Driving around in the all-new Jeep Gladiator, I felt a little like a secret women’s bathroom at a Celine Dion concert. Everyone was shocked at its existence, everyone wanted to get inside, and they would clamber over whatever was in their way to do so.
Within 10 seconds of taking delivery of the trucklet—the brand’s first in nearly 30 years—a pair of construction workers on my corner pumped their fists and shouted “Fuck yeah!” as I passed. Minutes later, an eight-year-old boy waiting to cross the West Side Highway on his way to celebrate American militarism at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, dropped his parents’ hands, pointed, and started to cry tears of joy. That evening, a waitress at a restaurant by my house in the country leapt over the bar to run out when she saw me pulling into the parking lot, screaming, loudly enough to terrify a pair of senior citizens smoking by the door, “Jeep pickup! Jeep pickup!” That weekend, one of my closest friends, who does not give a single whit about cars, ditched his family during their spring break so he could drive out to the Hamptons with me in the Gladiator. During the visit to that grotesque locale, a heinous surfer bro asked, with feigned disinterest, “When can I get the one I ordered?” At the end of my loan, the 60-year-old Puerto Rican attendant in my building’s parking garage begged me for the title. “Sure,” I said, handing him the keys. “It’s not my car.”
As one of our nation’s premier automotive lifestyle journalists, my job is to drive the world’s most expensive and exclusive cars. And I can honestly say that no car I’ve driven has ever drawn as much attention as the Gladiator, and certainly none has drawn from such a broad cross-section of the population. A Ferrari or a Lamborghini appeals to a large swath of folks, but a certain subset assumes that if you’re driving one, you’re a rich douche, probably from Silicon Valley, and hell-bent on ruining the world. (And, chances are, you are.) Everyone loves the Jeep Gladiator.
Everyone, that is, except me.
First of all, I would also like to point out that almost no one who is currently infatuated with the Gladiator has driven one, while I have. I would also like to say that I’m not a truck hater. Though I’ve never actually owned anything with a bed, I have, in the past, been the proud owner of a 1984 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, a 1988 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, and a 1972 Chevrolet Suburban, and I currently prowl about upstate New York in a 1990 Range Rover. I respect the idea that trucks are, like all vehicles, at once functional transportation and a kind of costume that we put on and take off in order to communicate to the world—and ourselves—who we’d like to be or how we’d like to be viewed. And I believe that people should be able to wear whatever special fetish outfit their deviant psyche suggests they require.
Unfortunately, on an objective level, the Gladiator has all of the disadvantages of a Wrangler and none of the advantages of a real pickup.
While far more refined than Jeeps of the past, the Gladiator has the choppy, jouncy ride endemic to such a vehicle, a very high center of gravity, and the drag coefficient of a giant lunchbox. Combining this with its bulbous knobby tires, it fumbles over roadway crowns and divots like a toddler running a marathon in skis. Its interior, again while upgraded from the metal and rubber penury of old CJs, has a certain retro charm, if you find a wash of dash plastic painted in a simulacrum of the body’s color charming. The center-stack switchgear, despite Chrysler’s excellent UConnect infotainment system, does an excellent imitation of the organizational patterns of a sack of crickets. The truck has a menacing stance from dead on, but from many angles looks awkward and ill-proportioned, with a bed split-line and rear overhang that makes it appear as if it is a Jeep that is towing itself. The comfort of the front seat is somewhat dependent on the discomfort of the rear occupants. And the short bed lacks the capacity, or the clever stowage, that sister brand Ram has pioneered. Did I mention that the Gladiator I was in stickered at an extortionate $55,500?
As it turns out, I’m not the only person who thinks this truck, and those like it, is not a cask of wine delivered to us by Dionysus himself. “According to our data, there are very few things that owners love about these so-called mid-size trucks more than other vehicles out there,” says Alexander Edwards, the president of Strategic Vision, an automotive research and consultancy firm headquartered in southern California that surveys hundreds of thousands owners each year on their psychographic responses to their new vehicles. “So there isn’t really any advantage—practical or emotional—that consumers see in these vehicles over anything in the industry.”
In other words, even the people who have bought them think they don’t do anything particularly well or offer up any specific rewards. This would explain why, according to Edwards, they’re typically fun, impulsive, third-car purchases, bought when people are feeling flush and the industry is willing to take advantage of that. It also explains why a great majority of people who buy one don’t buy another. (Some 80 percent trade up to full-size trucks, or to SUVs.)
This makes them particularly vulnerable to economic indicators, and consumers’ sense of economic security. “When the industry goes into downturn, they will fall off,” says Edwards. “When people have questions or concerns about stability, it’s hard for them to get into a compromise vehicle like these. Small trucks might work, or full-size trucks. That is where the sales are going to be in a downturn in the market.”
Not everything in the category has all of these intrinsic liabilities. I sampled a couple other vehicles in the segment, including the new Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison. And while that truck had an interior that looked like it was made of melty black licorice and rear-seat room rivaled only by my 1978 Porsche 928’s, it actually drove really well. Like, enough to make me exclaim, when rounding a twisty country corner, “This thing drives really well.” Except for the wheezy engine and the transmission that fanatically seeks higher gears.
All of that said, the Gladiator exudes a certain undeniable charm. I loved it even while I was hating it. Which is kind of how I feel about many cars. And people. You can drive it on the beach or through a stream, although odds are you won’t. The hardtop comes off, although there’s no dedicated place to store the removable panels. The doors come off, even though, well, ditto. You can hose out the interior. It has an Easter Egg salad of fun little Jeep cues hidden everywhere. It’s super macho and rugged without being in any way toxically so. And it’s yet another reminder that our purchase decisions around vehicles are in no way rational. If they were, would I have bought two Jeep Grand Wagoneers or an old Range Rover?
When I dropped off the truck for the final time at my garage in New York, the infatuated attendant was still flabbergasted. “A Jeep truck! I’ve never seen a Jeep truck.” I smiled as I handed over the keys. “I bet you’ll be seeing a lot of them very soon.”