Jeep Gladiator Pickup is an Off-Roading Tough Mud

From the height I can't see much. Some trees. A sky scattered with the clouds that in recent days has soaked this grassy meadow in the Sierra hikes. And a few hands, apparently attached to a man with his arms held high, waved me forward. To obey them seems like a terrible idea. About as bad as driving up to the top of this slope in the first place. But orders are orders. I grab my core, squeeze my cheeks and push my right foot on the accelerator pedal. The 3.6-liter V6 engine responds, and the four 32-inch wheels, clad in mud-friendly tires, roll forward. And then the Jeep Gladiator truck slides into the rocky, 35 degree slope with all the eager, secure spasticity of a large dog sitting down in a marble staircase.

A few seconds later, just as I start to wonder if the afterlife really looks like Northern California, my guide puts his hands in the fist to signal "stop" and gives me the thumbs up. "Good job!" I manage a nervous smile but don't know how to take any credit. Jeep's engineers have built the Gladiator for this kind of folly, and they have invited me to this off-road course because they want to show me how good a job they did.

At a time when the SUV and pickup have never been more popular, the Gladiator is a return to the Jeep form, which offered pickup versions of its vehicles from the late 40s through the early 90s. The front bite is heavily borrowed from Wrangler, but the team insists that they not only hit a bed on the existing trip. "The challenge for us was to develop a truck that is a truck," said Pete Milosavlevski, gladiator's chief engineer.

During the three years they used to develop this tour, Jeep's engineering team made a number of choices that sought a balance between utility, robustness and creature comfort. It gave the Gladiator solid shafts, stronger wheels, the largest brakes in the segment, a larger grill to bring in more cooling air, a "tried and true" steel bed at a time when competitors go with aluminum and smooth carbon fiber.

Because they made the doors and ceiling extra easy to pop, Jeep's designers have sitting cabinets behind and behind the back seats, so you have room to store your valuables while kayaking up that waterfall. They included a 1[ads1]15-volt five-foot outlet and a portable Bluetooth speaker that will survive for half an hour under water. It would take a few weeks with Jeep to verify that all these little touches are good ideas, but a few minutes of jumping rocks was enough for me to appreciate the decision to pack the armrests and door handles in rubber. It and the heated seats.

The four-door Gladiator starts at $ 33,545 (for manual gearbox Sport edition), but if you have the money to spend, a full Rubicon version will drive you closer to $ 60,000. The production in Jeeps Toledo plant will start in April, with deliveries turned on for May. Buy now and you'll get the 3.6 liter petrol engine, good for 285 horsepower, 260 pound-foot torque, and an EPA rated 19 miles per gallon. Wait a year or so and you can choose a 3.0 liter diesel that takes the torque up to more than 400 pounds.

When I get a step on the gas, I realize that the 260's is more than enough to go bobble headline over the kind of terrain that in just about any other vehicle (including my feet) would make me say, Whoops, better take the long way round . And after the end of the 30-minute off-road training, after looking at the vehicle's pitch and roller meters whipping back and forth like The New York Times ballots, I have a real smile. Most buyers are not going anywhere near what the Gladiator can do – which suddenly plows through 30 inches of water – but those who do are surely entertained.

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