Mzansi's affinity for bakkies is truly something to behold. It's an enigma to some and an absolute charm for many, as these commercial vehicles have become quite the status symbol, even overshadowing some premium offerings in this market. In fact, in recent months, we have seen several new model unveilings. The imminent new Ford Ranger and its platform spin-off, the next generation Amarok, looks promising. The latest Jeep Gladiator also threw its hat into the ring and is officially at the summit of the bakkie pricing hierarchy.
Spanning over five metres in length, the Gladiator casts a very imposing stature that not only adds to its utility and passenger space but also renders it with a cool factor that'll leave even Eskimos green with envy. It is this very thing, I reckon, that'll have those lucky enough to secure one lining up at Jeep dealerships.
Styling-wise, the Gladiator is almost identical to its Wrangler SUV sibling, but behind the rear doors, the former boasts a load bin – one of the largest in the double-cab market. Of course, I intended to put this to good use. So, no sooner than the Gladiator arrived for testing, I packed it to the rafters with luggage and family and nosed it onto the N3, en route to Ballito in KZN. Of course, I was wary of the fact that the engine might not prove to be the most fuel-efficient. But I was determined to ascertain its feasibility — or lack thereof — as a long-distance cruiser.
The cabin is hardy for the most part, but relatively comfortable for long spells in the saddle. The list of creature comforts is reasonably lengthy, with items such as seat warmers coming in handy during the wintery mornings and evenings. I found the UConnect infotainment system fairly easy to operate once accustomed to the functionalities, although the graphics do seem a tad outdated. Apple CarPlay made connectivity an absolute cinch, so taking calls and playing music off my phone was a seamless exercise. Of course, taking a road trip meant spending a fair bit more time with the vehicle, and being more intimate with some of the vehicle's quirks.
Thanks to the vehicle's Fox-built performance shocks at each corner, the ride quality was supple on the tarmac, despite the off-road tyres shod on our test car. The N3 is teeming with cargo trucks, which made the typically five-hour journey a realistically eight-hour jaunt from Gauteng. I recommend that you set sail earlier in the morning, rather than late afternoon. Thankfully, finding myself behind slower-moving traffic meant I could flex the engine as soon as there was clean air in front of me. That 3.6-litre V6 engine managed to lug the hulking bakkie with enough conviction that it hardly required lofty revs to be dialled in. And the 8-speed automatic box proved well up to the task, smoothly slushing gears up and down the ratios.
As our test unit was the convertible variant, it did exhibit quite a great deal of road noise on the open road, so perhaps the hard-top would offer better insulation overall. Of course, you can still remove all the roofing and door panels and drive al fresco. Proving quite a hit with the public, there was great fanfare with a barrage of questions levelled our way. Fellow Jeep Wrangler drivers, in particular, gave us the signature wave, while petrol attendants along the way wondered whether this was a grey import since this was the first time they had clapped their eyes on one.
Open road fuel consumption lingered around the 12.4l/100 km mark, while urban driving yielded around the 14l/100 km figure. Luckily then, for that unquenchable thirst you get a bakkie-load of cool. And off-road ability. It's here where the model's prowess truly shines through, tackling gravel, rock-strewn dongas and muddy terrain without so much as a flinch. You truly would be hard pressed to unsettle this vehicle, such is its breadth of capabilities off the beaten track.
Sure, the Gladiator is anything but perfect and ultimately flawed in others, but it is these very anomalies that make it so infinitely cool. If there was one thing that'd sweeten the deal, it'd be a turbodiesel engine. Unfortunately, the Euro 6 engine offered in other markets requires a minimum of 10 ppm diesel, which in SA is only available at Sasol petrol stations, making the feasibility of that engine in Mzansi virtually non-existent. That aside, this is easily one of the coolest bakkies currently offered on the market. And, in case you were wondering, yes, I want one – warts and all.