2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Sep 14, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Jeep deals!

Last year, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator debuted, a classic nameplate applied to a new Wrangler-based pickup truck. More than just a cargo bed glued to a Wrangler cab, the new Gladiator is fortified for serious hauling and towing, making it a head-to-head competitor in the midsize pickup segment.

Now, the 2021 Jeep Gladiator sees a handful of changes, including availability of a turbo-diesel V-6 engine, which is known as the EcoDiesel. Additionally, new Willys Sport, Willys, 80th Anniversary Edition, and High Altitude versions of the Gladiator are available. Sport trim is offered with LED headlights and fog lights as an option, while Overland trim gains a new TrailCam forward-facing camera as an upgrade. Jeep has also started charging extra for every color of paint except for white.

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Gladiator Overland equipped with the EcoDiesel engine, an automatic transmission, a Selec-Trac full-time 4-wheel-drive system, and a Trailer Tow Package. It was dipped in Granite Crystal paint and had a body-color 3-piece hardtop with interior headliners, a spray-in bedliner, a hard tonneau cover for the bed, and a Premium LED Lighting Group. 

2021 Jeep Gladiator Overland EcoDiesel Granite Crystal Gray Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Additionally, the truck had remote proximity keyless entry, leather seats, a Cold Weather Group, a Uconnect 8.4 Premium Audio Group, a wireless Bluetooth speaker, a forward-facing TrailCam, a Jeep Active Safety Group, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning. The price came to $58,525, including the $1,495 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Jeep deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Gladiator, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize pickup truck, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 84% of Jeep Gladiator owners are male (vs. 85% for the segment), and the median age of a Gladiator owner is 53 years (vs. 56).

Owners say their favorite things about the Gladiator are (in descending order) the exterior styling, setting up and starting, interior design, driving feel, and feeling of safety. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the midsize pickup truck segment:

  • Exterior styling
  • Vehicle feel when started up
  • Quality of materials inside vehicle
  • Usefulness of infotainment functions
  • Interior styling

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Gladiator are (in descending order) the infotainment system, powertrain, getting in and out, driving comfort, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the midsize pickup truck segment:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Quietness of cabin while driving
  • Steering and handling in normal conditions
  • Vehicle protection
  • Interior stays at desired temperature

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Gladiator ranked 4th out of six midsize pickups.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Jeep deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2021 Jeep Gladiator measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

The 2021 Jeep Gladiator looks like a Jeep Wrangler pickup truck, and owners love the design. I’m a fan, too, though with smaller wheels it certainly appears to be too long and narrow. But then, so do crew-cab, long-bed versions of other midsize trucks.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Overland EcoDiesel Granite Crystal Gray Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Overland trim has chrome detailing, body-color fenders, side steps, and 18-inch aluminum wheels with a dark-gray metallic finish. Sitting right in the middle of the 2021 Gladiator lineup, it represents a good blend of affordability, capability, and equipment – though perhaps not when loaded with equipment like the test vehicle.

Our example had a body-color 3-piece hardtop that is fully removable, and it gives the Gladiator a finished appearance.

Interior

Post Malone would dig the Gladiator’s interior, because circles dominate the design. The gauges, the air vents, the steering wheel horn pad, the knobs for the stereo and climate controls, the shifter knobs – all circular in shape.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Overland Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Made to get dirty and for exposure to the elements, a Gladiator’s cabin uses plenty of plastic and rubber for easy clean-up. The floors even have drain plugs under the carpeting, just in case you actually do want to hose it out.

Because you can take the Gladiator’s doors off, the power window switches are located on the dashboard. Because the interior might get wet, a thick rubber seal surrounds the infotainment display. Because your passenger might get bounced around while off-roading, a large grab handle dominates the right side of the dashboard. And, because the truck comes with 4-wheel drive and a 2-speed transfer case, two shifters jut out of the floor. Compared to other midsize trucks, the Gladiator is unusual, to say the least.

With both shifters and a traditional hand brake taking up precious space on the center console, practical storage for everyday items is lacking. And you won’t want to use the door panel nets for smaller items, because they’ll just fall out. At least the center console bin is a decent size, and the glove compartment is within easy reach.

Getting In and Out

Jeep offers side steps and side rails for the Gladiator, but mainly they just get in the way. In order to preserve breakover angle, which is shallower than the Wrangler upon which it is based, the steps and rails are mounted high, just under the door sills, and that makes them more decorative than anything else. 

If you want easier entry and exit, don’t get them. Note that I said “easier.” You’ll still need to step up and into the Gladiator, and it’s easy to trip on the door sills. Fortunately, they are not wide. But neither are the door openings.

Loading cargo is easy, but the Gladiator’s bed walls are short. Through Jeep Performance Parts, a wide range of accessories is available to maximize the Gladiator’s carrying capabilities, and to maximize its payload capacity. You’ll want the locking tri-fold tonneau cover if you intend to remove the hardtop’s roof panels while simultaneously carrying rear-seat passengers. Unlike with a Wrangler, there isn’t a secure place to stow them other than the cargo bed. 

Jeep says the truck can carry up to 1,700 pounds, but that’s for a base Sport with a manual transmission. The average payload for Gladiators with an automatic is about 1,225 pounds for both the gas and diesel engines.

Setting Up and Starting

Thanks to its inherent simplicity and intuitive driver information center and infotainment systems, setting up a Jeep Gladiator to your personal preferences is easy. Just make sure you adjust the side mirrors so that you cannot see the sides of the truck. They’re narrow, and you need to create the widest possible field of vision to make up for it.

Push the engine start button, and the Gladiator comes to life beneath you, the tall driving position and unique view over the rounded hood and through the flat and mostly vertical windshield unlike what you’ll find in any other midsize truck. There is a sense of adventure and occasion to starting a Gladiator, like fun is on the schedule for the day. This is especially true if you’ve got the roof panels removed, or the top and doors off.

And with the EcoDiesel engine option, a characteristic clatter adds to your anticipation of the drive.

Infotainment System

Three different infotainment systems are offered on the Gladiator. Our test vehicle had the top choice with an 8.4-inch touchscreen display, navigation, and a full complement of features, functions, and services. 

Highlights of this Uconnect 8.4 system include satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and a free 1-year trial of SiriusXM Guardian connected services including SOS emergency calling, remote engine starting, a vehicle finder, and more.

Long considered one of the top infotainment systems for user-friendliness, Uconnect 8.4 is starting to show its age. The voice recognition system often requires specific prompts, helpfully displayed on the touchscreen to guide you in your quest for information or action. Loading and response times lag the best systems, too. Jeep’s parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is just starting to roll out its new Uconnect 5 infotainment technology. Eventually, it should make its way to the Gladiator. 

Uconnect 8.4 is paired with an Alpine premium sound system that includes overhead speakers mounted to the truck’s roll-cage. Given the level of wind noise at even moderate speeds, especially if you’ve removed the roof panels and have the windows down, those overhead speakers come in handy.

Keeping You Safe

The 2021 Jeep Gladiator does not come with advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) as standard equipment. A reversing camera is just about the only thing included in the base price.

At a minimum, I recommend the optional Jeep Active Safety Group because it installs blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning and rear parking assistance sensors. This is a long truck with small side mirrors, and you’ll need all of the help you can get when maneuvering it.

Depending on the version of the Gladiator that you buy, you can also add forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive cruise control with full stop capability. Better yet, even when the truck has adaptive cruise control, you can choose between adaptive or standard cruise depending on your preference or the situation. Most automakers don’t give you a choice.

Furthermore, a forward-facing TrailCam with a lens washer is available. This is helpful when off-roading, giving the driver a clear view of the trail ahead as well as guidance lines that show your expected path around or over obstacles. For 2021, the TrailCam is now offered with Overland trim for the first time.

When it comes to crash protection, the jury is mostly out on the Jeep Gladiator. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives versions with the gasoline V-6 engine a 4-star rating for frontal-impact protection, while the rollover resistance rating for all Gladiators is a middling 3 stars. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had not performed tests on the Gladiator as this review was published.

Powertrain

New for 2021, a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V-6 engine is optional on all versions of the Gladiator except for the Desert Rated Mojave model.

This EcoDiesel upgrade replaces the standard 3.6-liter V-6, which makes 285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm. For $4,000 (plus $2,000 more because it requires the 8-speed automatic transmission), the EcoDiesel delivers 260 hp at just 3,600 rpm and an impressive 442 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,400 rpm to 2,800 rpm.

Naturally, this has a big impact on the Gladiator’s driving character. On pavement, the Gladiator feels smoother and stronger, surging forward in a relaxed yet assured manner. Throttle tip-in isn’t as sudden as with the gasoline V-6, and you never need to rev this engine to make use of the power.

When off-roading, the diesel’s deep well of torque comes in handy at low speeds when tackling significant obstacles. During a brief but difficult exploration of mountain trails in an EcoDiesel-equipped Gladiator Rubicon, the engine’s power curve allowed me to make small but meaningful changes with regard to throttle application, without the need to build revs as with the gas V-6. 

The Gladiator’s Selec-Speed off-road cruise control also works better with the diesel, and the overall impact of the powertrain is greater driver confidence and improved capability in the rough stuff.

Towing capacity with the EcoDiesel is limited to 6,500 pounds with Sport and Overland trim, and 6,000 pounds with the Rubicon. Jeep says the engine could tow more weight, but the 7-slot grille design and compact underhood area make cooling requirements an issue when towing a trailer that weighs more. 

Nevertheless, the EcoDiesel tugs more trailer than Gladiators with manual transmissions or automatics with 3.73 axle ratios. Furthermore, Jeep says the EcoDiesel’s towing character is superior thanks to all that low-end torque.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, the Gladiator EcoDiesel should get 24 mpg in combined driving. During my testing on pavement, the truck returned 22.6 mpg. Based on the Gladiator’s 18.3-gallon fuel tank, the EcoDiesel should provide more than 410 miles of maximum driving range, or about 375 miles since you won’t be draining the tank dry.

Driving Comfort

Gladiator owners rank driving comfort low on their lists of their favorite things about this truck, and that’s easy to understand. It’s loud at most speeds, and owners report that the interior doesn’t remain at the desired temperature. During my testing, the air conditioning proved effective, but it ran almost continuously at a higher fan speed to combat the late summer heat.

The front seats themselves are comfortable, and they’re positioned high in the cab for a good view out. At the same time, they are fairly snug against the door panels and center console. Both the cushions and the thick-rimmed steering wheel are available with heating to ward off a chill. 

Rear seat leg room, as is true of other midsize pickups, is tight for taller adults. However, the front seatbacks are padded to make knees and shins happier. The seat cushion offers good support, the backrest is angled to offer decent comfort, and rear air conditioning vents help to keep passengers cool.

Driving Feel

Built primarily to excel off-road, the Jeep Gladiator is compromised when it comes to on-road ride and handling. Slow steering, soft brakes, and robust Dana 44 front and rear axles are benefits in the rough, but they are less than ideal during the daily commute.

For this review, I drove an Overland on a driving loop containing a variety of roads and conditions, a Mojave on an undulating mountain road, and a Rubicon off-road. The Rubicon was brilliant in the bush, and the Mojave’s unique suspension provides a better ride quality at speed both in the dirt and on the pavement. 

The Overland? Well, it’s complicated.

In the city, the truck-tough underpinnings come in handy when dealing with everything from parking curbs to potholes. On the highway, the vague steering and loud wind noise can fatigue a driver over time. On country roads and in corners, the bouncy ride and low-grip tires keep speeds in check. Tossable, this Jeep is not.

However, given the Gladiator’s basis on the Wrangler SUV, none of this should come as a surprise.

Final Impressions - Find the best Jeep deals!

The 2021 Jeep Gladiator is not right for everyone. And the pricey EcoDiesel engine upgrade is for the select few with big purchase budgets who prefer a turbo-diesel’s unique power delivery characteristics. But if you like the way the Gladiator looks, and you like the way it drives, and you prioritize the ability to open a vehicle up to great outdoors over maximum towing and payload capacity, there is no substitute for this Jeep. 

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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