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The new off-road package also improves day-to-day driving of the popular compact SUV.

COURTESY PHOTO: SUBARU - The off-road designed 2022 Subaru Forster Wilderness Edition comes with increased ground clearance, beffier wheels and tires, underbody protection and more,Years ago all off-road capable SUVs were mounted on rigid frames, from small Jeeps to large family haulers based on full-size pickups. Equipped with standard or optional four-wheel-drive systems, they were rugged enough to handle rough trails and cross streams on the way to remote campsites and fishing holes.

But they had drawbacks for day-to-day driving, including poor gas mileage because of the large engines needed to power most of them. And on paved roads the largest ones handled like, well, the trucks they were based on.

Then came the wave of crossovers that were based on cars or they own car-like unibodies. Most were front-wheel-drive but could be ordered with all-wheel-drive. They handled better on paved roads and, because they were lighter and smaller, they came with smaller engines that got better gas mileage.

COURTESY PHOTO: SUBARU - The Wilderness Edition of the 2022 Subaru Forester includes a heavy-duty roof rack and more protective body cladding.

The biggest drawback for outdoor recreational enthusiasts was, they weren't as rugged as the earlier SUVs. Most were best suited for light to medium trails and crossing large puddles. In other words, OK but not great for more serious off-roading.

But now manufacturers are bridging the gap with option packages that make their unibody crossovers more off-road capable. The competition is getting to the point that Subaru, which started the trend, is now offering three such models. That's only natural because almost all of its vehicles have always come standard with AWD, making them popular among those looking for weekend getaways.

The first and smallest is the subcompact Crosstrek, which is essentially a lifted version of the Impreza hatchback with more ground clearance and beefier tires. The other two are new Wilderness Edition versions of the company's larger crossovers, the midsize Outback and the subject of this review, the compact Forester.

COURTESY PHOTO: SUBARU - All versions of the 2022 Subaru Forester come with the most refiined interiors and advanced technologies ever offered.

Although even the base version of the Forester is among the best affordable crossover for outdoor adventures, the Wilderness Package builds on that by increasing its ride height and adding such functional components as underbody skid plates, suspension upgrades, off-road wheels and tires, and additional plastic cladding protection along the lower body and around the wheel wells. The package offers 9.2 inches of ground clearance, which is more than a Toyota Land Cruiser and almost as much as a Ford F-150.

Other improvements include tough StarTex seat fabric, an X-Mode traction control feature makes it easier to drive down steep hills, and a roof rack with a load capacity of 220 pounds, or about the weight of a good-sized roof tent or cargo box. It also has double the towing capacity of a standard Forester, up to 3,000 pounds. So your boat, ATV, or travel trailer is good to go.

Surprisingly, some of the upgrades also make the Forester Wilderness Edition better for day-to-day driving. Part of that is because it is based on the high-end model, which has all the most advanced technologies. The additional height makes it easier to get in and out of, while the suspension upgrades improve the ride out over rough pavement. Plus the unique Continuously Variable Transmission provides better acceleration, minimizing the need to think about swapping the standard normally aspirated 2.5-liter Boxer engine for the turbocharged version in the Outback Wilderness.

COURTESY PHOTO: SUBARU - The seats in the 2020 Subaru Forester Wilderness Edition are covered with tough but easy to clean StarTex fabric.

On top of all that, Wilderness Edition features striking paint and trim schemes, with a flat black hood that reduces glare in bright sun balanced by the additional black cladding and unique black wheels. All 2022 Foresters also benefit from restyling that includes a different front bumper and grill.

All new Foresters also come with Subaru's latest version of EyeSight, the advanced driver assistance system that provides forward collision mitigation with pedestrian detection, as well as adaptive cruise control that follows the prevailing speed of traffic. That system is carefully calibrated to the ride height of the vehicle, so buying the Wilderness edition maintains the correct calibration.

The result is the best looking and performing Forester ever, which is a funny thing to say because it has long been the basic bread-and-butter model, accounting for 20% of model sales without drawing attention to itself until now.

Truth be told, my daily driver is a base 2008 Forester with a manual transmission that I bought because I was looking for a basic vehicle that could nevertheless handle rainy and occasionally snowy Pacific Northwest winters. Although otherwise reliable, it eventually fell victim to the weak head gaskets that plagued all Subaru engines of that era. I caught it early so the damage was minimal. A specialty shop down the road replaced the gaskets, the drive chain, the water pump, the radiator fluid, and gave it an oil change and tune up for around $2,500 in 2021. Considering that I paid less than $20,000 for it new and drove it for 13 years before the work was needed, I still think it was a pretty good deal.

COURTESY PHOTO: SUBARU - There is plenty of room for three aduts in all versions of the 2022 Subaru Forester.

The shop assured me that Subaru solved the head gasket problem years ago. So when it comes time to replace my workhorse, the Wilderness Edition of the new Forester will definitely be at the top of my shipping list. Not only is it much more refined, but it is one of the few vehicles that still comes with a CD player for aging baby boomers like me.

2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness

Base price: $25,195

Price as tested: $36,015

Type: Compact crossover SUV

Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder (182 hp, 176 lbs-ft)

Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission with All-Wheel-Drive

EPA estimated mileage: 25/28

Overall length: 182.7 inches

Curb weight: 3,620 pounds

Final assembly: Gunma, Japan

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