- Improved fuel economy
- Better off-road capability
- Better steering
- Reduced payload and towing capacity
- Leaky soft top
- Scary towing experience
Character and heritage are as much Jeep’s stock and trade as off-road capability. “It’s a Jeep thing” can be as much praise as it can be damnation, though, depending on who’s saying it and why. The 2021 Jeep Gladiator has gotten better at being a Jeep, but it’s hardly better at being a truck.
View Other 2021 Truck Of The Year Contenders And Finalists Here
The Gladiator’s repeat invitation to our Truck of the Year competition hinged on a pair of important new options: a 260-hp, 442-lb-ft 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 and a desert-bashing suspension. Although not offered together, the EcoDiesel engine and Mojave trim level each bring impressive capability to the Gladiator line. Both, however, come with compromises to its ability to do truck things.
The diesel engine brings much-needed low-end torque to the Gladiator’s repertoire, making the truck not only empirically quicker but also more comfortable to drive. It gets up and moves off the line better, it gets up to freeway speeds a full second quicker than the standard gas V-6, and it passes with ease at highway speeds. It does all of this while bumping the Gladiator to best-in-class city mpg and tied for best highway mpg. It’s just too bad Jeep charges you $6,000 for the privilege of paying more for diesel at fewer fueling locations.
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The new Mojave trim level and its high-performance suspension, meanwhile, give the truck a whole new dimension of off-road capability: speed. Able to absorb enormous impacts without fear of damage or loss of control, the Mojave is an absolute riot off-road in any conditions and gives up a miniscule amount of rock-crawling capability to the Rubicon trim.
Both versions of the Gladiator come at the expense, however, of both payload and towing capacity. Be it the diesel engine’s weight and cooling needs or the Mojave’s soft suspension, each gives up hundreds of pounds of payload capacity and up to 1,000 pounds of towing capacity.
Worse, the towing experience with either version can only be described as scary and, frankly, bordering on dangerous. Connected to a 5,200-pound, 23-foot Airstream Flying Cloud travel trailer (comfortably under the trucks’ 6,000- to 6,500-pound limits), both Gladiators struggled mightily to maintain control on anything but perfectly smooth, straight asphalt with zero wind or traffic.
Any alteration to perfect conditions sent the trailer swaying across the lane and even out of it. The Gladiators simply could not control the trailer over bumpy pavement, in windy conditions, or in the wash of other large vehicles. Not the trailer brake-equipped diesel or the wide-track (but no trailer brake) Mojave.
I experienced more trailer anti-sway stability control intervention in a one-hour freeway drive behind the wheel of the Gladiator than I have in the entirety of my 12-year vehicle testing career. Every judge who trailered with a Gladiator experienced at least one near miss with an 18-wheeler when the trailer nearly jumped out of its lane and the Gladiator did nothing to stop it. Not a single judge ever wanted to trailer with a Gladiator again.
This was a surprise to us, as we had no such issue towing a 3,160-pound trailer or a 4,000-pound trailer with the Gladiator at last year’s Truck of the Year competition. We would strongly recommend anyone planning to tow a larger trailer with a Gladiator invest in a weight-distributing hitch.
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We reached out to Jeep about this alarming development. The company declined to comment.
“That’s the story of the Gladiator,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said. “It’s good but flawed. I took it through a car wash, and water leaked in. That’s just totally inexcusable.”
Although we appreciate the diesel engine, Mojave trim level, and the serious improvements made to the formerly wandering steering, we cannot overlook the reduced ability to do actual truck stuff.
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