July 01, 2021
By Jonathan Hanson
The EcoDiesel-powered Jeep Gladiator Rubicon pickup does not come with a dead pedal for the driver’s left foot. This stunning oversight nearly spoiled any positive reactions I might have otherwise had to the vehicle.
Okay, bear with me here. My axiom for any equipment review is that it must include some criticism. There is no such thing as a perfect consumer product, and a write-up that is nothing but fawning encomiums always strikes me as advertorial rather than editorial. Who trusts the conclusions in a review that can’t find a single thing to critique on a product—especially, say, one as complex as a turbodiesel 4-wheel-drive pickup?
But I have to tell you, finding stuff I didn’t like about the Gladiator was a challenge.
The general aspects and performance of Jeep’s long-anticipated pickup are well known. It’s strictly (for now anyway) a four-door on a 137-inch wheelbase, a full 19 inches longer than that of its enclosed Wrangler Unlimited parent, with a bed five feet long and nearly as wide at its maximum. The separate, fully boxed chassis is beefed-up and unique to the pickup and not merely extended. I balanced an early Gladiator on a crossover hill with the left front and right rear wheels in the air, and the bed barely twisted a half-inch out of true. The Rubicon package lends world-beating off-road capability: front and rear locking differentials, a 4:1 transfer case, and a driver-disconnectable front anti-roll bar (to give it its proper name and ignoring the “Sway Bar” on the switch). Simply put, no other vehicle I’ve ever experienced, even the legendary non-U.S.-market Toyota 70 Series Land Cruiser or the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen Professional—each with its own front and rear lockers—can match a Rubicon-optioned Jeep over truly terrifying terrain.
The big news for this review is, of course, the 3.0-liter V6 “EcoDiesel,” a substantially revised version of the DOHC 24-valve, direct-injection unit available in the Ram pickup for several years. Manufactured by VM Motori, its iron block is 15 pounds lighter than the previous engine, and power is up in this application to 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque, most available from a barely off-idle 1,400 rpm to beyond 2,800 rpm. The only transmission available—or needed, to be honest—is the superb ZF eight-speed.
The first thing I did after picking up the truck was to calibrate the fuel-economy function of the Gladiator’s computer. I did this the old-fashioned way, with a careful top-up of the tank, a trip-log record of miles covered, and another fill-up. I found the readout to be accurate within three percent. Over a subsequent few days of in-town driving (with plenty of, er, research-oriented acceleration runs) combined with a full day of strenuous low-range exploration, I recorded a bit over 23 miles per gallon. On a long stretch of 65-mph highway, the readout toggled between 30 and 31 mpg; at 75 mph, it hovered right around 27 mpg. For a 5,000-pound truck (factoring the extra weight of the diesel) on 33-inch all-terrain tires, I consider that exceptional.
Cynics like to point out how many gazillion miles of this fuel savings you’ll need to make up the $4,000 premium of the diesel. To my mind, they’re missing the point; the fact is, a turbodiesel engine with gobs of low-down torque is simply a better engine for a 4-wheel-drive truck than modern gasoline engines with torque peaks north of 4,000 rpm. Forty percent better fuel economy is just a bonus.
On that full day of low-range use on an advanced four-wheel-drive route in Redington Pass east of Tucson, the Gladiator’s combination of engine, transmission, suspension compliance, gearing, and lockers essentially yawned its way over any obstacle I pointed it at, including many around which lesser vehicles had forged timid/prudent escape routes. In first-low, tectonic plates move faster than the Gladiator—exactly what I want inching over rocker-panel-tall boulders. My chief worry was the reduced breakover angle associated with that long wheelbase, but surprisingly, I only, shall we say, burnished the (inadequate) factory skid plate twice. It was an exceptional performance from a stock four-door pickup.
All kidding about criticism aside, there’s an aspect of the Gladiator that remains the Achilles’ heel of the entire Wrangler/Gladiator line: payload. The highest payload available in a gas-powered Gladiator is a reasonable 1,700 pounds. Due to the extra weight of the diesel engine, that’s cut to 1,325 pounds for the EcoDiesel Gladiator Sport and to a scant 1,075 pounds for the EcoDiesel Gladiator Rubicon—the latter almost certainly due to the more compliant suspension. Put four people in the Gladiator Rubicon and you’ll have little more than 400 pounds left for actual cargo. Personally, if I planned to put something like an Alu-Cab camper on the diesel Gladiator Rubicon, I’d have no problem simply installing heavier-duty springs and shocks on the rear to get more carrying capacity but retaining the advantages of the Rubicon package. Whether that might void the warranty I cannot say.
Likewise, the EcoDiesel Gladiator tows less than its gasoline counterpart: 6,500 pounds versus 7,650 pounds. Surprisingly, Jeep engineers say this is a factor of engine cooling rather than power or chassis. A turbodiesel’s radiator needs a lot of fresh air, and that seven-slot grill will only allow so much through it. In any case, even the lower limit gives you the ability to easily tow, say, a 20-foot Airstream Caravel.
Finally, keep in mind that the EcoDiesel, like all new diesel engines sold in the United States, requires Ultra-Low-Sulphur diesel fuel, which is not yet universally available outside our borders and those of Europe, although the situation is improving rapidly, even in Africa and South America.
Several years ago, in a book devoted to vehicle-dependent expedition travel, I nominated the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited as America’s own world-class expedition vehicle. The Gladiator—especially in turbodiesel form—only adds versatility to that stellar line. Interested in more great off-road content, gear reviews and overland adventures? Be sure to pick up the latest issue of Wheels Afield today.
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