Words by Jennifer Jensen
Photos by Jessica Voruda
Just saying that name conjures up all sorts of images of off-roading prowess, mountain climbing, trail-blazing badass-ness.
In my mind’s-eye, those images are also usually of a Jeep with no top, covered in mud, dirt or sand and four doors.
Not a pickup truck.
But that’s exactly what the Gladiator is, a Jeep pickup truck. But a Jeep it remains.
Jeep used to have a pickup truck back in the ‘60s through the ‘80s. It was initially called the Gladiator and then, after 1971, the J-Series.
It wasn’t until late in 2004 when the Gladiator name returned in the form of a concept vehicle.
That Gladiator gave a little sneak peek to the new Wrangler that came out for the 2007 model year. It featured a 4-cylinder diesel paired with a manual transmission but never made it into production.
Then, at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, Jeep unveiled the production ready Gladiator. Sitting on the same chassis as the Jeep Wrangler (JL), the Gladiator went on sale in 2019.
Even though the Gladiator has been around for a couple of years now, this was my first time behind the wheel.
But I wasn’t going to drive just any Gladiator; this Gladiator was equipped with a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6, the new engine option for 2021. This engine is good for 260 horsepower and a beefy 442 lb-ft of sand-tossing torque.
That diesel is a hefty unit that adds a few (hundred) pounds over the front axle and takes away some of the space for the fuel tank by adding a 5.1 gallon diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank right next to it.
The tradeoff is an improvement in fuel economy backed up by all that torque. EPA estimates rate the diesel Gladiator at 22 city, 28 highway and a combined 24 mpg. In our time with the Gladiator we observed 22.7 mpg including time on the highway, city streets and a bit of soft-roading.
The diesel V6 is paired with a TorqueFlite 8HP75 eight-speed automatic transmission and, unlike the concept from way back in 2004 it is not available with a manual transmission.
Even though the Gladiator shares its underpinnings with the Wrangler, it is bigger in several key areas. Especially length.
The Gladiator measures 51.2-inches longer than a two-door Wrangler and 29.6-inches longer than a four-door Wrangler.
The Gladiator’s wheelbase is also 18.9-inches longer than the four-door Wrangler.
That difference provides huge strides in ride quality. The longer wheelbase translates to a less bouncy ride than in the Wrangler.
The Gladiator is also more than 500 pounds heavier than a four-door Wrangler. That’s before ticking the box for the diesel.
What remains unchanged is vehicle width and both the front and rear track. That means the Gladiator can still sneak through tight masses of trees or rocks when venturing off the beaten path.
The Gladiator is clearly a Jeep and it even garners the fabled “Jeep Wave” when passing other Wranglers or Gladiators. In fact, the window sticker states that Jeep Wave Membership is the first standard item. Cute.
The round headlights, vertical grille, tall and narrow profile are all elegantly crafted into the body of the Gladiator.
The pickup box isn’t huge, but it is usable. It measures 60.3-inches long by 56.8-inches wide (at it’s maximum) so you won’t be tossing 8-foot sheets of plywood or sheetrock in there without leaving the tailgate down, but for everyday use it is a very handy space to have. Especially with a cover over it like ours had.
On the inside the theme is clearly utility and functionality.
The window switches are mounted on the center dash below the controls for the HVAC. Those switches are flanked by a 12-volt outlet on the left and USB ports on the right.
The HVAC controls are intuitive and very easy to use and in that set of switches and buttons is a defeat button for the auto stop/start functionality. Nice.
Our Overland tester came with the optional 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment screen that looks like it was meant to be there, unlike in many other vehicles where an optional larger screen looks like an aftermarket add on.
This upgraded system includes an Alpine sound system that does a decent job hiding the ever-present wind noise. It also includes something called, “Off-Road Pages” that shows things such as pitch, roll, steering angle, and all of the operating temperatures of the engine.
These bonus screens are great when you are traversing unpaved roads…or no road whatsoever. The GPS system is pinpoint accurate with your complete latitude and longitude location.
The rest of the dash is rubbery but not unpleasant to touch. The vents are solid and work well.
There is enough room in the back seats for full-size adults and those seats flip down easily at the pull of a strap.
Cup holders abound in the back seating area as well with two on the floor and two more in a flip down center armrest.
We had the optional Freedom Top 3-piece Hard Top. The two pieces over the front of the cabin are very simple and easy to remove. They are lightweight and with a pickup bed you can just toss them in there when not locked in place.
The back roof piece requires more effort but is still relatively lightweight and can be removed by one person.
My biggest gripe about the interior is the cable on the lower portion of the front door. When the door is closed the cable doesn’t drop down to hang innocently out of the way. Instead it stands firm in its space and accosts any leg that ventures near it.
It’s a minor complaint and a fair trade for doors that are completely removable.
Fire up the diesel engine and a cute little graphic of a Jeep drives across the bottom of the screen in between the tach and speedo. Like the real Gladiator, this little animated version can tackle some steep terrain.
Put the Gladiator in reverse and a graphic of a Gladiator pops up on the same screen with highlights showing any obstacles that might be in your way.
There is a traditional PRNDL shift lever right next to the transfer case shifter. Pull it back into drive and you are on your way.
As mentioned earlier, the ride is smoother in the Gladiator than in Wrangler models, but it is still rougher than in many comparable vehicles.
Third-generation heavy-duty Dana 44 front and rear axles combined with a front and rear five-link suspension system mean this Jeep can take some serious off-road abuse. That setup can also quell potholes and rough railroad crossing with ease but there is a firmness that reminds you of the true nature of the Gladiator.
The diesel is smooth in its delivery of all that torque. The engine responds to throttle inputs with the accuracy of a trained sharpshooter. Which is more than can be said for the steering.
Jeep steering has never been razor sharp but it’s slower response also means if you’re bounding over rocks the wheel won’t be jerking your arms out of their sockets. Again, a trade off that is worth it if you are going to use the Gladiator for its true purpose.
There is also a forward facing camera that can be turned on when off-road to see obstacles ahead. It is aimed just right and comes in very handy, especially if your nose is pointed skyward and you can’t quite see the road over the hood.
Driving around town the Gladiator’s elevated ride height helps provide a panoramic view of the road and surrounding traffic. It’s actually a surprisingly nice place to be.
The Overland trim is geared more towards citified folk with tires that provide a little more suppleness and a lot less grip. Because of that we didn’t venture too far of the beaten path.
That being said, the four-wheel drive system did wonders pulling us through some spring mud while clawing our way over hills on a local trail. It is clear that this Gladiator could easily handle just about anything we threw under its capable chassis. Just make sure you have tires that are equally adept before you go on any serious adventures.
The Jeep Gladiator is a serious off-road package wrapped in an attractive design that has a storied history behind it. Adding the new diesel engine to the mix makes it even more attractive.
Better fuel economy, gobs of torque, and ease of modulation make this engine a great choice. It would be even better if the diesel came with a manual option.
The biggest detriment to the diesel is the cost of entry. Select the box on your Jeep order form and your bank account will drop by an additional $6,000 – $4,000 for the engine and $2,000 for the mandatory 8-speed auto.
Our Gladiator Overland started at $40,395 but by the time all the options were tallied the as-tested price of the vehicle you see here was $61,435. Not what you would call inexpensive.
For that price you do get one of the most capable off-roaders available today. You also get a vehicle that is easy and fun to drive around town, has plenty of space in the cabin for four adults, and a very usable, if small, pickup bed.
Just make sure to practice your peace signs and steering wheel waves because every other Wrangler and Gladiator driver out there will make sure to say hello as you pass each other on the street.