While some Brits will associate the word Gladiator with the early 'nineties TV show that pitted punters against lycra-clad athletes with names like Blaze and Burn, I'm of the generation more likely to immediately think of Ridley Scott's sandals-and-swords cinematic epic. I'll normally start quoting dialogue soon afterwards: "I will have my vengeance in this life or the next," "what we do in this life echoes in eternity," and my personal favourite, muttered after a many an overtake: "a people should know when they are conquered."
It was quite possibly the manliest movie of all time, with Russell Crowe's glowering Maximus Decimus tough enough to beat the entire Roman empire. Behind the scenes, it got even more macho, co-star Oliver Reed famously dying of a heart attack during filming after getting into a drinking competition with a group of much younger Royal Navy sailors, beating several of them at arm wrestling for good measure.
Gladiator is, in short, a word so impossibly virile that very few vehicles could wear it without looking ridiculous, or like parodies of themselves. Yet this ultra-butch Jeep pick-up absolutely pulls it off.
There have been Jeep Gladiators before, the first introduced as long ago as 1962. But since the lighter weight Jeep Comanche died in 1992 the seemingly obvious combination of Jeep off-road ability with pick-up utility wasn't offered until the new Gladiator arrived in the 'States earlier this year. As the looks suggest it shares a fair percentage of its underpinnings with the JL-generation Wrangler which is already in Europe, but a significant amount is different as well.
For a start, it's huge. The Gladiator's combination of two rows of seats and a decent sized truck bed means that it dwarfs both the already sizeable Wrangler and pretty much everything else on the road. At 5540mm in length it is longer than a Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, with a 3487mm wheelbase being slightly bigger than a Toyota Aygo's entire body. The sheer mass has created sizeable challenges to delivering the sort of performance Jeeps are meant to be capable of over bumpy stuff. Glancing underneath the chassis - there isn't far to duck - reveals two massive solid axles, this in an era when even the Land Rover Defender has gone fully independent - but also myriad protection plates to guard the underside from rocks or anything else sharp that it is trying to articulate its way over. This has clearly been designed for some very proper off-road use.
Which I couldn't give it. My drive of the Gladiator was restricted to rural Michigan rather than the Rubicon Trail. The toughest non-tarmac challenges I could find for it were a length of gravel track and a muddy field, both of which it conquered without leaving rear wheel drive. (I did also try both 'four high' and 'four low' modes, but only so I could say that I had.) So if you want to know what it's like in the true wilderness then consult one of the many reviews that seem to have been done by blokes with bushy beards and tartan shirts. Oh, and because I didn't have a photographer with me, you're looking at these impossibly rugged images of the Gladiator in what Jeep's PR department would like you to believe is its more natural environment.
On road you'll be surprised to hear that the Gladiator is both crude and likeable. Power comes from a naturally-aspirated 3.6-litre V6 which makes 285hp and accompanies this with 260lb ft of torque, a surprisingly modest number in this turbocharged era. It's enough to give the Gladiator a respectable turn of speed - 0-60mph is in the mid-7s depending on which magazine tester you believe - and while the engine is loud and bordering on harsh under hard acceleration it fades to acceptable quietness at a cruise. A six-speed manual is standard although most Gladiator buyers will opt to pay $2000 extra for the eight-speed autobox that was fitted to my test car, and which works well with the old-school powerplant.
Given that buyers will be well aware that they aren't getting sportscars, dynamics are more than good enough. A towering driving position means looking down on pretty much everything else, it feels like you are sitting on the Gladiator rather than in it, but up to lowish limits the handling is predictable and accurate. Steering is light and a little vague around the straight ahead; keeping the Jeep tracking on a chosen course requires lots of small inputs. There is lots of roll under even modest cornering loads with lateral limits marked by an entirely predictable level of understeer. Low-speed shunting is easy, but even U.S. parking spaces feel compact when asked to deal with the Glad's dimensions.
The ride could be best described as busy, never settling down even on apparently smooth surfaces and with some serious vertical movement on rougher stuff. But these things are relative; I also had a drive in a Jeep Rubicon on bigger wheels and a shorter wheelbase which made the Gladiator feel like it had velvet springs and Elise-like reactions to steering inputs.
Like the Wrangler, the Gladiator has another party trick - the ability to strip. Doors and roof are removable, and the windscreen folds flat for that full bugs-in-the-teeth experience. It's not the easiest of processes, but it does transform the Jeep into something truly unique.
Even fully clothed there's no questioning the sense of experience. People look when you drive past in a Gladiator and shout questions at stoplights - even in the Midwest, where there are already a fair number around. It feels a bit special, and you know that the compromises in the everyday driving experience are all there for good reason. Even when you don't have a rock-strewn trail or a zombie apocalypse to get through, it's good to know that you're in something that could categorically get the job done. Of course, you can say much of the same for the regular Wrangler, but that doesn't have a five-foot long bed for carrying stuff, plus there's the ability to tow up to 2.7 tonnes (under U.S. rules) with the optional tow package.
Jeep has previously said it plans to bring the Gladiator to this side of the Atlantic next year. Fingers crossed that still happens, and that the truck doesn't get priced into the pointless stratosphere when it does makes the long journey.
SPECIFICATION - JEEP GLADIATOR OVERLAND
Engine: 3605cc, V6
Transmission: Eight speed auto, switchable four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 285 @ 6400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260 @ 4400rpm
Top speed: 110mph (limited)
Price: $41,980 (base) $55,335 (as tested)