2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 | PH review

Even after all these years, there’s still something deeply evocative about a V8 in an off-road vehicle. It’s hard to imagine these icons of the genre, the Range Rovers and G-Classes of this world, ever having the same impact without an octet of cylinders. They mean torque and response off-road with sound and performance on – the perfect combination. So it may come as a surprise to learn that this Rubicon 392 is the first Jeep Wrangler with a factory V8 in nearly 40 years.

Why now? Well, partly because they still can – and the days of putting nearly 480bhp Hemi V8s into body-on-frame 4x4s are certainly numbered, so it’d be foolish not to seize the opportunity. But the more significant reason for the V8 Wrangler is likely the return of the Ford Bronco. Although the reworked Legend doesn’t have a V8 yet, the Desert Racer proves what’s possible. And if Jeep can get a head start on its big-selling rival, so much the better.

Of course, Jeep won’t officially offer the 6.4-litre Wrangler Rubicon to the UK. Given the small number of standard models sold, that’s understandable, if a tad disappointing. To get a car like this, you have to import a left-hand drive. Featured by Clive Sutton, this Jeep is yours ready to roll in the UK – taxes paid, registered, lights converted and so on – for just over Β£100,000. Defender V8 money, in other words…

A six-figure asking price has no doubt already put off some – but those interested in the 392 concept should love the execution. It sits two inches higher than a standard Wrangler on unique Fox shocks (because it sounds better than Fox shocks), meaning the Rubicon towers over people, cars and small homes. But it’s not just for show; an increased ride height and more expensive dampers make the Wrangler better off road. This is far, far more than just a big engine in a Jeep: there are heavy duty Dana 44 axles, the ability to disconnect roll bars, a wading depth of almost a meter and beadlock wheels on proper off-road tires. Even without the 392-specific bronze accents (see the winch hooks), there’s no mistaking that this is a 2.0-liter Wrangler. It could sit still, not even at idle, and it would be blindingly obvious that this is a more serious off-roader than standard.

So we drove it exclusively on the road. Sorry. But the game of the forest is not quite the finished product of what will become a customer car. And it seems unlikely that a British buyer will venture far off the beaten track with their Β£100,000 car. They’re in for a treat, regardless; you might expect the Wrangler to be as vague as a presidential promise, but it’s not half bad. Of course, it doesn’t cruise or corner with more familiar fast SUVs, although it’s more than lively, and if that results in you driving around a little slower than you might in a Cayenne, that’s probably not a bad thing. The shape means it blows a bit at highway speeds (although being so angular makes it easy to place), and the slow, light steering that would be a boon off-road can be a bit distant on it.

Tellingly, you end up accepting the Wrangler’s predictable quirks pretty quickly. Be slow and deliberate and the Wrangler is more than capable, with strong brakes, a smart automatic gearbox and decent control from the upgraded suspension. The all-terrain tires don’t have much purchase on tarmac (who would have thought, huh?) and there’s the odd shimmy from the texture – but one thing is it’s not boring. If not a match for the current Defender, this Wrangler is miles ahead of what was achieved with the old Works V8 dynamically, which is probably right where a 2021 Jeep should be. That it’s easy to get comfortable guiding something this big and left-hand drive around England is a sign of how well sorted the 392 is. It’s old-fashioned enough to feel a little gratuitous, but capable enough not to feel completely overwhelmed by an engine the size of a planet.

And what an engine. We’ve raved about having the 5.0-litre unit in the Land Rover, but this is arguably a richer, more authentic V8. Having an engine like this in a new car feels like a rare privilege – 11mpg warts and all. With no forced induction, the sound of the 6.4 is nothing short of Hemi heaven; even moderate tickles of the throttle create a car chase soundtrack for the occupants. And everyone standing up to half a mile away. The sports exhaust introduced for the 392 always opens the valves to full fury when the throttle is pushed far enough down the mat – or it can be kept open all the time. Which we recommend you do, because it’s incredible: thunderous yet melodic, noise that rips through the air all the way to 6,000 rpm. Predictably, torque is huge, and you’ll get a riot that never uses more than half the available revs, although there’s real performance too; the claimed 0-62mph time of five seconds is entirely believable.

Oh yeah, and the roof comes off. The impact of which can hardly be overstated: there’s really nothing to beat rumbling along in a beefy Jeep, one arm on the door and one on the steering wheel, looking out over the big hood and basking in the sun. There are also half doors, but they are probably best left for the summer. Either way, there’s a joy to tinker with here that’s completely absent elsewhere, and it’s more than just having a big V8 and a huge canvas roof (although there’s a lot of that). Details like the Jeep silhouette on the shifter, the huge grab handles, the heated seats that could handle an Alaskan winter, and the big box arches make the experience reliable even when the driving isn’t. The 392 is truly a four-wheeled toy, but one with the integrity to ensure it’s not just a trinket.

This is why the Rubicon 392 can be so highly recommended, even without driving it as intended. Like the dedicated track cars that are also a blast on the road, the Jeep is a delight outside of its comfort zone – which is perhaps the greatest vindication of the concept possible. Yes, admittedly the Rubicon 392 is expensive and, no, the looks may not be to everyone’s taste, but by combining old-school V8 charm with some modern engineering, Jeep has created an unforgettable 4×4. Obviously, there are faster, sleeker and ritzier ways to spend six figures on a fast SUV, but for unconventional driving pleasure, it doesn’t get much better than this.

SPECIFICATION | JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON 392

Engine: 6,417 cc, V8
Transfer: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 476 at 6,000 rpm
Torque (lb ft): 470 at 4,300 rpm
0-62 mph: 4.7 seconds (estimate)
Top speed: 99 mph (limited for off-road tires)
Weight: c. 2,150 kg
MPG: Have
CO2: Probably many
Award: Β£105,000 (imports only)

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