker switches to lock the Rubicon's standard locking front and rear differentials. I disengaged the Rubicon's standard disconnecting front anti-roll bar. And I engaged the Rubicon's standard 4WD-Plus setting, which provides a more modulated throttle response as well as an engine-braking hill-descent mode. I then prepared to clamber through deep, rushing streams and over a field of slippery boulders the size of baby elephants. Then, and only then, did the hail begin.

I was in New Zealand on a mission. Last spring, when the Jeep Gladiator was released in America—returning the rugged militaristic brand to the pickup market after a 30-year absence—I was among the first journalists to borrow one. While I was overwhelmed by the diverse and vigorous affection it elicited from others, I did not love it. In fact, I wrote a kind of anti-paean to it, for Automobile. Though improved over previous Wranglers, during a week in urban, rural, mountainous, and oceanfront locales around New York State, the truck underwhelmed me with its awkward design, its material quality, its on-road manners, its interior and exterior capacities, its funky trick top, its abundance of senseless Easter Eggs, and its irrationality. I'd flown 23 hours to Kiwiville to experience the Jeep in a fresh and compelling venue to see if this could impact my assessment.

Queensland, New Zealand, my destination, is known as The Adventure Capital of the World. In this majestic outdoor wonderland, intrepid individuals can mountain bike down cliffs, luge though steep wooden courses, hike to defunct gold mines, helicopter through remote valleys, jet-boat across mountain-ringed lakes, kayak into coves charted by Maori warriors, ATV through formerly pristine wilderness, camp along ridge-side trails, skydive into pastures hopefully cleared of sheep, and, perhaps most famously, bungee jump off of just about anything high enough to provide a rush, this being the site where the practice of yo-yoing in and out of certain death was first commercialized.

This did not bode particularly well for me. Though I love the outdoors, I abhor the packaged peril peddled of destinations like this. I dislike being filthy for extended periods of time. I do not enjoy sleeping on the ground. I am not a joiner and bristle at forced camaraderie with people I do not know or like. And while I typically adore costumes—sartorial, automotive, or otherwise—I despise purpose-built gear.

Nonetheless, when I commit, I commit. ("Evil, but loyal," my friends say.) So, having donned my brand-new waterproof jacket, pants, and boots, I set forth into the wilderness to invite the Jeep into my heart. Like a lion in some ancient Roman skirmish, I would afford the Gladiator the opportunity to court and/or slay me.

It did not have a great deal of success, even before it shat on me. In order to access Mount Aspiring from Queenstown, I had to take the Jeep on a 90-minute drive along the local surface roads. I conquered a number of impromptu stream crossings, skirting traffic-cone-supported signs that read "Road Closed," and never once being washed into the abyss.

But whenever the road dried out, the Gladiator once again exhibited the poor manners that had so distressed me in my previous outings, its big knobbies kerning around crests and divots and constantly dragging the truck off-center. It didn't help that the vehicle we'd borrowed had a mysterious five-degree cant to its already inaccurate steering wheel, enhancing this disconcerting sense of endless, constant drifting.

I found more nits to pick with the Gladiator's chintzy interior, perhaps because, unlike my prior go-round behind the wheel, I was trapped inside it for the entire duration. While the truck's indoor/outdoor sensibility is one of its core selling points, given the inclement weather, we chose not to pop off the roof panels or dangling metal doors. This left me to fixate on the interior, which, while passable in design—with its body-color hard plastics and oversized knobs and buttons—did not abide expectations for a $50,000-plus vehicle. I understand the limitations of abiding the #JeepLife manifesto and needing to utilize trim that is capable of being hosed off. But even the makers of pleasure boats have finally discovered attractive versions of these materials. I'd love to see Jeep either pump up its stage-set game, like its corporate sibling Ram does on its high-end Laramie cowboy-costume pickups, or pare it way back with some retro-modern bare-metal sleekness like the new Land Rover Defender. This middle is middling.

Still, being stuck in a typhoon and not being able to remove any of the Gladiator's protective panels somehow made the Jeep seem more like a real vehicle, and less like some kind of overwrought Transformer constantly desperate to prove its flexibility. Also, leaving the panels in place relieved me of the pressure of considering what to do with then once they were removed, since there's no logical storage place for them inside the cabin. (I could let them bang around in the bed or back seat, but they seemed likely to get smashed up.)

My opinion of the Gladiator certainly improved once the off-roading began. The Jeep's capabilities are bananas, and quite useful during an actual natural disaster. (States of emergency were declared throughout the area I visited.) In clambering up and down those fields of boulders, I frequently saw on the handy supplemental in-dash off-road gauges approach and departure angles above the mid-20-degree range. I sped up steep, sodden cliffs, denuding their paths of centuries-old lichens and mosses. I forded dozens of streams, many of which were impromptu, and not meant to be coursing through the areas they were. The Jeep unflappably found footing wherever it placed its tires.

To reach dinner that evening, we drove for hours through a private seafront ranch, confronting all manner of geographic and meteorological obstacles, including giant plats of earth and rock that had recently slid into exile from higher elevations. At one point, we had to pilot the Gladiator through an ad-hoc lake, the water as high as our headlamps. The neat front-mounted camera looked like it was broadcasting a Mountain Dew commercial onto the infotainment screen.

Yet despite the ever-present sense that this moat might surprise us with its depths, swamping the motor and washing us into the Pacific, the truck pulled through. To put this in perspective, at one point, we were driving alongside two young men attempting to rescue a stranded friend. They were in a boat.

But after I literally slid sideways down the first of three steep hills that led to the allegedly picturesque supper spot, my spotter decided to call it. Given the Jeep's lack of traction, I was glad we didn't have the bed loaded up with something tippy like an ATV. But given the mire and the length of the walk, I also wished we had an ATV.

Dinner was a sodden and frigid affair, under a leaky, makeshift tent. The overnight camping excursion at Camp Avalanche was cancelled for fear of an actual avalanche. The following day's scheduled rafting trip on the raging Matukituki River was cancelled for fear of drowning.

For the dispiriting three-hour ride back to town, we swapped into an Overland model. Though it lacked the Rubicon's locking diffs and unlocking front bar, and it sported narrower and less aggressive Bridgestone 255/70-18 Dueler HTs, it made it up the slimy hill and back across the moat lake and out of the ranch. It also had running boards, which made ingress and egress much easier—and less crappy.

The trip's greatest surprise arrived during the long two-lane return to Queenstown. The Overland's skinnier rubber, combined with a less punitive suspension, an on-center steering wheel, and the deletion of whatever other overkill mods Rubicon owners allege to require, gave the truck far more compliant road manners. It was almost dignified. And, when we had to make a few final, uncharted "stream" crossings—including one through a lakeside park flooded up to the tops of the picnic tables—the softer Gladiator still made quick work of them. "Well, then," I said out loud—but to myself, as I like to do when traveling alone internationally—"maybe I've just been driving the wrong Gladiator?"

Back in my hotel room—cold, muddy, exhausted, and shit-stained—I emptied the mini bar into a glass (this drink is called a "New Zealand Iced Tea"), ran a scalding bath, and soaked my decrepit self. While in the tub, I considered my affections for Jeep's pickup.

Both trim levels I drove surely proved their off-road bona fides, impressively and in adverse conditions. But the Overland version offered nearly the same functional capability as the Rubicon in a package that was cheaper, more comfortable, and—without all of the carbuncular livery of its steroidal sibling—sleeker and more visually appealing.

I looked at my filthy pants, which I'd bundled up and stuffed into the bathroom garbage can. Like a friend from work with whom I'd had a first out-of-office get-together, I felt a newfound affection for the Gladiator, as well as a fresh perspective on its position. I wasn't in love, exactly, but I had moved beyond disdain and disinterest. If the circumstances were right, I might agree to let it take me out again.