Once upon a time, it was a foregone conclusion that the best-performing off-roaders had eight-cylinder engines. Parnelli Jones’ “Big Oly” Ford Bronco featured a grunty 351 Windsor and dominated the 1971 and 1972 Baja 1000 races, the lightweight 3.5-liter Buick V8 found a happy home under the hood of the capable Range Rover Classic, and Chevy’s legendary K5 Blazer got power from a likewise-legendary small block.
Folks, the times they are a-changin', and rugged off-roaders like the Ford Bronco, Toyota 4Runner, and even the luxurious Lexus LX make do with six- and even four-cylinder powerplants. Whither goes the dirt-ripping, baritone-bellowing, V8-powered in today’s sensible, eco-conscious world?
Well, here are three answers. By our completely unscientific metric, we figure the Jeep Wrangler 392, Land Rover Defender V8, and Mercedes G-Class (seen here in AMG G63 form) are the only off-road–capable, high-performance V8 SUVs on the market today, so we had to round them up for a somewhat unconventional comparison test. Our destination? A dry lake bed deep in the California desert. Our mission? Figure out which one of them is the fastest… on dirt… over a quarter-mile drag race. Of course, such a silly objective demanded as much documentation as possible, which is why there’s also a rather fun video embedded up top.
Rumors of a V8-powered Jeep Wrangler have been around almost as long as the drop-top SUV itself. After years of teasing (and one running concept in 2020) the automaker finally gave us a production version bearing the name Wrangler 392. Featuring the same naturally aspirated 6.4-liter V8 as the Dodge Challenger SRT and Ram Power Wagon, the first V8-powered Wrangler serves up 470 horsepower, 470 pound-feet of torque, and a sky-ripping exhaust note that only comes up short when compared against an SR-71 Blackbird. In terms of noise, nothing else comes close, especially at the Jeep’s $83,965 price as tested (including $1,595 destination)
With a conventional eight-speed automatic transmission, full-time four-wheel drive with a selectable low range, and solid axles (with locking diffs) front and rear, the Jeep is appropriately low-tech. Instead of complicated drive modes and active suspension settings, the Wrangler 392 merely asks for a little brake torque and then a whole lot of throttle to get up and running. The automaker claims it’ll hit 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds, on to a quarter-mile time of 13.0 seconds before hitting a tire-preserving speed governor at 112 mph. Those are staggering numbers given the Wrangler’s 35-inch mud-terrain tires and ox-cart axles.
While steely-nerved Motor1.com Managing Editor Brandon Turkus had no problem flirting with triple digits on our surprisingly smooth dirt racing surface, I never felt that comfortable on the road. Southern California’s perpetual road construction, narrow lanes, and unclear markings make the Jeep feel 12 feet wide. Vague steering also requires constant corrections at freeway speeds – ever seen an old Hollywood film where the actor is driving a car on an obviously faked sound stage, his hands constantly flicking the wheel back and forth? That pantomime will feel very familiar to a Wrangler 392 driver.
We shouldn’t expect high levels of driving refinement in the 392, especially since it’s based on an SUV that starts at under $30,000. There’s lots of standard kit, like heated leather seats, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning, and a logical 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen with wired smartphone integration. But it’s still best to focus instead on the unique pleasure of driving a V8 SUV with the windows down and the optional fabric roof retracted. This Wrangler lives and dies by the rumble of its dual-mode exhaust mixed with the scents and sounds of the great outdoors, so bundle up and turn on the seat heaters if it’s chilly.
The 1997 Land Rover Defender – the nameplate’s last offering in the US – exclusively featured a lusty V8 in conjunction with its rugged capability. So when the new Defender arrived in 2019, we were a bit disappointed that only Land Rover’s (admittedly excellent) mild-hybrid inline-six was the top engine option. That changed for 2022 when the Defender V8 joined the party packing a supercharged 5.0-liter shared with a variety of Jaguar and Land Rover products.
The two-door Defender 90 Carpathian Edition tested here could be the hot rod of the bunch, weighing less than the Mercedes but still packing 518 hp and 461 lb-ft. Land Rover claims the V8 can hit 60 in 4.9 seconds and top out at 149 mph, and the boxy sport-ute is actually pretty smooth and polished on the road. With a short wheelbase, it can feel a bit twitchy, but compared to the Wrangler, the Defender feels like a Dreamliner in terms of straight-ahead stability. That’s what happens when you compare a $113,525 SUV with one that costs 30 grand less.
The Motor1.com staff also universally praised the Defender’s interior quality and styling, with attractive coatings on the plastic parts and durable-feeling technical seat upholstery. The only big exception is the seeming acre of raw sheetmetal inside the front door – it’s clear that the door panel is sized for the Defender 110’s shorter front apertures. Then again, the visible spot welds may add some vintage charm if that’s what you’re into. And if that’s the case, you probably don’t want our tester’s high-maintenance matte paint.
The Defender V8 may look retro, but under the skin, it’s very modern. A fully independent suspension makes use of robust air springs to provide more ground clearance over obstacles, and the full-time four-wheel drive can provide a variable torque split or lock the center differential depending on the circumstance. For truly sticky going, there’s also a selectable low range, so not everything has been modernized.
Land Rover’s sophisticated Terrain Response system also makes an appearance on the Defender V8, allowing the driver to select programs for mud and ruts, deep snow, rocky trails, and sporty on-road driving. There are even a handful of slots for custom programs – to the person who drove the Land Rover after us, we hope you enjoyed our Dry Lake Launch setting.
If money is no object and maximum output is the goal, then the choice is clear – Geländewagen. Mercedes’ boxiest vehicle might very well be its most desirable, finding appeal with everyone from upscale Aspen families to Manhattan club kids. But limiting the Mercedes-AMG G63 to party valets and private school dropoffs should be a sin because this SUV felt like it could set off earthquakes tearing across the California desert. Sixty mph happens in 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 130 if you’re brave.
Under the hood is our trio’s smallest, yet most powerful, engine – a (now-rare) twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 producing 577 hp and a staggering 627 lb-ft, courtesy of the engineering geniuses from AMG. Affalterbach also breathed on the G-Wagen’s nine-speed automatic transmission, which sends power to all four wheels via manually lockable front, center, and rear differentials. As on the other SUVs, the transfer case also boasts low-range gearing if needed. The matte-finish Monza Grey paint (a $6,500 option) requires you to become very good friends with your local hand car wash, but its military vibe looks right at home on those boxy fenders.
Vintage looks aside, the G63 splits the difference between the old-fashioned Jeep and the poised Defender in terms of composure – not surprising given the modern independent front suspension paired with a more traditional solid rear axle. Freeway speeds are no longer as nerve-wracking an experience as they were in the old G, but this is still a big, top-heavy SUV and it handles like it. A Nappa leather dash and seats, multicountour massage up front, and flashy AMG badges on the headrests and floor mats give the most expensive vehicle in our test ($184,500 as tested) the nicest interior – to no one’s surprise.
That bottom line gave us some pause when putting the AMG through its paces off-road, but no risk, no reward. And boy does the G63 reward those who take it to get dirty. The AMG Trail Package is a must for desert driving, including a front brush guard, mud flaps, and an off-road setting for the adaptive dampers, as well as all-terrain tires for more grip. Beyond that, the out-of-the-box capability of this thing is nuts, with three locking differentials and an impressive amount of suspension travel given its supercar powertrain and posh cabin.
Before we got into the hilarity of an off-road drag race, our drivers – Turkus, Director of Video Clint Simone, and me – wanted to become acquainted with the V8 super-SUVs in the dirt. The road to our dry lakebed obliged with some pretty enjoyable trails – nothing that came close to taxing the limits of ground clearance or suspension articulation, but challenging enough to suss out these off-road legends’ traits.
For starters, the Wrangler 392’s simple, elemental nature pays dividends when the going gets rough. Instead of a parsing litany of switches and infotainment menus, the Jeep driver merely needs to decide if the full-time four-wheel drive is enough or if low-range gearing will be necessary. Furthermore, an articulation-enhancing front sway bar disconnect is a button push away, as are locking front and rear differentials. Once dialed in, the Wrangler is a veritable mountain goat, with plenty of torque, traction, and suspension travel for just about any trail at your local OHV park.
“Considering how much more affordable it is – less than half the price of the G-Wagen – and the overall capability that come from its off-road–oriented tires and suspension setup, I’d struggle to pick one of the others over the Jeep,” said Turkus. He’s not alone, as all three of us appreciated its simplicity – and the removable doors and roof.
However, the off-road refinement of the next-priciest vehicle was hard to fault. Despite its rock-fearing 22-inch wheels and low-profile all-terrain tires, the Land Rover Defender V8 had no trouble following in the Jeep’s tire tracks. Although it lifted a wheel much more frequently – air suspensions suffer from reduced travel when aired up all the way – and its somewhat complicated terrain management system takes a moment to dial in, the Defender was more comfortable to drive, with less steering wheel kickback and hump-and-bump cabin motions over obstacles.
“The Defender is charming beyond belief,” opined Simone. “This truck is good with the inline-six and it's just great with the V8. Smooth power output and a fun noise to go with it.”
While I echoed Simone’s sentiments and appreciated the Defender’s well-rounded behavior, Turkus was disappointed. “It doesn’t feel nearly as special as the others,” he said. “I was expecting an SVR-like experience, but this is simply a Defender that happens to have a V8.”
“Just the door shut noise alone is worth the price of admission.”
It’s hard not to lust after the rush of a twin-turbocharged V8 echoing off the walls of an underpass, but even in the dirt, the Mercedes-AMG G63 is a good time. There’s an off-road–specific drive mode that reduces traction control intervention and softens the adaptive suspension a bit, and physical buttons actuate the differential lockers and transfer case. From there, it’s just a matter of pointing the clamshell hood and bulging front turn signals up a hill and easing the throttle over obstacles. Even with less suspension travel than the Jeep, you’ll run out of bravery before the G runs out of capability.
“Although the Mercedes is effectively double the price of its counterparts, some of that is justified by the truly spectacular overall quality,” said Simone. “Just the door shut noise alone is worth the price of admission.”
Once familiar with the whys and wherefores of our throttle-happy threesome, we cast lots on who would drive what through our estimated quarter-mile span of dirt, but luckily, we all got what we wanted. Dyed-in-the-wool Detroiter Turkus muscled the Jeep – “My plan is simple. Mash the throttle and hold on.” I was glad to drive the pride of Great Britain, especially since this was my first experience with Land Rover’s incredible supercharged V8. And we gave the tallest car to the shortest guy, not in the least because Simone is a well-documented lover of the G63.
After a few practice runs to ensure each driver was getting the most out of their launch, we each made our way to the starting line. After getting the all-clear over the radio, I sounded the Defender’s horn three times before the metaphorical flag dropped. To my delight, the Defender launched out of the hole quick, but it wasn’t long before the more powerful G63 made up the difference. By the end of the race, the Mercedes was traveling at 108 mph to the Defender’s 104 and the Jeep’s 100-ish, signifying a solid two-car-length distance each between first, second, and third.
The race was admittedly close – impressive given the $100,000-plus price difference between the Jeep and the AMG.
We made our way back to the start for a rematch, then another and another, but the finishing order might as well have been written in stone. The Mercedes-AMG G63 couldn’t be touched, no matter how hard the Jeep Wrangler 392 and Land Rover Defender V8 tried. The race was admittedly close – impressive given the $100,000-plus price difference between the Jeep and the AMG.
At the end of the long day in the desert, none of us wanted to swap vehicles for the three-hour drive home. Turkus braved the loud, raucous Wrangler 392 for the love of its fun personality and brilliant exhaust note. Simone enjoyed the refined interior and solid construction – as well as onramp-obliterating acceleration – of the G63 AMG. And I split the difference in the polished Defender V8, whose ample comfort and power made it a lovely road trip companion on the lonely desert highway.
Separated by tens of thousands of dollars and a figurative chasm between each vehicle’s intended customer, the Jeep Wrangler 392, Land Rover Defender V8, and Mercedes-AMG G63 are hardly competitors one with another. But that didn’t stop us from finding a lot to love about each. The V8-powered off-road SUV’s days are numbered, but at least we got a crack at some of the best that have ever been built before the genre dies.
|2022 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392||2022 Land Rover Defender 90 V8 Carpathian Edition||2021 Mercedes-AMG G63|
|Engine:||6.4-liter V8||Supercharged 5.0-liter V8||Twin-Turbocharged 4.0-liter V8|
|Output:||470 Horsepower / 470 Pound-Feet||518 Horsepower / 461 Pound-Feet||577 Horsepower / 627 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||Eight-Speed Automatic||Eight-Speed Automatic||Nine-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||Four-Wheel Drive||Four-Wheel Drive||Four-Wheel Drive|
|0-60 MPH:||4.5 Seconds||4.9 Seconds||4.5 Seconds|
|Top Speed:||112 MPH||149 MPH||149 MPH|
|Efficiency:||13 City / 17 Highway / 14 Combined||15 City / 19 Highway / 16 Combined||13 City / 16 Highway / 14 Combined|
|Weight:||5,098 Pounds||5,445 Pounds||5,783 Pounds|
|Cargo Volume:||31.7 / 72.4 Cubic Feet||15.6 / 58.3 Cubic Feet||38.1 / 68.6 Cubic Feet|
|Towing Capacity:||3,500 Pounds||7,716 Pounds||7,000 Pounds|
|Base Price:||$77,095 + $1,595 Destination||$104,200 + $1,350||$156,450 + $1,050 Destination|
|Trim Base Price:||$78,690||$112,550||$157,500|