New editions of crossovers are trying to bridge the gap between comfortable family haulers and serious off-road SUVs. Affordable manufacturers are offering option packages that increase ride height, beef up suspensions, add underbody protection, and throw in special wheels and knobbier tires. The idea is to make their newer front-wheel-drive based unibody crossovers seem as tough as traditional rear-wheel-drive based body-on-frame SUVs.
But are these upgrades worth the additional cost or are they just glorified appearance packages? In the case of the Wilderness edition of the 2022 Subaru Outback, the answer is an unqualified yes. The new version of the popular midsize wagon is not only more off-road capable than the basic version, but some of the upgrades, like the higher ride height, makes it even better as a day-to-day driver. Ground clearance is increased from 8.7 to 9.5 inches, which also also makes it easier to get in and out of.
And, yes, the Wilderness version looks cooler, too, thanks in large part of the additional black lower body cladding over the more all-terrain wheels and substantial Yokohama Geolandar tires. The upgraded roof rack can also carry and support a roof-mounted tent for elevated outdoor camping.
To be fair, the Outback has always been a popular choice for those who enjoy the outdoors since it spun off as a separate model from the much missed Legacy wagon. It has become a Pacific Northwest favorite through subsequent generations for good reasons. With a car-like ride, ample cargo space and Subaru's standard symmetrical all-wheel-drive, it handles workday chores and weekend getaways well. Recent remodels have resulted in the best version yet, with improved interior materials, a competitive infotainment system built around a large display screen, and one of the most advanced safety systems at any price. It also benefits greatly from the standard turbocharged 2.5-liter Boxer engine that Subaru has begun installing in more of its vehicles.
Subaru started the trend a few years ago when it upgraded the Impreza and dubbed it the Crosstrek. The more rugged version of its compact hatchback was an immediate hit. Now the affordable crossover outdoor recreation competition has increased. Among other manufacturers, Toyota is producing a more off-road capable TRD version of its popular RAV4, and Honda is offering TrailSport versions of its Passport and Pilot, and even General Motors is selling AT4 versions of its Acadia and Terrain crossovers.
None are as heavy-duty as Trail Rated versions of Jeeps, but that doesn't mean they should be written off. The 2022 Outback Wilderness excelled during the 2021 Outdoor Activity Vehicle competition hosted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association. It was conducted over two days on a mix of on-road handling and off-road courses at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Wash.
Although the Subaru didn't win any awards, it easily handled the most serious off-road course that other affordable crossover SUVs weren't even allowed to compete on for liability reasons. One reason was its X-Mode, which has two options: a Snow/Dirt mode that minimizes wheelspin to climb slippery hills or slick driveways and a Deep Snow/Mud mode that allows more wheelspin to keep the car from getting bogged down. X-Mode also recognizes a downhill slope and automatically controls vehicle speed based on braking input, down to around 5 mph on a loose surface.
Other noteworthy upgrades include a forward-facing 180-degree camera to help you find your way around road hazards without getting out of the car, and a full-size spare tire so you can really keep going in the event of a flat. It also comes with StarTex water-resistant upholstery that feels like leather but is a lot easier to clean up.
If various models of the Outback have any shortcomings, it is the Continuously Variable Transmission that is less responsive and noisier than a conventional automatic. Practically all manufacturers have adopted them because they can be programmed for the better mileage that government regulators are demanding. It is not a deal breaker, however, and includes a manual shift made that overcomes any problems in low speed trail driving.
The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is available at area Subaru dealers right now. Or if you're interested in a more traditional SUV, there is also a Wilderness version of the popular compact Forester they will be happy to sell you. Either way, you'll be ready for winter driving, on or off the road.
2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
Base price: $36,995
Price as tested: $38,120
Type: Midsize crossover
Engine: 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (260 hp, 277 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
EPA estimated mileage: 22/26
Overall length: 191.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,896 pounds
Final assembly: Lafayette, Indiana
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