For the 26 years or so that the Subaru Outback has been on sale in the US, it's been the choice for suburbanites who need a vehicle tough enough to tackle dirt roads without the on-road compromises of a genuine off-roader. And that's still true of the current model – it's a solid family car with light off-roading chops, but nothing built for Moab.
The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness tweaks that formula just a bit, in a good way. This car still does everything you want of the normal Outback, only it notches the wagon’s off-road capabilities up to more capable levels. Just by looking at its bigger tires, taller ride height, and added cladding, it’s clear this is the Outback you want for when the going gets really tough.
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Designed For Dirt
The visual differences between the Wilderness model and the standard Outback are obvious. The black cladding on the front fascia now extends up to the base of the headlights, the grille loses its standard chrome and horizontal slats for dark mesh, and the fog lights move closer to the center of the bumper to keep them safe from rocks and debris. And there's a neat matte black stripe on the hood that reduces glare, too.
The cladding on the wheel arches and rear is chunkier as well, and the windows shed their standard chrome surround for a matte black finish that also carries over to the side mirrors and rear bumper. Overall the ratio of paint-to-protective-surfaces has shifted to the latter, which makes the exterior less vulnerable to scratches and dents.
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Dotting the exterior are a few fun-looking “Wilderness” badges as well as Anodized Copper accents that denote use points; the copper pieces on the front and rear bumper hide the tow hooks, while the same shade on the roof rack reveals tie-downs. On top of it all is a brand-new Geyser Blue paint job that Subaru says was inspired, in part, by the brand's signature Rally Blue hue.
Many of those same copper accents carry over to the cabin, lining the lower steering wheel spoke, the shift knob, and stitching in the seats. Like on the XT Onyx Edition, the Wilderness model’s chairs wear a waterproof StarTex faux leather upholstery that feels very nice, plus a black roof lining that Subaru says is good for hiding dirt. The only slight difference here is that the Wilderness model dons a honeycomb-like seat insert that we really like.
The visual differences between the Wilderness model and the standard Outback are obvious.
Outside of that, the dash sports the same 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen as the Outback XT, with the latest version of Subaru's StarLink infotainment system. But there are some model-specific touches, like Wilderness model graphics and a Wilderness logo on startup in the smaller gauge screen. Plus the X-Mode off-road mode display now offers a roll-angle indicator to tell you exactly what this car is doing in trickier conditions.
Taller And Torquier
With 9.5 inches of ground clearance – a big increase over the standard 8.7 inches – the Wilderness model is legitimately tall. Whereas the base Outback feels almost sedan-like on the road, the Wilderness rides with the presence of a small SUV, standing over other cars. For comparison's sake, a midsize alternative like the Honda Passport only offers 7.5 inches of ground clearance, while the rugged Toyota 4Runner is just barely higher off the ground with 9.6 inches of ground clearance.
And the Subaru's newfound height leads to some solid off-road angles. The Outback Wilderness approaches at 20.0 degrees, has a breakover of 21.2 degrees, and departs at 23.6 degrees. That’s certainly not a best-in-class figure – the 4Runner and Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo are better – but it’s impressive for a tweener like the Outback. The Wilderness also has the ability to climb a 40-percent grade on a gravel surface, and that's thanks in part to the updated continuously variable transmission.
The Wilderness rides with the presence of a small SUV, standing over other cars.
The turbocharged 2.4-liter engine from the Outback XT carries over, still good for 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque here. But Subaru realized that the standard CVT simply wasn't tough enough, so engineers fiddled with the transmission, fitting a new pressure sensor that helps drive more torque. And the final drive ratio is a solid 4:44 compared to 4:11, and the results are genuinely noticeable – both on the road and on the dirt.
As we leave the hotel in Birmingham, Michigan, on the way to our final destination at the Holly Oaks off-road park, the Outback Wilderness displays noticeable pep on the road. Shoving my foot into the accelerator uncorks a huge lump of torque somewhere between 3,200 and 3,500 RPM. With that extra oomph, the Outback Wilderness passes easier and feels quicker around town. The only downside is that the 17-inch wheels and off-road-specific Yokohama Geolandar tires (225/65 R17) do make the ride slightly harsher.
But off-road performance is what matters most, anyways. So once at the ORV park, we equipped X-Mode with the Deep Snow/Mud setting ticked and hit the first obstacle: a steep uphill climb. With that extra kick courtesy of the retuned CVT and shorter final drive, the Outback sprinted up the sandy hills of Holly Oaks posthaste. Once at the top, a quick click of the "View" button on the center console provided a forward-facing perspective of the trail ahead. Eking towards the drop, the baked-in hill descent control kept the vehicle perfectly steady on the steep downhill slope.
Even with hostile undulations, deep mud pits, and a few large rocks further down the trail, the Outback Wilderness takes it all in stride.
As with the standard Outback, the all-inclusive X-Mode off-road feature comes standard. But Subaru tweaked the settings allowing drivers to exceed the previous 25-mile-per-hour limit, meaning you could drive on the highway with X-Mode on, although Subaru suggests you shouldn't. Instead, we used the long sandy straights of the ORV park as a way to test this new feature. And as advertised, the updated X-Mode allowed us to flog this Outback pretty aggressively on dirt.
Even with hostile undulations, deep mud pits, and a few large rocks further down the trail, the Outback Wilderness takes it all in stride. Along with all the features already mentioned, the suspension offers more travel and better dampening than the standard version, as well.
Priced For Adventure
For all that extra off-road capability, the Subaru Outback Wilderness starts at a reasonable $36,995 (not including $1,125 for destination and handling) and comes almost fully stocked from the factory. There is a $1,845 package that adds a moonroof and navigation, plus you can order up to $600 worth of additional off-road upgrades – like engine, fuel tank, transmission, and differential guards – but the latter options are dealer-installed accessories.
The Honda Passport is the only comparable midsize alternative that is noticeably cheaper, asking just $32,790. But that vehicle isn’t anywhere near as capable off-road as the Outback Wilderness. A more rugged alternative like the Toyota 4Runner costs $36,765 to start, while a similarly equipped mid-range Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo X 4x4 costs $40,390.
Basically, you get what you pay for, and in the case of the Outback Wilderness, you get a lot. Whereas the standard version feels like a soft-roader with some chops, the Outback Wilderness is a genuinely tough off-road vehicle that can take on trails with some impressive peers, and it looks cool doing it. It also should offer improved handling and efficiency than the more off-roadable Jeep and Toyota competition, making it an even better balance of qualities that have always made the Outback a popular choice.
Outback Wilderness Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness: First Drive
2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness