Even after all these years there's still something deeply evocative about a V8 in an off-road vehicle. It's hard to imagine those icons of the genre, the Range Rovers and G-Classes of this world, ever having quite the same impact without an octet of cylinders. They mean torque and response off-road with sound and performance on it - the perfect combination. It may come as some surprise, then, to learn that this Rubicon 392 is the first Jeep Wrangler with a V8 from the factory in almost 40 years.
Why now? Well, partly because they still can - and the days of putting near-480hp Hemi V8s into body-on-frame 4x4s are certainly numbered, so it would be daft not to take the opportunity. But the more significant reason for the V8 Wrangler is likely the return of the Ford Bronco. While that reimagined legend doesn't have a V8 just yet, the Desert Racer proves what's possible. And if Jeep can get a head start on its big-selling rival, then all the better.
Of course, Jeep will not officially offer the 6.4-litre Wrangler Rubicon to the UK. Given the small number of standard models sold, that's understandable, if still a tad disappointing. To get a car like this you'll have to import a left-hand drive one. This Jeep has been brought across by Clive Sutton, and it's yours ready-to-roll in the UK - taxes paid, registered, lights converted and so on - for just over £100k. Defender V8 money, in other words...
A six-figure asking price will have put some off already, no doubt - but those intrigued by the 392 concept ought to love the execution. It sits two inches higher than a standard Wrangler on unique Fox shocks (because that sounds better than Fox dampers), meaning the Rubicon towers over people, cars and small dwellings. But it isn't just for show; an increased ride height and more expensive dampers means the Wrangler is 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 metre, and beadlock wheels on proper off-road tyres. Even without the 392-specific bronze accents (see the winch hooks), there is no mistaking this for a 2.0-litre Wrangler. It could be sat stationary, not even idling, and it would be blindingly obvious this is a more serious off-roader than standard.
So we drove it exclusively on-road. Sorry. But forest frolicking isn't really the done thing with what will be a customer car. And it seems unlikely that a UK buyer will venture far off the beaten track with their £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 ain't half bad. Naturally, it doesn't cruise or corner with the panache of more familiar fast SUVs, though it's more than liveable, and if it results in driving around a little slower than you might in a Cayenne that's probably no bad thing. The shape means it's blown about a bit at motorway speeds (though 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 accommodating the Wrangler's predictable quirks quite quickly. Be slow and deliberate and the Wrangler is more than capable enough, with strong brakes, a smart automatic 'box and decent control from the uprated suspension. The off-road tyres don't have huge purchase on tarmac (who'd have thought, eh?) and there's the odd shimmy from the structure - but one thing it's not is dull. 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 comfy guiding something this large and left-hand drive around England is a mark of just how well sorted the 392 is. It's old fashioned enough to feel a bit gratuitous, but capable enough not to feel totally overawed 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 undoubtedly a richer, more authentic V8. To have an engine like this in a new car feels a rare privilege - 11mpg warts and all. Without any forced induction the sound from the 6.4 is nothing but Hemi heaven; even moderate tickles of the throttle creating a car chase soundtrack for the occupants. And anyone standing up to half a mile away. The sports exhaust introduced for the 392 always opens the valves for full fury when the throttle is buried far enough into the carpet - or it can be manually kept open the whole time. Which we recommend you do, as it's incredible: thunderous yet melodic, noise ripping through the air all the way to 6,000rpm. Predictably, torque is vast, and you'll have a riot never using more than half the available revs, although there's real performance as well; the claimed 0-62mph time of five seconds is entirely believable.
Oh yeah, and the roof comes off. The effect of which can hardly be overstated: there's really nothing to beat rumbling along in a burly Jeep, one arm on the door and one on the wheel, looking out over that vast bonnet and basking in the sun. There are half doors available as well, but they're probably best left for the summer. Regardless, there's a joy to pootling about here that's that's entirely absent elsewhere, and it's more than just having a big V8 and a huge canvas roof (even though that's quite a bit of it). Details like the Jeep silhouette on the gearstick, the enormous grab handles, the heated seats that could handle an Alaskan winter and the big box arches mean the experience is relishable even when the drive isn't. The 392 is a four-wheeled plaything, really, but one with the integrity to ensure that it's no mere trinket.
Which is why the Rubicon 392 can be so heartily recommended, even without driving it as intended. Like those dedicated track cars that are also a blast on the road, the Jeep is a joy out of its comfort zone - which is perhaps the greatest vindication of the concept possible. Yes, undeniably the Rubicon 392 is expensive and, no, the look might not be to all tastes, yet in melding old-school V8 charm with some contemporary engineering nous, Jeep has created an unforgettable 4x4. Obviously there are quicker, sleeker, ritzier ways to spend six figures on a fast SUV, but for unconventional driving enjoyment it doesn't get much better than this.
SPECIFICATION | JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON 392
Engine: 6,417cc, V8
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 476@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 470@4,300rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 seconds (est.)
Top speed: 99mph (limited for off-road tyres)
Weight: c. 2,150kg
CO2: Likely many
Price: £105,000 (import only)
1 / 13