During the last two decades, manufacturers have shifted away from classic SUVs in favor of more subdued crossovers unlikely to see anything more rugged than a gravel road. But, the industry is in the midst of making another U-turn. There’s growing interest in getting back to nature, whether camping, rock climbing or kayaking, and more and more motorists want the sort of vehicles that can handle some serious off-roading.
Subaru hopes to win over those buyers with the new Wilderness sub-brand. It made its debut earlier this year with the launch of the Outback Wilderness and it’s about to double in size with the introduction of the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness.
Like the Outback variant, the Forester Wilderness gets a number of exterior and interior updates — along with some welcome revisions under the hood. To see whether it can live up to expectations, I headed out to central Oregon to challenge the new model on a combination of rural roads and serious backwoods trails.
The 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness starts out with the fifth-generation take on the crossover, joining the current line-up of Base, Premium, Sport, Limited and Touring trims. All of the Forester models are updated for 2022, among other things introducing a new front bumper, grille and LED headlamps, as well as a revised rear bumper and other exterior trim. There’s also an updated version of Subaru’s EyeSight suite of advanced driver assistance systems.
But the new addition to the Forester line-up takes things to a new level that should really appeal to Subaru fans who’d like more serious off-road capabilities.
Like the Outback update, the Forester Wilderness gets a number of features meant to give it a more rugged look, including a standard front skid plate. But unlike some dress-me-up packages we’ve seen in the past, the goal is to actually give Wilderness models some real off-road capabilities. No, you likely won’t take the Forester Wilderness out on the Rubicon Trail, but I was impressed with the way it handled some seriously challenging backwoods trails.
The new Forester Wilderness model is distinguished by a number of unique exterior updates, including a unique grille, an anti-glare matte-hood decal and distinctive hexagonal fog lamps.
Most of the updates are functional, starting with revised cladding and unpainted mirrors meant to reduce the risk of damage while driving off-road. The SUV comes standard with a front skid plate, but you can add even more underbody protection at a reasonable cost.
Ground clearance has been increased from 8.7 to 9.2 inches and the Wilderness model’s water fording capabilities have also been revised upwards — though the automaker isn’t ready to release a specific number.
A closer look reveals distinctive copper accents, both inside and out, that will be used to mark all Subaru Wilderness models.
Another plus: enhanced roof rails that increase the Outback’s dynamic roof load from 176 to 220 pounds. And, when parked, the roof now can handle a load of up to 800 pounds, which Subaru backs up with a roof-mount tent with space for three people.
Grippy 17-inch Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires complete the exterior package. And the Wilderness model is meant to enhance an owner’s sense of security by squeezing in a full-size spare under the cargo floor.
Serious off-roaders will appreciate having the angle of approach increased from 20 degrees in other Forester models to 23.5 degrees with the Wilderness package. The angle of departure increases from 24.6 to 25.4 degrees, and the SUV’s breakover angle climbs from 19.6 to 21 degrees.
Until recently, Subaru products tended towards the cheap-and-cheerful when it came to interior design and appointments. The automaker has significantly upgraded the look of its cabin in recent years. Even the less obvious door panels have a more refined look and the Forester Wilderness is no exception, with details like copper-hued double-stitching on the instrument panel, doors and seats.
Anodized and gunmetal accents, as well as alloy pedal covers, give the cabin a class-above appearance. There’s a reasonable amount of storage, though I’d have appreciated a dedicated spot large enough to handle my iPhone 12 Pro Max on the center console.
The cabin makes extensive use of the same water- and dirt-resistant StarTex material as the Outback Wilderness. After clambering in and out of the SUV to take pictures while out on the trail, I came to really appreciate the ability to quickly clean up the Forester Wilderness. The ute also features a black headliner that is less likely to get marked or scratched up, Subaru claims.
The Wilderness model shares the rest of the Forester family’s line’s 2.5-liter boxer-4 engine. Making 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque, it’s paired with a CVT gearbox and sends torque to all four wheels. The gearbox has been revised substantially, however, delivering notably more low-end grunt — useful when you’re dealing with rocks and other obstacles along the trail. With the Wilderness package, the Lineartronic gearbox also can simulate an 8-gear step transmission.
Fuel economy is rated at 25 mpg city, 28 highway and 26 combined. That’s down from 26/33/29 for the rest of the line-up. The Wilderness package also sees the towing capacity of the standard Forester line doubled, from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds.
Safety and Technology
Like the rest of the Forester line-up, the Wilderness comes with an 8-inch Starlink multimedia system. The touchscreen system features Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Bluetooth. Buyers can upgrade with a navigation package that also adds a 9-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system.
Also, like the rest of the Forester line, the Wilderness gets the latest version of Subaru’s EyeSight driver assistance system — including such functions as pre-collision braking, lane departure warning and active cruise control. The Eyesight update now has a wider field of view which allows the automaker to introduce new features such as Automatic Emergency Steering to help avoid a collision at speeds up to 50 mph. There’s also reverse automatic braking which can prove useful, whether in a parking lot or out on the trail.
When you’re driving off-road you’ll also get some useful features such as Hill Descent Control, which essentially functions as trail cruise control. You can set your desired speed and the system holds it steady without your having to jump on and off the brakes, even on a steep incline.
The Forester Wilderness also comes with a modified version of its X-Mode, a driver-selectable system that adjusts where and when torque is delivered to help maximize grip in troublesome situations, like snow, mud, sand or deep ruts.
And the Wilderness model helps you keep your bearings — quite literally — with a new roll-angle indicator and a front view camera so you can see what your wheels are facing as you creep along the trail.
No matter how much of your free time you might spent camping, hiking or kayaking, your Subaru Forester Wilderness is going to clock most of its miles on-road. And the new package does that with confidence. The Yokohama tires do increase road noise a bit and aren’t quite as nimble in corners as the all-season rubber on other Forester models, but they don’t require the sacrifices in comfort and handling I’ve experienced with other trail-oriented products.
When you’re off-road, however, they pay off, as does the entire Wilderness package. I clocked several hundred miles driving around central Oregon, spending more than half of my time off-road. The Wilderness model never lost its poise, whether traversing mud, ruts, loose gravel or anything else it faced.
The X-Mode system clearly helped. While it doesn’t offer quite as many different traction settings as, say, a Bronco Sport, the two the Subaru offers proved adept at handling everything I ran into. It helps that the X-Mode system “talks” to the Forester’s CVT, effectively shifting into a low-gear range when extra torque is needed at crawling speeds.
Whether on- or off-road, Subaru does an admirable job of tuning its CVT. There’s virtually none of that annoying “rubber-band effect” that most continuously variable transmissions suffer from. And that emphasis on low-end torque in the Wilderness model is a plus when taking off from a stop. The 2.5-liter boxer engine seems best suited, at least in this application, to delivering low-end grunt. It’s a bit more anemic at highway speeds, and I had to shift down from eighth to fourth gear to make a pass at higher altitudes. The Forester — all versions — really could make use of a turbo option.
The addition of the front camera was another plus while off-roading, making it possible to see what’s coming up along steep and tight trails. That was particularly welcome when, at one point, I came to the top of a steep gravel incline, only to discover that the trail sharply veered off to my left as it headed back down.
The number of Americans who engage in outdoor activities has nearly doubled in just the past 15 years. While the conventional Forester would likely suffice for many, the new Wilderness package lets serious back-to-nature fans push even further back off the grid.
Unlike a number of other “off-road” packages we’ve seen in recent years, Forester delivers more than just rugged looks. It really can handle a backwoods challenge. Yet it requires relatively little sacrifice when it comes to comfort, performance and handling on-road.
At $32,820, the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness does carry a price premium — at least compared to the base Forester trim which starts at $25,195. But it compares favorably to the Limited, at $31,875, and the Forester Touring, at $35,295. (Add $1,125 in delivery fees to all those figures.)
Those looking to head off-road have more choices than ever these days, with more rugged offerings coming from the segment’s benchmark Jeep family, the new Bronco line, and upgraded offerings from Honda and others. Subaru already has a reputation for ruggedness and reliability, and with the 2022 Forester Wilderness, it is likely to win over plenty of new buyers because it makes it easy to get back to nature.