DRIVEN: Jeep Gladiator Sand Runner

We know and love the Jeep Wrangler in South Africa but the Gladiator pick-up derivative hasn’t made it to our shores. So, all you bakkie lovers out there may be justified in feeling short-changed.

To briefly recap, the Gladiator debuted at the 2018 Los Angeles Motor Show and went on sale in the US in spring 2019, filling the pick-up void that had existed in Jeep’s line-up since the 2001 demise of the Comanche. The Gladiator is also sold in the Middle East and we recently got our hands on the new Sand Runner model that has been tailored specifically to tame towering dunes and pretty much any other gnarly terrain it’s pointed at. The Sand Runner’s bespoke specification means it’s the first Jeep to wear Desert Rated badges on its flanks, in lieu of the familiar Trail Rated designation. “That’s so hot,” as Paris Hilton would say.

While the Gladiator is relatively new, its DNA is tried and tested as it shares its core architecture with the JL Wrangler. There’s the same 3,6-litre Pentastar V6 naturally aspirated petrol, eight-speed auto, body-on-frame chassis and solid axles front and rear. As per the Wrangler, the V6 motor develops respectable outputs of 213 kW and 353 N.m but we’re eagerly awaiting 6,4-litre Hemi V8 power in the upcoming Wrangler 392.

Getting back to the Sand Runner … it comes loaded with a host of goodies to boost its dune-conquering capabilities and these include 64 mm FOX internal bypass dampers with external reservoirs (helps keep fluid cool); FOX front hydraulic jounce bumpers; a reinforced frame; a 25 mm (1 inch) front suspension lift; and a silver front skid plate.

It doesn’t end there as the Sand Runner also scores stronger axles with cast-iron steering knuckles, chunky 33-inch tyres and more heavily bolstered front seats.
The Wrangler/Gladiator fundamentals are already robust, thanks to the proven Command-Trac 4×4 system that features a two-speed transfer case with low-range gearing and an electronic locking rear differential standard.

The Sand Runner also gets an Off-Road+ button, meant to facilitate high-speed sand driving. Hit the button located on the centre console and the electronic brain automatically adjusts throttle, transmission, shift points and traction control for what Jeep refers to as “peak performance on higher speed passes”. That said, you don’t get the front sway-bar disconnect feature that’s offered in the Gladiator Rubicon to provide greater wheel articulation.

The Gladiator has a good approach angle of 44,7 degrees and you won’t have to worry too much about bashing the nose when attacking dunes, but its lengthy rear overhang results in a less impressive departure angle of 25,5 degrees. The Gladiator is also a lengthy truck at just over 5,5 m from bumper to bumper. This is noticeable vis-à-vis the Wrangler, a nimbler vehicle with better ramp-over angles, meaning you’re less likely to get beached at the crest of a dune.

Because the Gladiator is conceived primarily as an off-roader, it’s not the most relaxing chariot on the highway. There’s ample tyre roar and wind noise, plus copious amounts of play in the steering. This is not a vehicle you lazily steer with one hand, as you need to have both your mitts on the wheel to keep it on the straight and narrow. Nevertheless, spend enough time in the driver’s seat and these niggles become far less irksome. The seating position is lofty by design and you will need to grab the handle on the inside of the front windscreen pillar to hoist yourself up.

While the Gladiator Sand Runner isn’t the most cossetting companion on the tarmac, the utilitarian Jeep makes sense once you get out in the desert. It lopes across moderately sized dunes with relative ease as its generous ground clearance (295 mm) and knobby tyres are ideally suited to this terrain. Our two-vehicle convoy into the sandy abyss included a standard Wrangler Unlimited, and its progress was equally unflustered.

The Gladiator’s extra length dictates that to traverse sharply crested dunes, you have to take it at an angle to avoid getting it beached. The Gladiator also weighs about 100 kg more than its wagon sibling at just over 2,1 tonnes and, although this isn’t a huge penalty, it does mean the V6 has to work slightly harder in ascending steep dunes.

On the whole, the Gladiator Sand Runner was up to whatever we threw at it. Only one super-soft sandy patch brought progress to a halt as the vehicle got a bit hot (Paris Hilton voice) and seemingly went into limp mode. However, a brief cool-off period, a refreshing drink for the drivers, followed by some back and forth road building, and the Jeep was free without any digging required.

It copes well with dunes but its ride quality across rutted tracks is harsher than expected. The hydraulic jounce bumpers should theoretically have smoothed this out but perhaps they require further recalibration.

This Jeep fares well in terms of practicality and utility as the cargo bed is 861 mm deep and can accommodate 1 005 litres of paraphernalia. The Jeep’s towing capacity is rated at 1 818 kg, so hauling a boat or trailer is also well within its capabilities.

Our verdict? The Gladiator Sand Runner is a capable recreational pick-up; however, its price tag of Dh 235 000 (±R1 million in a direct currency conversion before taxes and import duties) puts it up against some stiff opposition in markets where it is offered – most notably Ford’s F-150 Raptor and the new Ram 1500 TRX – which, sadly, we also don’t get locally.

The Raptor is faster and more refined but the Sand Runner is arguably more capable off-road, especially when it comes to rock crawling and sand dunes. As the old cliché goes: it comes down to horses for courses.

Price: n/a Engine: 3,6-litre, V6, petrol Transmission: 8-speed automatic Power: 213 kW @ 6 400 r/min Torque: 353 N.m at 3 800 r/min
0-100 km/h: 7,50 seconds* Top speed: 158 km/h* Fuel consumption: 12,40 L/100 km* CO2: 296 g/km Rivals: Ford F-150 Raptor; Ram 1500 TRX

By Gautam Sharma

Article written by

CAR magazine