V8 power finally returns to Jeep’s elemental off-roader.
The infamous off-road haven of Moab, Utah, is near and dear to the hearts of off-road enthusiasts. For years, the picturesque backdrop has challenged drivers and their four-wheel-drive SUVs like few other places can. For Jeep, though, Moab is home to the annual Easter Jeep Safari and serves as the perfect opportunity for the now 80-year-old company to interact with its customers and show off concepts that hint at future production.
Case in point: Last year, Jeep unveiled a Wrangler concept packing a Hemi V8 to tantalize its loyal evangelists. One year later, I'm here in Moab driving the production-ready Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392. And after just a few jam-packed hours behind the wheel, I can share that this Wrangler has a bigger personality than any other JL available today, at least until the plug-in 4xe hits the market in the coming months.
A Long Time Coming
Jeep finally shoving a V8 into its favorite child was an inevitable move. For some time now, customers have been V8-swapping Wranglers in the aftermarket, building some truly special four-wheelers. These swaps can end up costing over $100,000, with varying levels of warranty coverage after completion. With that context, the Wrangler 392's $74,995 starting price doesn't sound so egregious. A full factory warranty and a hell-raising V8 alone should be enough for customers to place orders left and right.
Under the hood is a 6.4-liter V8 making a rowdy 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet. It pairs to an eight-speed automatic transmission (no manual option available), with steering wheel-mounted paddles shifters, which is a first for the Wrangler.
Jeep finally shoving a V8 into its favorite child was an inevitable move.
The 392 recipe gets a little spicier with a standard active exhaust mode, beefed-up frame to handle the extra power, and a very impressive model-specific hood scoop that feeds the engine air while diverting water away when wading through water. Jeep gave the 392 a one-inch lift compared to other Rubicon models, and stiffened the front suspension by ten percent, while actually softening the rear suspension by 20 percent. According to the engineers, this was the best setup for ride quality and handling. Fox high-performance shocks sit at all four corners, covered by standard 17-inch wheels wrapped in 33-inch BF Goodrich off-road tires.
In many ways, the 392 is a different animal, without straying too far from the standard Rubicon’s DNA. I'll pass along the words of the 392's chief engineer: “This is not a high-speed desert runner like the TRX; we're limited to 99 miles per hour with the tires. This is a Rubicon above all else.”
From Pavement To Dirt
Those words stayed with me as I fired up the V8 for the first time. Our half-day drive would be overwhelmingly spent off-road, with a mere 30 minutes spent on the pavement getting to and from the trail.
Before setting off, we aired down the tires to a trail-appropriate, and I also took the chance to flick the active exhaust button on. On the highway and with a clear 50 yards in front of me, I smashed the go-pedal. The relationship between the crescendoing eight-cylinder rumble and the fat grin on my face was immediate. Having driven each of the Wrangler's other engine variants, I can say with confidence that the 392 is exceptionally quicker on the road. The throttle is much touchier than the four-and-six-cylinder Jeeps, too, providing an immediacy that's just as surprising as it is fun.
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If there is a weak spot for the 392, it's that the rest of the on-road experience (apart from the engine) is identical to a standard Rubicon. There is still a dead zone in the steering large enough to fit a Moab boulder, and the body still rolls significantly with any sort of aggressive cornering. “This is not a TRX.”
Those shortcomings quickly left my mind as our convoy began climbing Moab's wonderful Behind The Rocks trail. This stretch of off-road heaven changes the pace on you frequently with large slippery rock obstacles sitting between long stretches of soft sand. The dichotomy of low-traction, hard acceleration, and slow, steady crawls keeps the heart pumping at all times.
Right away I was impressed by how manageable the 392 was with the transfer case in four-low. Aiding this is an Off-Road Plus setting, which softens the accelerator even further when crawling. The same car that was just a touchy, eager speed demon on the road suddenly became tame and controllable in the tough stuff – this is the result of fantastic engine calibration on behalf of the engineers.
The Jeep's biggest test of the day was a double-stacked steep climb that really made sure the skid plates were doing their job. As the video below demonstrates, the 392's abundant low-end torque and locking axles made the obstacle look easy (even with a novice like me behind the wheel).
With hours of rocky terrain conquered, our test culminated in the best way possible for this SUV: a four-mile stretch of soft sand dunes. In four-high, traction control off, and rear axle locked, I got the damn thing as sideways as my sweaty palms would let me.
The V8 roared back into life with big helpings of throttle, this time accompanied by a sandy rooster trail that shot yards behind the rear tires. While I was lucky enough to be among the first to have this experience in the 392, many lucky owners will soon be having the same fun, reassuring themselves that their rather expensive Wrangler was worth every penny.
Despite some handling setbacks, and what will certainly be abhorrent fuel economy ratings when they arrive, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 is a total riot. The serene trails of Moab, Utah are about to get a whole lot louder.
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Gallery: 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392: First Drive Review
2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392