The last time Jeep shoehorned a V8 engine under the hood of its flagship off-road machine, a young Tom Cruise was climbing into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat and flying it off the deck of an aircraft carrier into an endless sky of cinematic superstardom.
Flash forward four decades to 2022 and a lot has changed — that is, unless we’re talking about Hollywood or the Jeep. An older, wiser and infinitely wealthier Cruise has once again returned to theaters to star in the sequel to the most successful Navy recruitment film of all time. At the same time, lurking on the lot at your local dealer, an over-muscled icon growls to life, the tonal terror of its exhaust rumbling back through the years to sync up with the long-departed CJ-7 Renegade’s own aural emissions.
Jeep fans have been clamoring for an eight-cylinder edition of the Wrangler to match that of its ancestor for nearly as long as parent company Chrysler’s revitalized Hemi engine has been on the order sheet of siblings like the Grand Cherokee and the Commander. But after spending some time behind the wheel of a 2022 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392, it’s abundantly clear why it took so many years for the automaker to offer a full nuclear-option with its anachronistic 4×4.
While there’s no doubt that the Rubicon 392’s underhood beef injection gives it unprecedented levels of grin-inducing brawn, that same steroidal situation proves that the universe is nothing if not balanced by accentuating the worst traits of the Wrangler platform. Whether that matters to you will depend entirely on why you’re attracted to the idea of an open-air off-road machine that is constantly pushing you to make a bad decision that its primeval stilt-walking chassis will almost certainly not help you recover from.
The Return of the V8 Jeep Wrangler
Lest you think I’m exaggerating about the Wrangler Rubicon 392’s propensity for mayhem, let’s do a quick review of its spec sheet. The SUV boasts a 6.4-liter V8 that’s been tuned to provide 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. For those keeping score, that’s 175 additional lb-ft of twist more than the next torquiest, gas-only Wrangler drivetrain, and 185 more ponies than the Jeep’s standard V6. Only the plug-in hybrid Wrangler 4xe matches the 392 thanks to the ministrations of its electric motor.
Jeep’s trail master struggles to keep a straight tiller on asphalt even under the best of circumstances, and I can assure you that nearly doubling up on engine output doesn’t come close to qualifying as fair sailing. Throw in the fact that the Rubicon 392 rides on enormous 33-inch all-terrain tires (or 35-inch BFGoodrich KO2s with the Xtreme Recon package installed), whose knobs and bobs are better suited for throwing mud than maintaining a steady course on pavement, and that its solid front axle occasionally shrugs when asked to parse a steering command, and you’ve got a general template for power-induced pandemonium.
Unleash the Off-Road Excess
That the Rubicon 392 is only available with the long-wheelbase, four-door Unlimited body style does mitigate some of the full-throttle panic, but really it’s like handing a cheat sheet to a dog sitting for the LSATs. Hopelessly overmatched, the Wrangler platform responds to each and every burst of acceleration by attempting to roar madly off in all directions, the ferocious bark of its quad-tipped sport exhaust sending out a plea for help as it barrels towards almost certain doom.
No Wrangler was meant to see the other side of 60 mph in just four seconds, and spending any one of those watch ticks strapped in behind the steering wheel quickly convinces even the most diehard enthusiast of that fact. The Rubicon 392 is an agent of chaos, the all-snarling, all-crushing harbinger of universal entropy, and the unassailable embodiment of the certainty that the center will not hold.
Who is this four-wheel-drive bludgeon aimed at? Ostensibly, it’s forged for the same off-road crowd that has always enjoyed the Rubicon’s exceptional go-anywhere acumen, but who also needed the existential dread that goes with pairing rocket-sled acceleration with penny-farthing handling. Just as rugged as more responsible editions of the Rubicon, the 392 adds the requirement of extreme throttle discipline when traversing loose or slippery terrain, lest one trigger an avalanche, rock slide or mud tsunami. Unleashed on a reasonably flat stretch of desert tarmac (perhaps the least perilous of all potential Rubicon 392 environments), the SUV’s functional hood scoop will gladly gulp down dusty air as you aim, flat-footed, for oblivion — or the Wrangler’s 112 mph top speed, whichever comes first.
The First and Last of Its Kind
Is it possible to drive and survive the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392’s over-the-top propensities? Of course. Disable the temptations of its dual-mode exhaust, lay off the right pedal, and the Jeep putters along, its eight cylinders slashed to four by a variable displacement system whose confused blats and whumps take much of the commotion out of the commute.
Without the distractions of drivetrain histrionics, it’s easier to focus on the areas of the Jeep that raise an eyebrow given its $80,000 starting price: a stereo system that struggles to make itself heard over road and wind noise, the unpainted interior panels of the Wrangler’s removable hardtop, the fact that it returns 17 mpg highway (on a long, downhill slope with a strong tail wind). These are the costs that ding the spirit alongside the 392’s hefty monthly payment, to say nothing of the focus required to reign in the wanderings of its gumball tires and lollipop axles.
Jeep is fully aware of the Rubicon 392’s foibles and affectations. A caricature of performance intended to shift the conversation away from the well-received Bronco and its upcoming muscle-shirt Raptor model, this is not a vehicle built for everyone, nor even for most people. Someone willing to pay nearly double the Wrangler’s base price to triple down on the worst aspects of the SUV’s on-road persona is in possession of a personality that prizes absurd straight line speed, dune-bashing suspension bravado and a notarized will over any other concerns.
At the same time the first and last of its kind, the Rubicon 392 is a ferocious dinosaur whose earth-shaking bellows foretell its own coming extinction as the world turns away from tar pits towards an electrified future.
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