Smoke hangs in the air. Not tire smoke. That will come later. Half of California is on fire. The closest blaze to Malibu is more than 50 miles away, but the shifting winds have grayed its coastal skies, turning the air thick and bitter. White flecks of ash, like hell's own snowfall, have coated the Jeep Wrangler 392 concept's dark Granite Crystal paint and custom Red Rock leather upholstery.
The Wrangler's Hemi explodes to life and quickly settles down, idling like a 450-hp V-8 should: ba … ba … ba. It exhales through an active exhaust system with a large muffler and four tailpipes hidden below its rear bumper. Pushing a button amplifies the V-8's volume and drops its timbre a few octaves: BA … BA … BA.
The long tease is over. For years Jeep has tantalized us with dirty talk of a V-8-powered Jeep Wrangler. Now it's finally happening. Earlier this summer, in response to the introduction of the Ford Bronco, the Wrangler's first real rival in more than a decade, Jeep made it mostly official. First it unveiled the beastly 392 concept with a 6.4-liter Hemi, and then it unleashed production-ready prototypes into the wild for spy photographers to capture. They didn't miss.
It appears the production version of the concept will be a Rubicon Unlimited and wear the non-functional scooped hood from the Gladiator Mojave pickup, just as the 392 concept does. We expect the same engine under that hood as well—Fiat Chrysler's iron-block 392-cubic-inch Hemi, which presently brings 475 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque to the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT and Dodge Durango SRT 392, and 485 horsepower to Charger and Challenger variants.
Fitting the engine into the Wrangler required reinforcements to its frame and engine mounts. It's crammed in there with about a finger's width between its accessories and cooling fans. But the bulk of the engine sits behind the front axle line, and there's still room for the battery against the firewall. Overall Jeep says it's roughly 200 pounds heavier than a Wrangler with the standard, aluminum-block 3.6-liter V-6, which would put it at roughly 4800 pounds.
Jeep has also fitted the concept with the Grand Cherokee SRT's strengthened ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, and it borrows the two-speed Selec-Trac transfer case from the Wrangler's Sport and Sahara models with the same 2.72:1 low-range gearing. The Rubicon's standard part-time Rock-Trac transfer case has 4.0:1 gears, and an optional full-time four-wheel-drive unit is newly available for 2021. Strengthened with heavy-duty ARB differential covers, the Rubicon's Dana 44 axles with electronic locking differentials front and rear are still in place, as is its disconnecting front anti-roll bar.
Since the 392 concept was originally destined for this year's Easter Jeep Safari, which was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a two-inch lift kit was installed, as were Fox shocks from the Gladiator Rubicon. A Warn winch was added to its front bumper, and bead-lock wheels, which are projected to make it to production in some form, wear 37-inch BFGoodrich mud-terrain tires and provide an additional two inches of ride height. Jeep says there's a total of 13.3 inches of ground clearance and that the 392 can ford 34 inches of water, 4 inches more than a Rubicon.
Jeep also says the 392 concept gets to 60 mph in less than five seconds, but we weren't able to launch it with any anger. Its transfer case is jacked. It's only sending power to the rear tires, and those big, knobby BFGs don't grab asphalt very well. With a functioning all-wheel-drive system, a Grand Cherokee SRT rips to 60 mph in a little more than four seconds, so the Wrangler will probably be in that neighborhood. But anything more than half throttle sends the traction-control system into panic mode and turning it off just results in a smoke show that lasts through first and second gears. We spent quite a bit of time contributing to southern California's current air-quality problem.
Even nailing the throttle at 50 mph sends the traction-control light flickering. Usually such intervention is cause for complaint, but in this case there's a sense that the electronics are the only thing keeping the Jeep on the road every time we put the pedal to the floor. The V-8 feels its strongest above 3000 rpm and carries its power curve to the 6400-rpm redline. Its rumble is always there, whipping through your hair with the hot winds of summer. The transmission's calibration could still use some tweaking. Left in Drive, the eight-speed short shifts into second gear at around 5900 revs and is slow to respond to downshift requests.
The driveline malfunction also bins any hope of exploring some trails, so we spend our time on the two lanes that carve through the Santa Monica Mountains, where the Wrangler feels tall but surprisingly sorted. Its steering is sloppier than stock, but its ride is relatively supple, and there's little indication of its increased curb weight and heavier nose. It isn't nearly as clumsy as you'd expect.
Jeep says customers have been asking for a V-8 Wrangler for some time. Probably since the CJ-7 lost its AMC 304 V-8 in 1981. Well, it's almost time for those power-hungry Jeepers to spend their money—at least $50K to start, if we had to guess. If our time in the Wrangler 392 concept is any indication of what we expect to be coming, they won't be disappointed.
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