If the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness is anything, it’s an off-road underdog. It doesn’t have anywhere close to the same level of kit as “proper” off-roading machines and isn’t a rock-crawling beast. If you’re headed to Hell’s Revenge in Moab, the Forester Wilderness probably isn’t going to cut it. But dang it, it’s capable enough and so fun that when the going gets tough you can’t help but root for the Subaru.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru invited me to take a 2022 Forester Wilderness on a day-long adventure through mountains in Oregon. It paid for my airfare and lodging in a cute cabin, then was kind enough to have a driver waiting even after I missed two flights and arrived super late.)
These days, America has an unquenchable thirst for the outdoors. More than a year into the pandemic, people are getting out and going camping, biking, or kayaking. And even when getting to these activities may not involve more than a simple dirt road, buyers appear to be increasingly drawn to vehicles that look like they can go to the ends of the Earth.
Subaru recently joined the fray of automakers offering off-road trims of on-road vehicles, but the automaker says it’s not content with cars that simply look rugged. Its Wilderness trim lineup, including this 2022 Forester Wilderness, can actually go wheeling as long as you understand the practical limitations.
The Forester Wilderness follows the same formula as its Outback Wilderness sibling. The ride height is jacked up just a little, it has some aggressive off-road styling, and it comes with reduced overhangs, all-terrain tires and off-road driving modes.
On the outside, the Forester Wilderness doesn’t look much different than the base car. It has butch cladding, striking copper accents, an anti-glare hood decal and Wilderness badging. From a distance, it looks like any other Forester, and it doesn’t look like it can climb a mountain, either. I like this design. Off-road packages are often shouty, like the vehicle is screaming, “I can conquer anything!” while this is a bit more subtle.
Changes over the base Forester are more incremental than you might expect. Longer springs and shocks have resulted in an increase of 0.5 inches of ground clearance. Approach angle is up 3.5 degrees. Departure angle is up 0.8 degrees. Breakover angle is up 1.4 degrees. Most of these numbers are just a smidge better than the Outback Wilderness, and the Forester comes with a shorter wheelbase to boot.
Subaru changed the Forester Wilderness’s final drive ratio to 4.11:1, up from the base Forester’s ratio of 3.70:1 That increases low-end torque which could add capability when you’re trying to climb up something steep. Subaru also says that the CVT in the Forester Wilderness is different than the base model. This transmission not only comes with different ratios but a strengthened variator pulley and chain. The Wilderness’s transmission improvements double the Forester’s tow rating from 1,500 pounds to 3,000 pounds.
Helping you tow and haul gear is an air-cooled engine oil cooler and an oil temperature sensor in the rear differential.
You may wonder why the Wilderness gets only a 0.5-inch lift over the base Forester. I certainly did. Subaru explained that the reason for the difference is because the Forester is already tall, and making it even taller caused some issues at the factory.
Holding all of this up is a set of Yokahama Geolandar all-terrain tires wrapped around 17-inch wheels. They aren’t any bigger than you can get with the base Forester. No, this car’s height gains are all in the suspension.
Power comes from a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter boxer-four making 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft torque. Delivery of that power can go through the X-MODE off-road driving mode system. It works the same in the Forester Wilderness as it does in the Outback, as described from our review of the Outback Wilderness:
Subaru’s X-MODE, a drive mode specially tailored to adjust the engine, transmission, and ABS system to aid with off-road maneuvering, gets a new feature that “allows the vehicle to switch automatically from low speed managed driving to speeds over 25 mph without interruption of power or performance.” In other words, the two-mode system allows for X-Mode use above 25 mph, whereas the standard system you get on other trims does not.
The Forester Wilderness also gets an aluminum skid plate for added off-road credibility. This isn’t just decorative but more on how this bad boy performs in a bit. Subaru also offers more skid plates for other important bits like the fuel tank, rear differential and transmission.
Inside, you get Wilderness badging on the seats, the gauge cluster and some little orange tags that are everywhere.
The dashboard and seats have orange stitching with copper accents on the wheel and gear shifter, while the floors are lined with rubber mats. The roof, on the other hand, has a dark headliner that Subaru says is made to take hits from gear that you’re loading in like tent bags or bicycles.
Speaking of tents, the roof rack can carry a dynamic load of 220 pounds and hold 800 pounds of campers and gear while stationary. That’s good enough for a few people to get a good night’s sleep up top without worrying about harming the roof.
This is a small improvement over the base Forester’s roof strength, which can handle a 176-pound dynamic load and 700 pounds when parked.
I teamed up with another journalist to put the Forester Wilderness to the test. As it turned out, we had similar off-roading styles, being a bit aggressive, and showing the Forester little in the way of mercy.
The day started with a quick jaunt in an off-road park. We got to experience how these Foresters clawed their way through obstacles, even when one or two wheels were off of the ground. Subaru doesn’t say how much suspension travel there is to work with, but the Forester Wilderness stretched its legs with more articulation than you’d expect from a vehicle in its class.
We also got to take the Foresters up two steep gravel mounds. Climbing up was absolutely effortless, with the Yokohamas somehow finding traction in the loose surface. Coming back down, though, was less fun.
The Wilderness cars all have Subaru’s hill descent control system installed. The idea is that the car will control its own speed coming down a hill, which sounded great in theory. In practice, it either nails it, and you look cool coasting down a mound, or the system gets chaotic as it tries and fails to slow your roll. You then have to hit the brakes yourself, feeling the feedback from the ABS system as you continue down faster than you’d want. But sometimes you’ll want to go faster while the system insists on slowing you down.
Later, we drove the Foresters up unmaintained, rocky trails deep in the mountain forests of Oregon, a true test for a consumer-focused off-roader.
Those trails started easy, potentially so easy that a city car on street tires could have handled them without issue. But conditions worsened, and when they did, the Forester Wilderness was still completely unfazed.
First, we hit washboard after washboard. The Wilderness’s suspension handled that with ease, and the vehicle never felt unsettled. Some of the washboards were particularly violent. I’ve driven on these Oregon washboards before in an old Ford Ranger, and the shaking was bad enough to cause bolts to back out and interior pieces to loosen. None of that was present in the Forester Wilderness. The interior pieces didn’t so much as rattle, and the suspension soaked up the bumps so well that driving over the washboards felt like getting a massage.
Those trails were littered with all kinds of rocks, too. We weren’t rock climbing by any means, but the rocks demonstrated how the suspension handled an onslaught of heavy bumps.
Unlike the Outback Wilderness, topping out the suspension rarely transmitted a clunk to the Forester’s interior. The majority of the noise I heard came from our clothes rustling about or our gear bouncing around.
There were times that we hit rocks so big and so sharp that we were sure a tire would blow, but the Geolandars never faltered.
The afternoon trails were something else, with little bunny hops that were so short that vehicles without good ground clearance or an even worse breakover angle would have seen heavy undercarriage impacts. It was there that the Forester Wilderness’ improved approach angle paid off, as we often squeaked through these hops with minimal space to spare before scraping the front skid plate.
The temperature dropped with altitude and with it came cold mud and snow.
It was here that things got really rough, and we actually put the X-MODE system to the test. The regular Snow/Dirt mode made a noticeable change to throttle response. Where the throttle is usually too snappy to make precise throttle corrections, Snow/Dirt dulls it just a little.
Still, I found myself giving it too much of the beans when I really wanted a smooth response. To further fine-tune X-MODE, we put it into Deep Snow/Mud. That was just right. Throttle input felt more gradual, and I didn’t feel like I had to focus on what my foot was doing to get just the right amount of throttle.
Our pace through this section was still pretty fast, and it resulted in the Forester Wilderness taking an absolute beating. It was a minefield of rocks, followed by slushy snow, followed by ripples, bunny hops and fallen tree branches.
A regular 4x4 would be better at handling all of that than the Forester Wilderness, but that never stopped it from plowing forward. We found ourselves rooting for the Wilderness to keep going, to keep eating up absolutely every inch of that terrain. And that front skid plate? Eventually, the going got tough enough that none of the Forester’s angles mattered, and it practically lawn-darted itself into ruts, bumps and various rocks. That plate handled it in stride, protecting all the important stuff around it. If it hadn’t been for the skid plate, we probably would have ripped the car’s face off.
All of that just adds to the Forester Wilderness feeling like an underdog. Tere we were in the middle of a forest, dealing with the types of trails that you’d see lifted Jeeps on, and it didn’t want to give up. Both of us cheered the Forester on as it clawed its way up muddy slopes and splashed through water crossings.
Eventually, the trails relented, and we emerged on the other side of the mountain, back onto pavement. We checked the Forester’s body before setting out, and somehow, nothing had been damaged.
Once we got back onto the road, the Wilderness’ compromises made more sense. It’s comfortable and quiet on asphalt, even when you’re driving down a windy mountain road. It may not be an off-road beast, but after you have fun in the dirt, you still can kick back and enjoy a relatively tranquil drive home.
That’s what makes these Wilderness cars a potentially good compromise. They forgo off-roading capability for on-road comfort. Subaru says the Wilderness is not for people who nerd out about portal axles, locking hubs or multi-speed transfer cases. It’s not for the people who think off-roading is the destination of a trip. And a stock Jeep Wrangler will easily out-wheel it, too.
No, the Forester Wilderness is for the person who wants a daily driver that can take them to the top of a mountain just to bike back down, to camp or to a lake so they can go kayaking. The Forester Wilderness takes you to whatever activity you really want to do, no matter if it’s in a forest, in a desert, up a mountain or on a beach.
The Forester Wilderness does come with a few issues. The biggest is the front 180-degree camera. The idea there is that you can see if you’re about to run over a sharp rock or other obstacles. In the Outback Wilderness, the camera feeds into the big touchscreen. In the Forester, though, it feeds into the same tiny screen on the dash that displays the X-MODE information.
The screen is too small to really make out any detail, and the camera’s output itself is so distorted that you usually can’t make out how far away an obstacle is, let alone how big it is. Also, the camera’s position on the grille is too high.
In reality, this camera is best for parallel parking. Subaru says the feed only appears on the tiny screen because that’s how it’s wired.
I’d describe the 182 HP boxer engine as adequate. There’s more than enough power to off-road, and it cruises on the highway easily. Passing, however, requires planning and a wide-open road. Put the pedal down, and you have to wait for the CVT to respond, then for the engine to build enough revs to get that speedometer needle rising.
As someone who daily drives stuff with less than 100 HP, I’m used to this, and I think it’s fine. But other drivers may want a little more oomph.
Additional underbody protection is available, but I think they should really come standard. Out of the box, you get a plastic underbody pan aft of the front skid plate, and that isn’t going to stand up to many impacts before breaking.
Subaru also boasts that this Forester Wilderness has a better tow rating than the base car, but a tow hitch does not come standard.
The 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness is a car that looks like it shouldn’t be as good off-road as it is. You don’t get locking differentials, and the approach, departure and breakover angles make you think that it’ll scrape on everything. And it has a CVT, which doesn’t have the best reputation for off-road prowess. Despite all that, it’ll take you just about anywhere you want to go, even a snowy mountain with rough, slushy, rocky trails. It’s a vehicle that actually lives up to its name.
That makes it the perfect daily driver for someone who isn’t an off-road enthusiast but wants a vehicle that can allow them to blaze trails not found on a GPS.
The 2022 Subaru Wilderness starts at $32,820 before a $1,125 destination and delivery charge. Subaru sees its competitors as the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, with others being the likes of the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. Its closest competition is seen to be the Cherokee Trailhawk, which starts at $36,745 but comes with more off-road capability, including far better angles and a rear locker.
I left the Forester Wilderness in Oregon wanting to play with it some more. It puts a smile on your face as you take it through terrain that you would not expect it to handle with the grace it does. And that only causes you to root for it more the deeper you take it.
It’s just as much as a compromise as the Outback Wilderness, but it’ll still scratch that rugged off-roader itch that Americans can’t get enough of these days. Odds are, Subaru won’t be able to build enough of them.