The company agreed and set to work on a new variant called the Outback Wilderness. The trick, of course, would be for the new model to offer more capability on dirt and rocks without sacrificing comfort and daily-use practicality.
What Is a Subaru Wilderness?
More than just a trim level, the Wilderness sub-brand will soon be extended to other SUVs in Subie’s lineup, but the company is smartly starting with its most popular nameplate. (One in five Subarus sold since 1994 has worn an Outback badge.) Based on the top-spec Outback, the Wilderness looks like it drove through an ORV parts catalog before bounding into an REI.
Its most obvious changes are cosmetic. The Wilderness gets additional wheel-arch cladding, gold accents, beefier-looking front and rear bumpers, LED foglights, a snappy available color called Geyser Blue (an outdoorsy hue with a hint of green), new black 17-inch wheels with Yokohama A/T tires, and a stronger roof rack with a 700-pound static weight limit.
The Wildernessification continues inside, where all-weather floormats are standard, and gold stitching matching the exterior trim adds a little pizazz to the shifter boot and knob, steering wheel, dashboard, and seats. The standard vegan leather upholstery feels durable, and the back of the second row is also trimmed in the stuff, which is easier to clean than the usual carpet. The black headliner should also do a nice job of hiding scuffs and such from, say, jamming a bike into the 75 cubic feet of cargo room behind the first row.
Yes, the Wilderness Gets Chassis Changes
The aesthetic updates would probably sell more than a few Outback Wildernesses on their own. But there is that question of increased capability, and a few mechanical changes have been made to that end, including a 0.8-inch suspension lift courtesy of new springs. This gives the Outback a ground clearance figure of 9.5 inches and also improves the approach, breakover, and departure angles. The CVT has been recalibrated with slightly lower simulated gear ratios to give the Outback a bit more oomph when crawling over slippery terrain, and X-mode (a Subaru-specific setting that preps the chassis systems for off-road adventures) has been optimized and now will stay engaged at speeds of up to 25 mph.
As a result of the Wilderness transformation, Subaru says its SUV-wagonoid will happily tackle a 40 percent grade and should be more capable when the going gets muddy, snowy, or rocky, or in any other low-friction situation compared to the standard car.
Power comes from the turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine from the uplevel Outback XT models. As in those versions, it makes 260 hp at 5,600 rpm and 277 lb-ft of torque between 2,000 and 4,800 rpm and sends power to all four wheels via Subaru’s symmetrical AWD, which can route 100 percent of available torque to any one of the car’s wheels. The meatier tires and suspension lift mean fuel economy falls slightly, however, and you can expect to travel one or two fewer miles per gallon in a Wilderness.
Driving the Wilderness
On the road, the traveling is much the same as in a regular Outback, a version we’re well familiar with on account of the Onyx-trimmed example in our long-term test fleet. We’ve come to appreciate the Outback’s versatility as a day-to-day runabout and occasional off-road buggy, and the extra suspension travel of the Wilderness makes it even more compliant over bumps. Small lumps and imperfections in the pavement seemingly disappear, and bigger ruts and expansion joints are smoothed over with a fluid poise. The all-terrain tires don’t even result in any undue road noise. You hardly notice you’re in something appreciably taller than the standard car until you toss it into a corner.
There, this Outback is even less tolerant of any shenanigans but behaves exactly as you’d expect, with far more pronounced body motions and squeals of protest from the tires. And owners making the switch from the regular car should prepare for more prominent brake dive and acceleration squat on account of the softer springs. Overall, though, the Wilderness feels controlled, and it’s as comfortable and relaxed as its regular kin when driven within its limits.
Our largest complaint centered around the CVT, which is programmed to provide the sensation of the stepped-gear shifting of regular automatics. It regularly chooses a fake ratio when you don’t really want one—particularly during acceleration above moderate levels—sometimes hunting around for what it deems to be the proper gear, and its programmed “shifts” are both slow and slurred. Luckily, a set of paddles behind the steering wheel allows the driver to select a ratio on their own.
All in all, the Wilderness is nearly as relaxing to drive as, say, a Mercedes-Benz E-Class—it’s ready to take things easy. The CVT behavior and handling emphasize this fact, and it’s the sort of car that encourages you to drop the windows, put an elbow on the sill, and munch on some trail mix on the way to the next trailhead.
What About Off-Road?
It’s on the dirt and rocks where we need more time for evaluation. Little more than a dirt road with a couple of steep grades, the route used by Subaru at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu was off-road on easy mode—if a truly hardcore off-road trail is a double black diamond, this course was a blue square. We’re fairly sure the regular Outback could have handled it, and the Wilderness scampered up the steepest climb with aplomb and did the one tricky descent on our path all on its own thanks to X-mode’s hill-descent control.
Traction was never a problem, either, as X-mode works the clutches at the axles and optimizes the stability and traction control to ensure the wheels that have the grip can take advantage of engine power. And given the Outback’s relatively tidy size, it wasn’t caught out by hairpin turns or narrow sections on the trail. For its part, the CVT was less of an issue on the dirty stuff, choosing and holding ratios to smoothly deliver power.
The Cost of the Wild
A top-spec Outback Touring starts at $38,545, and the Wilderness will be priced from $38,120. That makes it the second most expensive Outback you can buy, but it still gets Subaru’s EyeSight safety tech (automatic reverse braking is optional) and most of the Touring’s kit—like the vegan leather upholstery and a massive, tablet-like infotainment display—as standard. All that’s left to add is an optional moonroof and dealer accessories such as a full set of underbody skidplates, both of which were on our review vehicle. All told, an example like our Wilderness costs $39,965.
To recap, that’s more off-road ability, the same high level of equipment, and unique, cool-looking visuals for just over $1,500 more than a high-spec Touring, which sounds like a screamin’ deal for all those folks asking for a tougher but equally livable Outback. We still want to give the Outback Wilderness a more difficult off-road workout—and we plan to—but this first experience seems to indicate their wish was granted.
|2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness|
|BASE PRICE||$38,120 ($39,965 as tested)|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.4L/260-hp/270-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,900 lb (est)|
|L x W x H||191.3 x 66.9 x 74.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.7 sec (est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||22/26/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||153 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.83 lb/mile|
|ON SALE||summer 2021|