The majority of folks buying off-road themed vehicles don’t usually venture much beyond a gravel road, but for those who seek extreme axle articulation, steep inclines, and aren’t afraid to get muck on their seats, our jury of over 20 experts at AutoTrader has voted to name the winner of the 2023 Best Vehicle for Adventure Award as the Jeep Wrangler and its pickup cousin, the Jeep Gladiator.
The Wrangler/Gladiator duo are offered in various levels of off-road prowess, but even the “mildest” versions remain trail-focused, largely eschewing traditional concerns like noise, smoothness, and general civility for unrivalled ability when conditions turn rugged. Therein lies their appeal. And, of course, the Jeep’s retro look is the very definition of iconic, not straying all that far from the original Willys “jeep” of the 1940s.
The Wrangler is available as a traditional two-door short-wheelbase model or more family-friendly longer wheelbase four-door Unlimited. The Gladiator pickup has an even longer wheelbase and sports a usable five-foot bed. It runs with a 3.6L V6 or the 3.0L diesel V6. The Wrangler gets a wider range of available powertrains: a turbo 2.0L four-cylinder, 3.6L V6, 2.0L plug-in hybrid, 3.0L V6 diesel, and even a rip-snorting 470-hp 6.4L Hemi V8 in the Rubicon 392. Want to stir your own gears? A no-cost six-speed manual is available with the gas V6 in both the Gladiator and Wrangler.
The Jeep’s cabin is tight by modern standards, but brags functionality and funky style in equal measure. The controls are big and glove-friendly, and we at AutoTrader are fans of the Uconnect touchscreen interface that remains one of the most user-friendly of its kind. Depending on your budget and needs, the Wrangler/Gladiator interior can go from hose-out utilitarian to near-luxury, fitted with comfy heated and ventilated leather front seats, heated steering wheel, and all the gee-whiz connectivity and safety tech you could hope for. No matter which way you spec it, the doors are removable, and models with convertible tops get the requisite flip-down windscreen. It’s a Jeep thing.
For true trail-conquering antics, the Rubicon trim in either Wrangler or Gladiator guise is the real deal. This writer has negotiated some mighty hostile terrain in a Rubicon two-door, and as advertised, the most extreme member of the Wrangler family could eat up and spit out the legendary Rubicon trail with one spare tire tied behind its back – which it has. The Rubicon will crawl, scrape, bounce, and roar over landscapes that would have a mountain goat bleating for mercy.
Key to the Rubicon’s off-road acumen is the Rock Trac heavy-duty part-time 4x4 system that incorporates Dana 44 Tru-Lok axles both front and rear, electronic sway-bar disconnect system, two-speed transfer case with 4:1 low range and 4.10 rear axle ratio. The flip side of the Rubicon is the High Altitude model that butts its nose into near-luxury territory.
These Jeeps aren’t cheap, ranging from the short wheelbase V6 Sport at $40,540 to the nutty $105,640 Unlimited Rubicon 392. The finalists this year for Best Vehicle for Adventure include the Land Rover Defender, Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison, Subaru Outback Wilderness, and Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro/4Runner TRD Pro.
Now, if this were an award for adventure vehicle with best on-road manners, these Jeeps would likely not place so high. Last year’s winner, the Ford Bronco, does a much better job of blending on-road and off-road abilities. But here we are focusing on the adventure part, and this iconic American vehicle charms with its timeless Tonka-toy styling and laser-focused mandate that delightfully flips its muddy middle finger at automotive convention. With such a broad array of powertrains, body styles, and attitudes, the Jeep Wrangler/Gladiator cements its status as AutoTrader’s 2023 Best Vehicle for Adventure.