2021 Jeep Wrangler 392 review: High-speed off-road high jinks
It's a very weird sensation: Here I am behind the wheel of a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon SUV, and I've just chirped the tires and rocketed to 60 mph in less than five seconds. It's unnatural. And I love it.
It's been 40 years since the 1981 Jeep CJ had a 5.0-liter V8 under the hood, producing a mere 125 horsepower. Times certainly have changed -- the 2021 Wrangler Rubicon 392 uses a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 with a stonking 470 hp and 470 pound-feet of torque. It makes for heart-pounding, head-tossing, seat belt-locking and maniacal laugh-inducing fun. But there are still a few issues with this otherwise thrilling package.
When I start the 392, it defaults to the wake-the-neighbors loud setting, so right away I know it means business. Around town, the V8 burbles and grumbles, the eight-speed automatic transmission quietly working in the background. When I reach a long straight on a back road, I switch to the paddle shifters (in a Jeep!) and floor it. The nose rises up, my head snaps back and the full-time four-wheel-drive system gets the power down to the 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 tires. After around 4.5 seconds, I'm at 60 mph. Goodness.
Slowing down is a much more harrowing experience. The 392 has the same size rotors and calipers as a standard Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and boy do I want something more capable of handling this SUV's power -- you need to stop much sooner than you think. This is one case where I'd gladly opt for larger wheels if it means fitting bigger brakes behind them.
I definitely want better steering, too. Jeep Wranglers are pretty vague on their best days; add in a ton of power and the 392 is downright ponderous. This is sort of to be expected given the Wrangler's architecture -- it's a 5,000-pound box designed to go just about anywhere. The 392 is seriously quick in a straight line, but a corner-carver it is not.
The Wrangler 392 has a 1-inch lift over a Rubicon and a 2-inch lift compared to the standard Jeep Wrangler, so its off-road geometry is slightly better. Curiously, the 392's ground clearance is actually a half-inch lower than it is on the Rubicon -- 10.3 inches compared to 10.8. The 392 has front and rear locking differentials, a disconnecting sway bar and a two-speed transfer case. The 392 has Jeep's Selec-Trac transfer case with a 2.72 low range, and once the math is done with the 3.73:1 final drive ratio in the Dana 44 axles, you come out with an impressive crawl ratio of 48:1. A standard Rubicon has a ratio of 77.2:1, but remember, that's just a representation of how much the torque is multiplied through the axles before it hits the ground. Since I've got 470 lb-ft, the 392 can still rock crawl with the best of 'em.
However, if you're expecting the Wrangler 392 to go bombing through desert whoops at 50 mph like it's a Ford F-150 Raptor, you can forget it. The Wrangler's Fox shocks are tuned to handle higher speed, but the 392 can only handle 15 mph to 20 mph in the whoops before you max out the suspension's travel. It's way too easy to outdrive the shocks' capabilities. An aftermarket long-travel kit with piggyback reservoirs would definitely be my first upgrade if I owned one.
As I approach some steep dunes, I press the Off-Road Plus button and calibrate it for Sand, which adjusts the throttle, transmission and traction control. I can also lock the rear diff in four-wheel drive high should it become necessary. The dunes all have whoops at the bottom, so I can't carry too much speed. But once I'm out of them, it's hammer down and the 392 easily scrambles to the top. Here, I can use the forward-facing camera to get a peek at what's on the other side of the dune before barreling down to the next one.
And that's the delight of the 392. The standard Rubicon often just doesn't have the power to accelerate up dunes and other soft, scratchy hills unless momentum is carried across the lower part of the terrain. With the 392 I can baby the Wrangler until it's safe and still make it to the top like a boss. This is the Jeep I want in the dunes.
I feel like I can climb every mountain in the 392, and I could likely ford every stream if I could find one out here in the desert. The 392 has a trick intake system that can flush out 15 gallons of water per minute. It's safe to ford 32.5 inches of water, even if the water initially comes up over the hood. And should the hood scoop get blocked by mud or snow, there is a secondary path for the air to enter the engine. I'll need to wait for monsoon season to try this out.
Visually there isn't much to distinguish the 392 from a standard Rubicon save for some bronze accents, requisite badging, a thicker steering wheel and some more aggressively bolstered seats. The same Uconnect infotainment system is found inside, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on an 8.4-inch color touchscreen. Uconnect is easy to use and a Roadshow favorite. I love Jeep's off-road pages with information on pitch and roll, power distribution, temperatures and GPS coordinates with altitude.
My tester also has with the fancy-pants Sky One-Touch power soft top. It may be called one-touch, but the button needs to be held the whole time for the top to retract, and it takes 17 seconds to do so. It's a nice upgrade, but the standard soft top is pretty easy to operate. Well, easy for a Jeep. Taking the top down, the windows out and the doors off is not exactly a quick process. Oh, and word to the wise, be sure to close the top if you leave the 392 for any period of time in the desert sun. The black leather seats can get quite toasty.
As is to be expected, all this crazy power will cost you. The 392 is the most expensive of all Wranglers, starting at the whopping price of $74,995 including $1,495 for destination. That's $31,025 more than a base Rubicon. My tester with the upgraded convertible top, trailer tow package and forward-facing camera comes to an incredible $78,545. Yowza.
It's also worth mentioning you can get a crate 392 engine from Mopar and all the necessary accoutrements for right around $19,000 if you want to go the DIY route, but that's not an option for most of us and there isn't any kind of factory warranty on parts you install yourself.
Hmm, I suppose I should mention fuel economy, not that anyone's buying a V8-powered anything with efficiency in mind. The EPA rates the 392 at 13 mpg city, 17 mpg highway and 14 mpg combined; after a week of testing, I'm seeing 13.3. And you know what? I don't even care. The 392 might be flawed, expensive and thirsty but it offers silly thrills you won't find anywhere else.