The Jeep Gladiator might be the best pickup ever.
The Jeep Gladiator might be the best pickup ever. (Photo: Courtesy Jeep)

The Best New Adventure Vehicles of 2019

Rigs for going far, far afield and taking all your gear with you

The Jeep Gladiator might be the best pickup ever.

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There are an unprecedented number of compelling off-road-oriented adventure vehicles on sale in 2019. According to a year-end report from the auto-industry website MarkLines, sales of trucks and SUVs in the U.S. were up 8 percent in 2018, while passenger car sales fell by 13.1 percent. Clearly, a shift is taking place, and customers are demanding more utility and capability from their vehicles.

From an all-new version of the legendary Jeep Wrangler to Toyota’s line of desert-running TRD Pro trucks and SUVs to the growing availability of beefy, off-road trim levels in full-size pickups, automakers are finding new and creative ways to satisfy demand for vehicles that shine when the pavement ends.

I’ve worked in product planning for a major automaker and now write extensively about the auto industry and off-road adventures and offer automotive buying advice. Here are some of the newcomers to this segment that I’m excited to see out in the wild in 2019.

2020 Jeep Gladiator (shown above; Price TBA)

A Wrangler with a Truck Bed

The 2020 Jeep Gladiator is the brand’s first pickup since the Cherokee-based Comanche ended production in 1992. The Gladiator is heavily based on the venerable Wrangler, which was fully redesigned for 2018, and the two vehicles are practically identical from the rear doors forward. This means the Gladiator has the same iconic styling, tough solid front axle, and removable roof (in soft- or hardtop versions). Aft of the rear doors, however, the Gladiator has a practical five-foot bed—great for a pair of kayaks or dirt bikes and similar in size to the short-bed offerings of the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Toyota Tacoma. The Gladiator launches with a 3.6-liter V6 engine under the hood, although an optional 3.0-liter diesel should be added to the lineup sometime in the next year.

While any Gladiator offers trail cred, thanks to its solid front axle and robust body-on-frame construction, buyers wanting the optimal off-road experience will want to look to the Gladiator’s range-topping Rubicon trim. The Gladiator Rubicon comes with Jeep’s Rock-Trac four-wheel-drive system, which is geared more toward heavy-duty off-roading than what you’ll find on lesser trims, features locking front and rear differentials for optimal traction, and has a disconnecting front sway bar that allows for greater suspension articulation. Plus there are the taller fenders, oversize 33-inch all-terrain tires, rock rails that protect vulnerable areas of the cab and bed from impact on uneven trails, and Fox shock absorbers. Needless to say, a Gladiator Rubicon is ready for the rough stuff right out of the box. Read the full review here.

2019 Ford Ranger ($25,000 to $44,000)

(Courtesy Ford)

A Legend Reborn

After a seven-year hiatus, the Ranger is back in the U.S. market to compete with the likes of the Chevrolet Colorado and the Toyota Tacoma in the midsize pickup segment. The new Ranger’s lone power-train option is a 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine putting out 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, sent to the wheels via a ten-speed, automatic transmission. This allows four-wheel-drive-equipped Rangers to return up to 20 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway, and it also gives the truck a towing capacity of up to 7,500 pounds. The Ranger boasts excellent safety technology, with standard automatic emergency braking and available blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and lane-keeping assist.

Instead of offering a specific off-road trim level, Ford makes the Ranger’s $1,295 FX4 off-road package available on any trim, from the basic XL model to the top-of-the-line Lariat. Checking the box for the FX4 package means buyers get an off-road-oriented suspension, an electronically locking rear differential (for enhanced traction), a front skid plate, all-terrain tires, its Trail Control system (akin to an off-road cruise control), selectable drive modes for different terrains, and exposed front tow hooks. This serves to put the Ranger on the same level as the Tacoma TRD Off-Road in terms of overall capability. While an even higher-performance Raptor variant is offered overseas, don’t expect it to go on sale in the American market until the Ranger is redesigned, likely in a few years. To get contributing editor Wes Siler’s full take on the Ranger, read his review here.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Adventure ($34,000 to $40,000) and 2020 RAV4 TRD Off-Road (Price TBA)

(Courtesy Toyota)

Fuel-Efficient Choices

As a part of its redesign, the 2019 Toyota RAV4 now offers a legitimate off-road trim level, with another soon to follow for 2020. The RAV4 Adventure comes with a sophisticated torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system that aids with traction on-road and off by ensuring that power is sent to the wheels that need it, in addition to offering a rear driveline disconnect for improved fuel economy on highways. Additional features include hill-descent control and a Multi-Terrain Select system that lets the driver choose between different terrain modes via a knob on the center console. All-weather floor mats and more prominent roof rails round things out.

The recently revealed RAV4 TRD Off-Road will go on sale this fall as a 2020 model and uses the Adventure trim as its base, adding shock absorbers and other suspension components tuned with input from Toyota’s rally team. Other features include black 18-inch wheels that are lighter and sturdier than the 19-inchers offered on the Adventure trim, and Falken all-terrain tires.

While neither trim level gains any additional ground clearance over the RAV4 base, both have a relatively impressive 3,500-pound towing capacity—plenty for hauling dirt bikes or a small camping trailer.

The 2019 RAV4 comes with a 2.5-liter, inline four-cylinder engine good for 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, put to the pavement through an eight-speed automatic transmission. While this relatively small power train doesn’t make it the fastest off-roader on the planet, it does make it one of the most efficient. And in the Adventure guise, the 2019 RAV4 returns an impressive 25 miles per gallon in the city and 33 miles per gallon on the highway, allowing for a fuel range of well over 400 miles.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class ($125,000 to $180,000)

(Courtesy Mercedes)

Off-Road Opulence

On sale since 1979, the legendary Mercedes-Benz G-Class gets its first-ever full redesign for 2019. Powering the G550 (the more modest of two available versions) is a 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V8, putting out 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque and routing power to all four wheels via a nine-speed automatic transmission. Buyers wanting even more brawn can opt for the high-performance G63 AMG, which uses a version of that same 4.0-liter V8, just with 577 horsepower and 627 pound-feet.

Every 2019 G comes standard with full-time four-wheel drive and three standard locking differentials (center, front, and rear). In the interest of improved on-road stability, the G’s solid front axle has been replaced by a new independent-suspension setup, but a solid axle remains in the rear. The vehicle’s off-road geometry also benefits from the redesign, with the new G-Class offering improved approach, breakover, and departure angles. While the G offers unrivaled heritage and refinement, the price of entry isn’t cheap. This begs the question: Surely you could take the Mercedes G-Class on some excellent off-road adventures, but would you really want to risk trail damage on a vehicle that costs as much as a small house? Click here for Siler’s full review.

2019 Ram 2500 Power Wagon (Price TBA)

(Courtesy Ram)

The Workhorse

In terms of heavy-duty trucks with legitimate off-road chops, there’s but one option: the Ram 2500 Power Wagon. It’s a trim level within Ram’s heavy-duty truck lineup, which as a whole receives a significant refresh for 2019. Perhaps the most notable update occurs on the inside, with the 2019 Power Wagon (and Ram’s entire Heavy Duty line) getting the same great interior offered on the also-new-for-2019 Ram 1500, which is generally regarded as having the most luxurious and most refined interior of any full-size pickup. Through all of these changes, at the truck’s heart is a 6.4-liter gas V8, generating 410 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque, while a new eight-speed automatic transmission replaces the six-speed offered in previous model years. Unfortunately, despite pleas for a diesel Power Wagon, the gas power plant remains the only option.

Most automakers like to market the off-road variants of their trucks as “high-speed desert runners,” and sure, the Power Wagon can go fast in the dirt thanks to its 33-inch all-terrain tires, two-inch suspension lift, and Bilstein shock absorbers with added dampening capability. That said, unlike competitors such as the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and the Ford F-150 Raptor, the Power Wagon also shines in low-speed scenarios, given its uncommon offering of a solid front axle, locking front and rear differentials, an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, and an integrated 12,000-pound Warn winch. Ram even goes so far as to offer the Power Wagon in a basic, inexpensive work-truck guise known as the Tradesman. Altogether, the Ram 2500 Power Wagon is a unique combo of well-rounded off-road capability with the legit towing and hauling capabilities of a heavy-duty truck.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Jeep