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First Drive: 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Off-Roads Like a Four-Point-Oh

The new diesel is the off-road champ, and it isn’t bad on the street, either.

2021 Jeep® Gladiator Rubicon
Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

MALIBU, California—People often ask me how I write car reviews, and I tell them my usual modus operandi is to find a hook—the feature or aspect of the vehicle that really stands out—and then hang the story on that. Where I run into trouble is with something like this 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel test drive, which covers a vehicle that has more than one hook.

The obvious one is how much sense a diesel engine makes in an off-road Jeep. But there's also the hook of a diesel-powered pickup, which is a great idea for people who use their pickups to, y'know, do things. And then there's the plain old hook that, to a car guy like me, diesels are just cool. This is when the writing becomes a struggle: Which is the best hook?

2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Test Drive: Off-roading? You Need One of These

Off-roaders reap great benefits from Dr. Rudolf Diesel's invention. Take this particular 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel test drive: I started out my day with an off-road run on the trails at Calamigos Ranch, which is familiar territory; I've probably done 100 laps here, and most of them in Jeep Wranglers. Doing so has made me sentimental for the old 4.0-liter straight-six engine Jeep used ages ago, which had just-off-idle torque to beat the band. Most Jeeps nowadays have FCA's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which is a wonderful engine but has one serious off-road flaw: On steep obstacles, you really have to get it going before it will go. And when you're off-road, revving the engine can make things messy.

The 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel does away with that little problem. It's powered by the same 3.0-liter, turbodiesel V-6 found in the diesel-powered Wrangler, with 260 horsepower and a mighty 442 lb-ft of torque available. (As Jeep staffers will gleefully point out, that's a 73-lb-ft advantage over the four-cylinder diesel in Chevrolet's lovely Colorado.) Full twist is available between 1,400-2,800 rpm.

Off-road, the advantages are immediately obvious. The 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel can tip-toe its way over tough obstacles with the engine at idle speed or just above. If you come across something that gives it pause, just lock the differentials (assuming your Gladiator has this option) and feed in a little more power, and it'll ease over whatever is under the tires just as gently as you please. In these same circumstances, the gas-powered Gladiator requires more throttle input, which leads to more wheelspin and more drama (and I can say this for certain, because I've been in these same circumstances with Pentastar-powered Jeeps). The diesel allows more precision and finesse—think scalpel versus blunt steak knife and you'll get the idea.

Oh, and this is as good a time as any to mention the Gladiator's nose-mounted camera, which I hadn't tried before. Obviously, it comes in very handy for those steep climbs when all you can see out of the windshield is sky and you don't have a spotter outside of the car.

Of course the diesel is more fuel efficient, and that's useful, too—if you're venturing way, way, way the hell off the beaten path, the further a tank of fuel takes you, the better.

So, yes—off-road, there is no question in my mind, the diesel is the one you want.

2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Test Drive: Did Someone Say, "Towing"?

If you bought your new Gladiator to do pickup-truck things, the argument for the diesel is also pretty strong.

You might expect the diesel to give you more towing capacity, but it actually doesn't. (Towing capacity isn't just about power and torque, it's also about chassis, braking, and cooling capability, and in this case it's the latter that limits the Gladiator.) Across the Jeep Gladiator lineup, the towing champ is the gasoline-powered Gladiator Sport automatic with 4.11:1 sprint gears, at 7,650 pounds. The new 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel I test drove—which comes exclusively with an eight-speed automatic and 3:73 axles—tows 6,500 pounds in most trims, and 6,000 pounds in Rubicon form. That's a little more than the gassers in some trims and less in others. The payload capacity is slightly lower as well in most trims (1,075-1,325 pounds) owing to the engine's greater weight.

But what's good about the diesel is the way it develops power—that big wave of low-end torque makes it easy to get the power down to the ground gently. (I tend to tow living things, primarily horses, and driving gently and smoothly is of paramount importance.)

Is it the best-driving engine? Not really. Turbo lag is an issue; there's a pronounced delay between prodding the accelerator and getting an engine response. Same for foot-to-the-floor acceleration from a standing start: Stomp the pedal and there's a pause, and you can almost sense the Gladiator EcoDiesel carefully picking up its skirts before it takes off. Actually, it doesn't take off so much as it wallops you in the small of the back with a sledgehammer. Then there's another pause as the automatic changes gears, then another wallop. Pause, wallop, pause, wallop, and after four or five of these, you're doing 60 mph.

But if you're not mashing the pedal every time you want to go—and believe me, you really don't need to—both the engine and the transmission do their duty smoothly and seamlessly. Noise is minimal; you can just hear the thrum of the diesel over the wind and tire noise (of which there is no shortage in a soft-top 2021 Jeep Gladiator).

Speaking of tires, I should mention this is the first time I've driven the basic Sport model of the Gladiator, the one that wears the closest thing to street tires, and I was impressed with how well it handled. I'm used to Gladiators (and Wranglers) with big, knobby tires that make the steering soft and approximate, but this one went where I pointed it and gripped the road much better than I expected. It's something to think about if you want a Jeep Gladiator and don't plan to do much off-roading.

2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Test Drive: Worth the Money?

Back to the diesel: Would I buy one? Absolutely. I like the way diesels develop power, and the fuel economy—24 mpg in the EPA combined cycle for Sport and Overland models, versus 19 mpg for the 3.6 gasser—is a nice advantage. So is the cruising range, which is on the order of 500 miles.

Of course, it's easy for me to say the diesel is a better option, because I'm borrowing the 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel for a quick test, and I'm not buying it with my own money. Buying the diesel will add some $6,000 to the Gladiator's price ($4,000 for the engine and another $2,000 for the automatic transmission). Add in destination fee, and we're talking about $41,000-plus before you add a single option. And how likely are you to find a Gladiator at a local dealership without a single option? (Hint: Not very.)

So, we can probably rule-out the diesel based on good financial sense. We can also rule it out on towing, since the gasoline-powered Gladiator, when properly equipped, tows more. And while I think the diesel is better off-road, we can't pretend there aren't thousands of Jeepsters out there perfectly satisfied with the 3.6 engine.

What the diesel has, though, is an immeasurable cool factor. Both the Wrangler and the Gladiator just feel right with a diesel. If I was going to buy a 2021 Jeep Gladiator—which, let's face it, makes very little financial sense compared to a Chevrolet Colorado, a Ford Ranger, or a Toyota Tacoma—I'd go for the diesel. Why? Well, why not?

Hey, maybe that's the hook on which I should hang this story.

2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Pros

  • Low-rpm torque makes it a better off-roader
  • Better fuel economy and longer range
  • Cool factor

2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Cons

  • Turbo lag
  • Uneven power delivery at full throttle
  • Man, is it expensive
2021 Jeep® Gladiator Rubicon

Jeep Gladiator Sport EcoDiesel Specifications

ON SALE October 2021
PRICE $41,040 (base)
ENGINE 3.0L DOHC 24-valve V-6/260 hp @ 3,600 rpm, 442 lb-ft @ 1,400-2,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD pickup
EPA MILEAGE 22/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 218.0 x 73.8 x 75.0 in
WHEELBASE 137.3 in
WEIGHT 4,700 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 8.2 sec (est)
TOP SPEED  N/A