SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Driving a 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon on the Rubicon Trail is a fitting thing to do, but not an easy thing to do. We're inching the Gladiator along the inward-sloping right side of a narrow passage with the left front tire precariously perched atop a boulder at the base of Arnold's Rock, a particularly hairy section of the trail. The tire begins to slide into the water below, crashing the Gladiator's underbody onto the boulder with a bang. High-centered, we can’t move forward or back. The Jeep Jamboree trail guides begin tossing smaller rocks under the tires to give them something to grab on to. When they’ve built up a little pile, they rock the Jeep pickup from side-to-side as we give it a little gas to pop off the boulder. We then approach it again, managing to keep the tire on it this time, and clamber over. The fun's not over. We immediately crank the wheel hard to the left and climb the stair steps up onto the slickrock, accompanied by a fair bit of scraping of the rock rails.
For much of its length, the Rubicon Trail is less of a trail and more like a pile of boulders strewn in a sinuous thread draped over the rugged Sierra Nevada. Its history with Jeep dates back to the Willys days, when early off-roader Mark A. Smith led a group of 4x4s over the trail in 1953. Jeep corporate involvement followed the next year. Smith would go on to found Jeep Jamboree USA, the outfit that today leads dozens of off-road trail rides in locations across the United States. Of them, none is more hard-core than the Rubicon, which alone garners the maximum trail difficulty rating of 10.
Jeep first used the Rubicon name on a specially upfitted version of the 2003 TJ-generation Wrangler. The Rubicon has since grown to become the trim level designating the most off-road-capable version of the Wrangler. The Gladiator pickup now becomes only the second Jeep model to be offered as a Rubicon.
And so far, the Gladiator Rubicon is proving extremely popular. Brandon Girmus, Jeep Gladiator brand manager, reports that the Rubicon is the Gladiator's bestselling version, as early adopters clamor for the top trim level even if they don’t need its off-road capability.
The Rubicon version of the Gladiator includes locking front and rear differentials, disconnecting front sway bars, Fox monotube shocks, a Rock-Trac shift-on-the-fly transfer case, a 4.10:1 rear axle ratio (up from 3.73), 17 x 7.5” wheels with LT285/70R17C tires, high-clearance fender flares, rock rails, a front skid plate/brush guard, and four tow hooks. (All Gladiators get skid plates protecting the fuel tank and transfer case.)
Ground clearance stands at 11.1 inches, which is 1.1 inches greater than other Gladiators. The Rubicon has an approach angle of 43.4 degrees (vs. 40.8 for other Gladiator models), a breakover angle of 20.3 degrees (vs. 18.4), and a departure angle of 26.0 degrees (vs. 25.0).
We’ve previously found a Gladiator Overland to be plenty capable off-roading in Moab, Utah, and a Sport model’s abilities impressed in our midsize truck comparison test in northern Michigan. The Rubicon Trail, however, would provide the toughest test yet.
The trucks we drove were bone stock. Tires were aired down to 22 psi to give the factory-fitment Falken Wildpeak A/T tires better purchase on some of the rocks and to make for a less-bouncy ride. Our example was powered by the 285-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 mated to an eight-speed automatic. The measured throttle response of the naturally aspirated engine was appreciated as we attempted to apply just enough stick to keep the Jeep moving up steep inclines.
We drove in 4-Lo, accessed via a good, old-fashioned mechanical shift lever just left of the gearshift. We also locked the front and rear differentials, done via a switch on the dash. A button disconnects the front anti-roll bars for maximum wheel articulation, 30% greater than normal, and they were disconnected for the entire ride as we picked our way over the large rocks that litter the trail.
Compared to the Rubicon version of the Wrangler Unlimited, the Gladiator Rubicon has some disadvantages owing to its longer wheelbase and 10-inch-longer rear overhang. There were a couple of instances when our Gladiator’s trailer hitch or the rear bumper banged against a rock as we attempted to walk the rear wheels down off an obstacle. The ultra-short front overhang is similar to the Wrangler's, and the approach angle was never a limiting factor on the trail.
The biggest difference, however, is that the Gladiator’s wheelbase (137.3 inches) that stretches nearly 19 inches longer than a four-door Wrangler (118.4). The two-door Wrangler has a tiny 96.8-inch wheelbase, by the way. The Gladiator’s breakover angle sometimes presents a challenge, and the long wheelbase also hampers maneuverability in general. The Gladiator Rubicon’s turning circle, already large at 44.8 feet, grows even larger with a locked front diff. We unlocked it a few times in order to make a tight turn.
The rock rails (which protect the rocker panels) got a workout. We scraped the rock rails, got high-centered at several points, and banged the underbody numerous times. All of which is par for the course on the Rubicon Trail.
One particularly useful option on our Gladiator (and one that’s not offered on the Wrangler) is a forward-facing off-road camera. It shows what’s immediately ahead and overlays guidelines indicating the path of the front tires. It's helpful for precise wheel placement.
Conversely, we did not use the Gladiator’s offroad speed control. Activated by a button on the dash, it works as an ultra-low-speed cruise control and incorporates hill-descent control. The Rubicon terrain, though, was too extreme to engage any kind of cruise control, as we were continually stopping and plotting our course through the never-ending obstacles.
Unfortunately, one obstacle you can’t always overcome is the weather. Low clouds, rain, and wind grounded the helicopters we were to take back to the trail to meet up with the Gladiators for day two, cancelling the second half of the drive. As much as we would have loved to complete the trail, the Gladiator proved its mettle on our one-day adventure. With some foresight and skill, it can go almost anywhere a Wrangler can, while still possessing the unique qualities of a truck. Despite the limitations of its longer body and wheelbase, the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon showed that it can handle its namesake trail.