AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The last few years have seen the continuing rise of off-road-oriented vehicles. Whether it’s a few-expenses-spared Ford F-150 Raptor or a more modest Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, customers seem to be increasingly obsessed with taking their cars as far as they can. And it’s reached a point that one of the rugged car pioneers, the Subaru Outback, is needing yet another dose of capability. The result is the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness, which cranks up the capability while maintaining impressive comfort and refinement. That being said, it has some compromises that mean it’s not the perfect choice for everyone.
To beef up the Outback, Subaru focused mainly on the suspension, tires and bodywork. It features new springs and shocks that raise the ride height, increasing ground clearance from 8.7 inches to 9.5. That actually puts it well ahead of the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands (8.6 or 8.8 inches) and Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk (8.7 inches). Subaru also revised the bodywork not just for style, but for function. The front and rear bumpers are a little more tucked in to improve approach and departure angles, and they feature larger sections of tough, black plastic that tend to wear scuffs and scrapes better. The approach angle is 20 degrees, breakover is 21.2 and departure is 23.6. The aforementioned Ford and Jeep both have better approach and departure angles, though the Subaru’s breakover number falls between them (ahead of the Ford, behind the Jeep).
Rounding out the chassis upgrades are 17-inch wheels with Yokohama Geolandar All-Terrain tires and a standard aluminum skid plate at the front. That can be supplemented with an additional aluminum skid plate under the engine, and steel skid plates for the transmission, differential and fuel tank. The Subaru X-Mode driving mode that adjusts the stability and traction control for low grip situations (and activates hill-descent control) has also been updated specially for the Wilderness. In all Outbacks, there are two types of low-traction settings, and they only operate under 25 mph. But on the Wilderness, the Deep Snow/Mud setting stays on even above 25 mph, and above that threshold, it uses a unique traction and stability logic from the low-speed version. And lastly, the final drive ratio is slightly shorter at 4.44:1 for better low-speed response.
We got to try out these mechanical upgrades at the Holly Oaks off-road park near Auburn Hills, Mich. As is typical for a press launch of an off-road-oriented vehicle, Subaru set up the course we drove through, so it was unlikely we’d be getting stuck, but the Wilderness still impressed. The ground clearance means that you won’t very often be scraping along dirt trails, and with the skid plates, you can confidently tackle rutted, mildly rocky roads. Amazingly, no matter how rutted and rocky the road, we experienced no chassis flex or interior creaks and squeaks. It was easy to get through tight spaces thanks to the narrow body, but the long front and rear overhangs required some extra mindfulness not just when approaching hills, but also when nosing into tight corners.
Helping with that is the Wilderness’s front camera, though the picture quality is quite grainy. The soft suspension also helped take the edge off rough bumps, and it kept the Outback stable and controlled. The tires provided solid grip, and the X-Mode setting allowed plenty of wheelspin so that we didn’t get stuck. The Outback lacks the Cherokee Trailhawk’s locking rear differential, and the Bronco Sport Badlands’ dual-clutch rear differential that can move torque side-to-side and effectively lock up, so we suspect those have a bit more ability to get you out of trouble (or deeper into it) when off-roading.
While the Wilderness may not have the absolute trail ability of the American SUVs, it gains back some advantages on pavement, where, if we’re honest, these crossovers will spend most of their time. The big one for the Outback is ride quality and overall quietness. The extra suspension travel and taller tire sidewalls mean that you can float right over giant potholes and cracked asphalt. The car stays smooth and controlled, too, so no worries of feeling seasick. This is a stark contrast to the Bronco Sport that in comparison delivers a ride that would fittingly be described as bucking, as well as the rather truck-like ride of the Cherokee.
Hardly any noise permeates the cabin, either. The all-terrain tires are hushed, the engine is well isolated so that even at high rpm it doesn’t sound rough, and even the coarsest concrete doesn’t compete with the radio or your conversation.
The turbo engine and CVT work well together most of the time, too. The boosted boxer engine delivers its 260 horsepower smoothly, and the healthy 277 pound-feet of torque is available early, starting at just 2,000 rpm. That means the CVT doesn’t have to crank up the revs every time you want to accelerate, but when it does, it’s never sudden or rough. The manual mode is even responsive. That being said, it’s frustrating that getting it to kick down in automatic mode requires a seriously booting the throttle.
The Wilderness isn’t as efficient as a regular Outback, either, due to the combination of revised gearing, all-terrain tires and aerodynamic changes from the added height and different bumpers. Fuel economy ratings are 22 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined, versus 23/30/26 for a regular turbocharged Outback. It’s still more frugal than the 23 mpg combined of the Bronco Sport Badlands and the 21 mpg of the Cherokee Trailhawk.
The regular Outback’s cushy, high-riding suspension may be great for ride comfort and off-road clearance, but the resulting handling is not great. The Wilderness not surprisingly is even worse. Besides the suspension, a lot of the blame goes to the tires. They’re fairly squishy and lack grip, so there’s a slight delay between your steering inputs and the car reacting. It doesn’t take long for you to find the limits either, and the car only ever wants to understeer. And of course, there’s also a fair bit of body roll.
You experience all this from the Outback’s stylish and spacious interior that’s been enhanced with copper-colored contrast stitching and plastic accents, Wilderness tags, a nifty water-resistant upholstery with embossed Wilderness logos, and custom rubber mats. The supple and supportive front seats, spacious but firm rear seats, and cavernous cargo area are shared with every other Outback. In fact, it’s here where this ultimate off-road wagon enjoys its greatest advantage over the Bronco Sport and Cherokee Trailhawk. The larger space between its seating rows makes the Subaru far more family-friendly. Our cargo tests of the Outback and Bronco Sport showed that the Subaru enjoys a slight advantage, and the specs would indicate it has a massive leg up over the Jeep’s cargo capacity (75.7 cubic feet versus 54.7).
The Wilderness also gets different roof rails than the rest of the Outback line. It sacrifices the trick integrated crossbars in favor of heavier-duty rails that can support 700 pounds when parked (220 when moving). That’s more than enough for a rooftop tent and its occupants, or whatever other extra-heavy things you’d like to put up top.
The cost of entry for the Outback Wilderness is $38,120, which makes it more expensive than the Bronco Sport Badlands ($34,315) and the Cherokee Trailhawk ($37,295). It’s also $1,925 more than the similarly well-equipped Outback Onyx Edition XT – the pricier Limited XT and Touring XT remain above them both on the Outback trim ladder. You can get the Wilderness closer to those upper trim level’s equipment with a $1,845 option package that includes a sunroof, navigation and rear automatic braking. The extra skid plates available range between $100 and $130 each.
Though it costs more than its most obvious rivals and maybe sacrifices a bit of top-end off-road capability, the Subaru Outback Wilderness may be the best all-around rugged crossover available. It will get you just about anywhere you need to over the weekend, short of something with a low range, plus its big cargo space and easily accessed heavy-duty roof rails will let you bring all your toys. Then, during the week, you’ll love that it doesn’t feel like a truck, and it doesn’t drink fuel like one. either. The extra cost, therefore, seems worth it for this impressive dual-purpose crossover.