The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is a great idea. Subaru, the brand known for its practical, efficient-ish adventure wagons, is taking its most popular model and adapting it to cash in on the current trend toward more “rugged” SUVs. Is the Subaru Outback Wilderness edition an off-road beast? After having driven it, I can say the answer is “no.” But this car is going to print money regardless. Here’s why.
(We’re taking today to celebrate Juneteenth, a day on which we celebrate the emancipation of Black people who were held as slaves in the United States. We will be celebrating, but we will also be taking time to reflect on the history and legacy of slavery, as well as the ongoing structural, institutional and systemic anti-Black racism that continues to be a defining characteristic of the United States today.)
Have you seen the Toyota RAV4 lately? It’s chunky and aggressive, and now comes in a TRD Off-Road trim that cranks the off-road-ish looks to the next level. Ford now has a crossover in the Escape-based Bronco Sport that’s aimed squarely at the outdoorsperson crowd that tends to love Subarus. And then of course, there’s still Jeep, which offers the Compass, Cherokee, and Renegade — front-wheel drive-based crossovers that seek to lure in Subaru buyers with promises of real off-road capability and reasonable fuel economy.
Subaru isn’t just going to sit around and watch these competitors tempt its customers away with rugged styling and commercials showing people having fun off-road. No, to compete, the brand has launched a “Wilderness” trim on its most popular model, the Outback (and likely other models in the near future). I think it’s going to be a smash hit, even though it’s a significant compromise.
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What Is It?
“Off-road” versions of road-focused cars tend to follow a fairly simple formula: Jack up the ride height with new springs and shocks, throw on some unique front and rear fascias to reduce overhangs, install all-terrain tires, and maybe add a few skid plates and some new drive modes.
That’s pretty much the formula for the Subaru Outback Wilderness. The vehicle’s ground clearance is up 0.8 inches over the base Outback. That clearance, along with the unique bumpers (which feature little “Anodized Copper-finish” squares where the tow hooks thread in) brings the approach angle up 1.4 degrees over the base Outback. Departure angle is up roughly two degrees, and breakover angle is up a couple of degrees.
These angles — which are an indication of a vehicle’s ability to traverse uneven terrain without impacting the front or rear bumper and without getting high-centered — aren’t exactly stellar compared to other vehicles in the off-road space, but they’re a welcome improvement over the standard wagon.
The Outback Wilderness’ final drive ratio is now 4.44:1 versus 4.11:1 on the base model, meaning the machine sends a little more torque to the wheels for — in theory — improved hill-climbing and better low-speed maneuverability. The tires are Yokahama Geolandar all-terrains (the spare is full-size), and while they’re more aggressive than the base car’s all-seasons, they’re no bigger at 225mm wide with a 65 percent aspect ratio on 17 inch wheels (that’s roughly 28.5 inches in diameter).
Underneath, the Outback Wilderness has a standard front aluminum skid plate to protect the engine and nearby components:
Other skid plates are available, including steel ones for the fuel tank, rear differential, and transmission.
Looking under the Outback, the most vulnerable component appears to be the exhaust; this isn’t uncommon among off-road oriented machines:
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 car’s roof rails are now a ladder-style with a dynamic load capacity of 220 pounds and a static load capacity of 700, which should be plenty for a few people sleeping in a rooftop tent. The standard Outback, which has those slick integrated swing-away roof crossmembers, only has a static load rating of around 300 pounds, Subaru says.
Obviously, Outback owners have found ways to mount rooftop tents to their vehicles, but now there’s an outback with a stout roof rack from the factory.
On top of that, the Wilderness Edition adds special logos in the headrests, copper-colored stitching and trim in the cabin, a darker headliner that Subaru says will hide dirt better, all-weather floor mats, and a waterproof rear seatback and cargo floor so you can throw wet stuff in the back without worrying about soaking fabric.
Aside from these changes, what you’re looking at is a fairly standard, higher-trim Outback. There’s a 260 horsepower 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer four-cylinder engine that makes 277 lb-ft of torque, which is all sent through a CVT. Bolted to the Subaru Global Platform that underpins pretty much everything in the brand’s lineup, the front suspension is a MacPherson Strut design, the rear is a double wishbone setup, and all four springs are coils. Squeezing disc brakes up front are dual-piston calipers, while single piston clamps take care of the rear.
The Subaru Outback Wilderness is basically an Outback with a small lift, some cladding, a bit of underbody protection, all-terrain tires, a couple software tricks, a stronger roof rack, and some special trim. And I think that’s going to be more than enough to get these wagons to fly off dealership floors.
Subaru set up a press event at Holly Oaks off-road vehicle park 50 miles northwest of Detroit, Michigan. The park is made up primarily of large dirt mounds, allowing journalists to test the Outback Wilderness’ hill-climbing abilities. I had a great time.
The Outback isn’t an off-road beast. Anything with an approach angle lower than 30 degrees is going to have serious limitations off-road. But on grades that the Subaru could get its front wheels on, the machine climbed with confidence. The four-wheel drive system’s ability to find traction is remarkable. Even on uneven, steep grades that flexed the car’s suspension and lifted tires off the dirt, the Outback Wilderness figured out how to get power to the wheels with grip, propelling me and the wagon upward.
The all-terrain tires did well in both loose dirt and mud, and even though there’s no low range, the 260 horsepower, 277 lb-ft engine under the hood helped make up for it. I was never wanting for more thrust up the grades.
Forward visibility — thanks to a high seating position, low hood, and reasonably-small pillars — is refreshingly good, especially for a modern car. This helps not only off-road, but on-road as well. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to see what’s over a crest or — once you’re at the summit — what’s down below. For that, the Subi comes with a front-view camera, though, as you can see in the picture above, the image is surprisingly low-quality.
Though visibility and traction were excellent, the Subaru Outback Wilderness did have a few issues off-road. The shocks topped out often, making a “clunk” noise in the cabin, the accelerator pedal was too sensitive to allow for precise modulation of speed while crawling through complex obstacles, and the hill descent control system left a lot to be desired.
Unlike hill descent control systems that I’m used to, Subaru’s mode doesn’t have a button that allows the driver to adjust speed. As Subaru told me during the press event, the speed with which you approach the decline is the speed that hill descent control will maintain down the grade. The problem that I experienced, and that is shown in the video above, is that if you approach what seems like a moderate grade at a rather high speed, and that grade then becomes steeper than you thought, slowing the vehicle down can become nearly impossible if the terrain is uneven.
The clip above shows me stomping on the brake pedal, trying to slow the Outback down as it charges down a steep hill. Here’s a look at the grade from the top:
And here it is from the bottom:
I think what happened in my particular instance is that the ABS system got confused by the uneven ruts on the decline. As I tried slowing the vehicle down with the brake pedal, wheels were moving up and down, gaining grip, losing grip, gaining grip, losing grip, and for whatever reason, the ABS system just began buzzing, but the vehicle refused to slow down. Some of this was the loose dirt sliding below me, but by and large, it was the ABS system having trouble. I’m almost certain that a vehicle without any ABS at all would have handled the situation much better.
(This isn’t the first time I’ve had an ABS system get wonky while off-road. I got a Jeep Gladiator stuck off-road a few years back, and while trying to rock the vehicle back and forth, the truck’s ABS system became overly intrusive, making it hard for me to come to a halt at the high point of the rut so that I could shift into reverse and use momentum to get out. Clearly, calibrating ABS systems to be proficient both on and off-road is a tricky endeavor).
Despite its geometric limitations (see the unclipped front fascia below), its lack of suspension articulation, its less than optimal hill descent control system, and its overly sensitive throttle pedal, the Subaru was a hell of a lot of fun to take off-road.
It’s not a hardcore mountain goat, but that’s okay. Even Subaru admits that hard-core off-roading is not what its customers are looking for; they just want a cool adventure vehicle that looks tough, can handle damn near any dirt road or trail outside of an off-road park, and doesn’t make too many on-road compromises. And with the Outback Wilderness, that’s what they’re going to get. Well, for the most part.
On The Road
It’s when you’re on pavement that you begin to actually appreciate the Outback Wilderness’ off-road limitations. Sure, it doesn’t have 11 inches of ground clearance and aggressive mud-terrain tires, but that means the ride and handling are actually quite nice.
Not luxury car nice, to be sure — you’ll still feel bumps and hear both road and wind noise — but it’s definitely got a car-like feel. I’d road-trip this thing to the ends of the earth without hesitation.
That 2.4-liter motor is awesome. 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of output is more than enough to launch the roughly 3,900 pound machine. The car is quick, even with a CVT, which isn’t the fastest to respond to pedal input, but is otherwise pretty decent at getting the car up to speed.
The interior is spacious and nice, with comfortable “StarTex” faux-leather seats, a big 11.6-inch display in the center stack, and nice copper accents everywhere. The infotainment system took a bit of getting used to; often times, I was a bit lost trying to find certain features, but the setup is block-icon-based, and simple enough. I have no doubt that, with a bit of time, I’d have gotten the hang of it.
One thing worth mentioning is that Subaru really does a good job with active safety features. During my drive, lane keeping assist noticed that I was veering a bit too much out of the lane, and notified me to take corrective action. Blind spot monitoring let me know that there was someone in the lane next to me, and forward collision warning even beeped at me when I was a bit late to stop behind the car in front. These features are ones that you, ideally, don’t ever need to use, but the fact that they’re there, they work well, and they’re not too intrusive, is a product of good engineering.
The Subaru Outback Wilderness Edition costs $38,120, or about what a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk costs. It’s more than a base Jeep Grand Cherokee or Honda Passport, and roughly $10,000 more than a bare-bones base model Outback. So it’s not cheap, but it’s also equipped with things like a big screen, heated power seats, a powerful turbocharged engine, hands-free power rear liftgate, dual-zone climate control, and much more.
The starting price is one thing that could hold back shoppers, though I think fuel economy will also be a big sticking point. The Outback Wilderness scores four MPG lower on the highway than the Outback Onyx, which has the same powertrain.
Is it worth losing four MPG to get less than an inch more ground clearance, bumpers with slightly smaller overhangs, all terrain tires, some new software features, and trim changes?
Logic would dictate that the answer is “no.” But people rarely use logic when buying cars. Instead, they look at the picture below, ask themselves “Does this thing look badass?” The answer will be “yes,” and they’ll drop 40 grand.
Can’t say I blame them.