If the regular Subaru Outback promises Rugged Lite™, then the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is supposed to deliver on proper ruggedness. The regular Outback is happy doing some light off-roading, maybe tooling down a dirt path on the way to the trailhead. The Wilderness is essentially that, but also set up to work if you drove the car straight onto the hiking trail instead of leaving it behind in the parking lot.
To the casual passerby, the new Wilderness Outback doesn't look terribly different from the non-Wilderness Outbacks. There's still a lot of plastic cladding along its bottom and it wears Subaru's neat but understated design language. But the Wilderness is a standout in the details, where it'll delight outdoorsy buyers with its thoughtful touches.
The Wilderness comes with only one choice of engine: the turbocharged boxer four-cylinder that you can option with the higher-trim Outbacks. Horsepower and torque figures remain unchanged, as does the towing capacity. Its EPA-estimated fuel economy is a tad lower, however, perhaps due to the new Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain tires as standard and an increased ride height.
Because yes, Subaru increased the Wilderness' ride height by nearly an entire inch. The regular Outback comes standard with 8.7 inches of ground clearance; the Wilderness rides on 9.5 inches of clearance. According to Subaru's own measurements, this puts the Wilderness at the same clearance levels as a Mercedes G-Wagen.
Further exterior details include 17-inch alloy wheels finished in black (Subaru went down an inch in wheel size in favor of thicker sidewalls; I approve), larger wheel-arch cladding, a roof rack with a 700-pound static load limit (220 pounds dynamic), and a matte-finished hood decal. The front and rear bumpers were slightly redesigned, with special attention paid to increasing the plastic cladding of the front corners and moving the foglights more toward the center of the bumper to protect them from trees or rocks. The wing mirror housings are also made from black plastic, which is more resistant to scratches. Copper detailing decorating the bumpers and the roof rails indicate actual use-points (tow hook anchors, tie-downs point, et cetera) and aren't just for show.
To better tackle rough terrain, Subaru gave the Wilderness a front skid plate as standard and a dual-function X-Mode for slippery conditions and tuned its suspension for uneven ground. The lift improves approach, breakover and departure angles, too—20.0°, 21.2° and 23.6° respectively. Subaru also changed up the continuously variable transmission a bit to improve low-end torque for everyone out there fretting about overlanding with a CVT.
Inside, it's almost like the Wilderness dares you to get it dirty. The seats are upholstered in a water repellent material and feel like they're easily wiped down. There's also an attractive contrast-stitching in the same color as the exterior copper accents. You'll find those copper accents on the steering wheel, shift lever, and driver gauge outlines as well. The 11.6-inch touchscreen comes as standard, as do all-weather floor mats.
During the media event, a Subaru spokesperson drew attention to four additional features to help the Wilderness keep up with its customers: an LED cargo light, located in the trunk lid itself, to provide additional illumination when loading up the trunk at night; seatbacks upholstered in a washable material, an improvement over the carpet material in regular Outbacks; a black headliner that won't get scuffed or dirtied as easily; and a full-sized spare tire and wheel, which you can change out in a one-for-one swap without messing up the tire pressure monitoring system.
Outback Wilderness models can also come in an optional Geyser Blue, which you cannot get on any other Outback model. Exclusivity!
The good news is the Outback Wilderness is just as Outbackish to drive on paved roads as you'd expect: Well-weighted steering, responsive brakes, eager throttle. Rides a bit loud.
But having just gotten out of a regular Outback and into the Wilderness, I could feel that 0.8-inch difference in ride height. I felt like I was sitting up higher. And combined with the loose terrain-friendly suspension, the Wilderness felt bouncier on paved roads than its non-Wilderness brethren. If you weren't looking for it I'm not sure you'd notice the sensation, but it's there. You do get accustomed to it quickly enough, however.
The 2020 Subaru Outback Limited XT I recently reviewed returned an EPA-estimated 23 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway, and 26 mpg combined. The Outback Wilderness' numbers are slightly worse off, with an EPA-estimated 22 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg combined.
There was a moment when I looked out the driver's side window, saw how steep the hill was, and thought, "You've got to be kidding me." But the yellow arrows Subaru helpfully set up to guide me along a backwoods trail in upstate New York indicated I should head down that hill. So, after checking for the twelfth time that X-Mode was indeed still engaged for mud, I started down.
I won't even begin to guess the degree of decline, but it felt like I was driving down the side of a one-story building. I pushed against the steering wheel to keep my back against the seat while nothing but the sight of muddy trail filled the windshield and listened to the hill descent control grinding away. Since I had taken a sharp left to crest the hill, I fully expected to bottom out—but surprisingly, the Wilderness cleared the hill without drama. Ground clearance for the win!
The rest of the course was a blend of climbing up and down gravel hills and splashing through muddy trails in the woods. The Wilderness did it all with aplomb, trundling over the difficult terrain that would have beached lesser vehicles—including a regular Outback—long ago.
The most challenging bits involved fording a small river. After making sure my anti-collision emergency braking function was disabled, I rolled the Wilderness down a slick slab of rock and landed it in the water. The water was far deeper than I'd anticipated, since it was so muddy, and it washed right up to the top of the car's wheels. I thought I'd messed up royally. But the trail masters kept waving me on encouragingly, so I nosed the car forward, wincing at the invisible rocks beneath me scraping and banging against the skid plate.
Perhaps it was that moment of worry cost me some momentum, but I did get stuck once in the river. I could feel the tires spinning but I went nowhere. Yet, this was an easy fix. I simply put the Wilderness in reverse, backed up a few feet, and went for it with a little more speed. It worked.
The final challenge was a climb up a water-slicked sheet of rocks. Here, I relied heavily on the front-facing camera to see where the car's nose was. I could feel all four wheels working hard to haul the body up, and steadily, they made it happen. I would be utterly lying if I said I didn't feel a sense of accomplishment after that. Some of those hills filled me with doubt, but not once did the Wilderness feel like it couldn't handle the terrain. It certainly acted more confident than I did.
After it was all said and done, the Subaru folks gave the Wilderness I was driving a quick once-over underneath and sent me on my way. I did the 35-minute drive back to the hotel with nary an indication that I'd just forded a river in the very same car, except for how muddy it was on the outside.
Yes, the gas mileage and the ride quality are slightly sacrificed in favor of such off-roading prowess, but I can see it as a tradeoff well worth it to some. The regular Outbacks are far more comfortable on loose terrain than your typical run-of-the-mill car, but the Wilderness makes itself a kingdom in mud and gravel. It's outfitted thoughtfully with the active buyer in mind who doesn't care about babying their car because it'd get in the way of having fun.
So, yeah. You could buy a Jeep. But as a battle-ready lifted wagon with livable, everyday capabilities, the Wilderness is a very, very compelling counterargument.
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