2021 Jeep Gladiator Review

2021 Jeep Gladiator - Do we really need an off-road ready pickup? Heck yea!


Riding a wave of strong sales for its all-new Wrangler, Jeep introduced the Gladiator in 2019. Essentially a stretched Wrangler Unlimited with a pickup bed, Gladiator competes with other midsize pickups like the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, GMC Canyon, Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma.

While the Wrangler Unlimited has a wheelbase of 118.4 inches and a length of 188.4 inches, Gladiator rides a massive 137.3-inch wheelbase and is 218 inches longer overall. For comparison, the Ford Ranger has a wheelbase of 126.8-inch wheelbase and length of 210.8 inches. Gladiator comes only as a 4-door crew cab, has a 5-foot cargo bed and is offered with a soft top or a 3-piece hard top. Like the Wrangler, Gladiator's doors are removable and the windshield folds forward.

The 2021 model lineup includes Sport, Willy Sport, Sport S, Willys, 80th Anniversary, Overland, Rubicon, Mojave and High Altitude. Currently there are two engine choices: a 3.6-liter V6 that makes 285 horsepower and a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 that makes 260 horsepower. The gas engine comes standard with a 6-speed automatic. Optional on the gas engine and standard on the diesel is an 8-speed automatic.

Gladiator has solid axles front and rear and offers several 4WD systems. Command-Trac is the base system. It offers rear-wheel drive and part-time 4WD high and low ranges. Selec-Trac offers rear-drive, full-time 4WD and part-time 4WD high and low ranges. Rock-Trac adds electronic locking differentials front and rear as well as an electronic sway-bar disconnect.

Prices start at $33,545 and climb to almost $52K. Available safety features include blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, forward-collision warning and rear-view camera. Maximum payload rating is 1,700 pounds and maximum towing is 7,650.

While the V6 engine provides solid acceleration and admirable fuel economy -- keep in mind Gladiator is basically an aerodynamic brick with huge tires -- the best choice for buyers might just be the turbodiesel, provided you can afford the $4000 upgrade.

No doubt, the V6 offers great around-town acceleration and good passing punch. Still, the incredible low-end torque of the diesel is so valuable when off-roading or towing. Both engines prove to be smooth in operation and mate well to the 8-speed automatic transmission. Though the start-stop function on the diesel can be abrupt. It's a shame the diesel adds so much to the bottom. (To be fair, if the diesel wasn't so great, the V6 might still be the best offering amongst compact pickups.)

Jeep's Command-Trac 4WD system is a solid offering, but doesn't provide the flexibility of an automatic setting in 4WD mode. To get that, buyers must pay more for Selec-Trac. Either way, the Gladiator is the most capable out-of-the-box off-road pickup available. Opt for Rubicon, with its off-road goodies and extreme tires, and there's no trail to tough.

EPA estimates for the Gladiator with the 3.6-liter/automatic are 17 MPG city and 22 MPG highway. Certainly not impressive but almost par with other compact pickups. The diesel nets ratings of 22/28 MPG, which is certainly more impressive. In routine suburban commuting with the gas engine, expect to average close to the 20 MPG, throw in a bit of gentle highway cruising and 24 MPG overall is quite possible. Diesel models might average as high as 28 MPG overall. That's crazy good for a Gladiator and better than most compact pickups.

Jeep has made massive improvements in the overall ride quality of the Wrangler, and the Gladiator, with its longer-still wheelbase, has an even more impressive ride -- though it still isn't as smooth riding as competitors like the Colorado or Ridgeline. That said, the ride quality is completely dependent on trim and options selection. The smoothest riding would be the Sport (with its street tires) and the bounciest ride would come from the Rubicon. Keeping in mind that the Rubicon offers a perfectly acceptable ride on smooth pavement with less head toss or bounding that you might expect.

Despite the live axle up front, the steering feels connected and direct -- though there is definitely more play than in conventional competitors. The brake pedal feels consistent and firm underfoot, but the action is a bit long. In a way, both the steering and braking are somewhat compromised to provide better control off road. Turning circle is wide, given the long wheelbase. The big -tired Rubicon wanders a bit when driving straight. Crosswinds tend to be a handful as well.

Simply put, no stock pickup is better off-road. Those that are serious trail nuts will only consider the Rubicon for rock crawling or the Mojave for trail running. The beauty of the Gladiator compared to other pickups off road is the packaging. Impressive front and rear approach/departure angles and a high breakover combine with a ample suspension travel to make it much more capable than any competitor.

Inside, the Gladiator is contemporary, fresh and very functional. Materials are appropriate for the class and Jeep claims that the interior is waterproof. A large touch-screen dominates the design, but there are traditional analog gauges as well. The switchgear has logical placement and a robust feel. Apple Car Play and Android Auto support are standard and the addition of blind-spot alert is amazing considering the doors (and side mirrors) come off.

The upright front seats provide decent comfort and enough support to hold you in place off road. Rear seats are a bit less accommodating in terms of comfort, but at least leg and head room is exceptional. Getting in and out can be a bit of a challenge because of the tall step-in height. Also, the doors, aren't as large or substantial as competitors because of their removable design.

Interior noise levels can be high -- especially on soft-top models. Fitted with the hard top, noise levels are acceptable but higher than in most competitors. A tilt-and-telescope steering column helps drivers get comfortable behind the wheel and outward visibly is quite good. Towing capacity for most models is 6,500 pounds, but max. capacity is 7,650 on the Gladiator Sport.

The 5-foot bed is par for the compact pickup class, though it seems to have a slightly higher load-in height. The rear seat cushions fold up to reveal a standard open storage bin. Also available is a lockable bin. Otherwise interior storage is scant, highlighted by a couple of bins in the center console and mesh door map "pockets."

One additional note, Gladiator offers an impressive array of top options and overall configurations. As noted, the doors are removable and the windshield folds. There are two top options: A hard top with several removable sections and a canvas convertible top that is completely removable.

Bottom Line -- In an instant, Gladiator reshaped the compact pickup segment. Not only did it infuse style and attitude, but also capability with impressive towing ratings and, of course, off-road chops. Like the Wrangler upon which it is based, Gladiator is a masterpiece of engineering and packaging that proves to be significantly more driver friendly than you'd expect. The long wheelbase proves to be somewhat of a detriment in tight spaces and the price ... well, let's just say you get that back in resale value.

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.