After more than 20 years of dominating mid-size pickup truck sales, the Toyota Tacoma might be overtaken by the epic 2021 Jeep Gladiator.
The Jeep Gladiator and the Toyota Tacoma are both outstanding midsized trucks in an already well-supplied segment, but how each got there couldn’t be much more different. The Tacoma is perhaps the most popular small/mid-sized truck over the last 25 years, but what might shock you is that its DNA dates all the way back to the 1960s. Its rugged, practical, and affordable package continues to impress, but it’s never truly had a rival as longed for or as well regarded as the new Jeep Gladiator. Unlike the old SJ series Gladiator, this new truck is as skilled off-road as practically any modern SUV and it’s by far the most iconically styled option on the market. Is Tacoma going to continue to be the most popular mid-size pickup on the market? Or will the 2021 Jeep Gladiator teach the Toyota Tacoma a few new truck tricks?
Toyota introduced this generation of the Tacoma in 2016 and some 5 years later it’s still going strong. Under the hood, buyers can opt for a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder that makes a paltry 159 horsepower or a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 278 horsepower. A 6-speed transmission is available in both automatic and manual forms. Power can be sent to all four wheels or just the rear depending on the configuration. Combining the auto with the V6 and rear-wheel-drive only gets the best mileage rated at 19 city and 24 highway for a combined rating of 21 mpg. Perhaps the biggest difference between these rivals on paper is price. The 2021 Toyota Tacoma starts at just $26,400.
The 2021 Jeep Gladiator can’t be had for any less than $33,715 and while the Tacoma can be optioned just up over $40,000 when fully equipped, the Jeep in its ultimate form will cost buyers $65,000. Of course, that extra cash does get you more in terms of standard equipment. For example, a 285 horsepower 3.6-liter V6 is standard across the lineup, but those who need more stump-pulling power can opt for a diesel V6 that makes 260 horsepower and 442 ft-lb of torque. Gas-powered Gladiators transmit torque through a standard 6-speed manual or an optional 8-speed automatic, while the diesel can only be had with the automatic. Every single Gladiator is 4-wheel-drive too. The diesel gets 22 in the city and 28 on the highway for a combined rating of 24.
The surface you’re on dictates the pace of play between these two trucks. It’s clear after the first few miles of cruising around town that the Toyota Tacoma is the more refined errand-runner. It’s considerably more comfortable on tarmac and pavement than the Jeep Gladiator. Steering and braking feel is more subtle. Handling is similar between both trucks and if anything the Jeep is a bit more eager in a straight line. The downside of the American Gladiator pickup is that its old-school looks seem to trickle down to its suspension and handling on the road. It feels like an old-school truck on pavement, especially on poor road conditions where the ride feels rougher than the Tacoma would.
Of course, things change when the road turns into dirt, sand, or mud. The Tacoma is still a capable truck that won’t have you feeling worried or unsettled by any means, but it won’t provide the same level of confidence that the Gladiator does. That’s the beauty of the Jeep and where it truly comes into its own. Put it on a trail and it’s clear that it was designed for just such a workload. Where the suspension is a bit stiff for the road, it’s perfect off of it. The standard Bridgestone all-season tires might seem like a weak link, but even they get this truck up and over all sorts of off-road obstacles. Opt for the all-terrain Jeep Gladiator variant and it’s even more potent. Keep in mind we haven’t even talked about the 33-inch factory option available.
Toyota has done an outstanding job in its 2020 facelift update of the Tacoma with better seating and more interior features that we’ll get to shortly. That seating now features a 10-way adjustable front seat that’s more supportive than in the past. Body roll is kept to a minimum and overall comfort inside is quite high compared to most trucks in the segment, including the Jeep Gladiator. Among many things that are more attractive from inside the Tacoma are the quieter interior and the slightly better visibility. The Gladiator has more body roll and is more brutish. It’s louder inside and while the heat and air are still good, it’s not as capable as the Tacoma. Ultimately these are trucks so neither is going to be a long-haul luxury cruiser, but the Toyota wins out over most journeys.
The Jeep Gladiator is a very straightforward package that can be had in four trim levels that are very similar. The Sport is as base level as a base models get. It sports a 5-inch screen, crank windows, and manual door locks. The Overland trim bumps drivers up to a 7-inch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as some power options. Rubicon is the off-road option with 33-inch tires, locking differentials, and Fox shocks all around. Finally, there’s the Mojave which is very similarly equipped as the Rubicon, but especially formatted to go toe to toe against off-road speed freaks like the RAM Rebel or Ford Raptor.
Toyota has a much more wide-ranging selection for buyers who want a Tacoma. The first two trim levels, SR and SR5, both come standard with the 4-cylinder, but they also get Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a 7-inch infotainment screen, and a WiFi hotspot standard. The TRD Sport gets all-terrain tires, a sport-tuned suspension, and a hood-scoop among other small changes. Above that is the TRD Off-Road which gets Bilstein shocks, a lockable rear differential, 16-inch wheels with beefier tires, and an advanced off-road traction control system for four-wheel-drive models. Next up is the Limited trim which we consider the on-road luxury version of the Toyota Tacoma that comes equipped with 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, a JBL premium audio system, a 360-degree camera system, and leather upholstery. Finally, atop the range is the TRD Pro that makes the Tacoma more off-road ready than any other with an off-road camera system called “Multi-Terrain Monitor”, a thicker front skid plate, and special 16-inch wheels with all-terrain tires.
Going deep into the woods or the deserts of Moab, there’s no doubt that the 2021 Jeep Gladiator is the truck you want here. That sort of usage is pretty unusual for the average driver though and that’s why we think the 2021 Toyota Tacoma is really the better buy. Not only is it more configurable, but it’s the better driver on road and still very capable off-road. Yes, the Gladiator is the more attractive truck in terms of branding and style, but there’s a reason that Toyota has sold more than 200,000 Tacoma models in each of the last 3 years while Jeep hasn’t broken the 6-figure mark.