Subaru just staked out the high ground — literally, a hilltop atop a 40-degree incline of soft, shifting sand — as some of America’s favorite SUVs race to bolster their off-road credentials.

Boasting new skid plates, 0.8 inch more ride height and a tweaked rear differential, the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness hits the trails this summer, with attractive styling touches, surprising off-road ability and notably lower estimated fuel economy.

Most compact SUV owners use their vehicles the way I use my closet full of Columbia fishing shirts. I don’t fish, but they have some handy features and I like the way they look and feel. I’m not about to wade into an icy trout stream; I buy them because they dry fast in the rain, and the big pockets and light fabric are perfect for a day standing in a hot field at a music festival.

As SUV sales skyrocketed to more than 50% of the market, many owners chose the vehicles for looks, space and a smidgen of capability: ride height for snow and a light-duty all-wheel-drive system for icy roads. They’re no more likely to drive up a steep slope of shifting gravel than I am to tie a fishing fly.

Face it: There’s a reason Honda’s new TV commercials promote their SUVs’ capability by showing them next to a Honda ATV, not accomplishing heroic feats in the wilderness.

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What you can get on the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

  • Front skid plate
  • 180-degree front view monitor
  • Dual-function X-mode
  • Star Tex upholstery, a synthetic that looks and feels good and is easy to clean
  • Brushed aluminum pedals
  • Washable rear seat backs
  • Anodized copper-color tow covers and interior trim highlights
  • Wilderness logos on headrests, front fenders and tailgate
  • Hexagonal LED fog lights
  • New front and rear bumpers
  • Full size spare
  • Fixed ladder-type roof rack with 700-pound+ capacity for roof-top tents

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Driving impressions

The Outback’s always had a bit more off-road credibility than that, and the Wilderness raises the ante.

Subaru owners are a bit more attuned to outdoor activities than most, peddling or paddling the odd mountain bike or kayak a few hours from home. If they ever come face to face with a bear, though, it’s likely they and the bear are both lost.

Subaru execs effectively admit that, saying that while some SUVs — subtext alert: Jeep Wranglers — attract owners who enjoy getting stuck on remote trails and rock slopes, Subie owners are more likely driving to the trailhead, traversing the odd meadow and forest trail on the way.

The Outback Wilderness can do considerably more than that, with style and comfort. It’s a near certain hit, arriving in dealerships any day now.

I drove an Outback Wilderness for a day, from suburban streets to a fast highway run and a couple of hours at Holly Oaks off-road park, just north of Detroit. It sailed with ease through deep soft sand and climbed steep hard-scrabble dirt and gravel hills. Setting the X-mode control to "deep snow/mud" got me through challenges most compact SUV owners would wisely not attempt.

The setting also provided surprising control in hill descent mode, providing all the braking needed to keep the Outback Wilderness under control down slopes steep enough that I couldn’t see bottom.

The SUV’s front camera proved very useful on those declines, and hilltops where I was staring at the sky and had no idea which direction to turn to stay on the trail ahead of me.

Features contributing to the Wilderness’ capability included the modified rear differential that changes the final drive ratio, shorter front and rear bumpers for improved approach and departure angles, and the extra ride height, which improves breakover angle.

The Wilderness also comes with an additional front skid plate. Owners can buy extra skid plates to protect the whole under body, but they’re heavy: Fuel economy, already the Wilderness’ main weakness, will suffer further.

The Outback Wilderness is equally at home on the road. Acceleration is more than adequate for city and highway driving. The ride is smooth and surprisingly quiet, given the model’s standard 17-inch Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires.

How much?

Prices for the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness start at $36,995. That’s about $10,000 up from the base Outback.

All Wildernesses have full-time all-wheel drive, a continually variable automatic transmission and turbocharged 2.4L horizontally opposed "boxer" engine producing 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque.

Power is more than adequate. The CVT is unobtrusive and effective on road and off. Towing capacity is 3,500 pounds.

The Outback Wilderness’ EPA fuel economy estimate is 22 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway and 24 combined. The key combined figure is 2 mpg lower than a non-Wilderness Outback with the same engine.

Another win for Subaru

That’s a significant difference, but it’ll only cost the average owner $150 a month at current fuel prices, according to EPA estimates. Barring an unexpected spike in oil prices, the Wilderness’ fuel economy is unlikely to be an issue.

Ground clearance is 9.5 inches. The Outback’s curb weight increases, topping out at 3,939 pounds in the Wilderness I tested, a loaded model with a sunroof, navigation and reverse automatic braking. My test vehicle stickered at $38,840.

The interior is comfortable and roomy.

The Outback competes with SUVs like the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Jeep Cherokee, but already occupies a unique place in the market. The Wilderness should only increase that stature. While few owners will use the Outback Wilderness’ added off-road capability, rugged looks, comfort and cargo space should make it a hit.

Subaru Wilderness at a glance

  • Base price: $36,995
  • Price as tested: $38,840
  • Engine: Turbocharged 2.4 flat-four
  • Output: 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm; 277 lb-ft of torque @2,000-4,800 rpm
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
  • EPA fuel economy estimate: 22 mpg city/26 highway/24 combined.
  • EPA estimated annual fuel cost: $1,900
  • Wheelbase: 108.1 inches
  • Length: 191.3 inches
  • Width: 74.6 inches (without mirrors)
  • Height: 66.9 inches including roof rails
  • Curb weight: 3,929 pounds as tested
  • Passenger volume: 109 cubic feet
  • Cargo volume: 32.5 cubic feet behind rear seat; 75.7 with seat folded
  • Assembled in Lafayette, Indiana

Detroit Free Press.

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