SPRINGDALE, UT – Since the COVID-19 pandemic kept most of America at home and not vacationing by planes or cruise ships, interest in off-roading has been rising. And even though planes and cruises are full again, the call of national parks remains loud and clear to those who caught the overlanding bug.
Subaru – long known for top-notch all-wheel-drive technology, but not intense off-roading – is entering the trail-rated competition with a serious entry in the form of the Crosstrek Wilderness edition, joining Wilderness versions of the Forester and Outback in the brand's lineup. With ground clearance boosted 0.6 in. (15 mm) to 9.3 ins. (236 mm), comparable to Jeep Wrangler’s 9.4 ins. (238 mm), it doesn’t hesitate when confronted with rocky, snowy, sandy or muddy off-road trails.
It takes more than ground clearance, though, to stare down a trail in Utah’s Zion National Park with sand as deep and soft as a beach dune and ruts that looked to measure 9 ins. (22.8 cm) deep, as well as the odd rock formations found in Zion. Revisions to the 2.5L 4-cyl. boxer powering the Wilderness (and Sport and Limited trims), including new camshafts, raise torque from 176 lb.-ft. (239 Nm) at 4,440 rpm to 178 lb.-ft. (241 Nm) at just 3,700 rpm.
Torque split for Subaru’s “Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive” is revised from the standard Crosstrek for improved responsiveness on more severe trails. This system uses an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch that adjusts the torque distribution based on acceleration, deceleration and available traction.
The Wilderness employs a taller, 4:11 final drive ratio (up from 3:70) for improved climbing capability. There is also dual-pinion electric power steering, first used by Subaru on its WRX hot hatch, providing steering with quicker response.
The CVT includes low shift mode, X-MODE and Hill Descent Control. The CVT for Premium, Sport, Wilderness and Limited trims has an 8-speed manual mode function with paddle shifters.
The Wilderness trim, as well as the Crosstreck Sport, features dual-function X-MODE for a wider range of road/trail conditions; Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud. The vehicle’s AWD system adjusts for each condition. For deep, soft sand, we used Deep Snow/Mud and it performed flawlessly.
On road or off-road, Crosstrek in all its trims is not fast. But Subaru models in general, outside of the WRX and STI versions of the Impreza, generally aren’t built for quickness. Speed in its non-performance models is just not a high priority for buyers, who would rather have lower costs and better fuel economy, although opting for the Wilderness version does come with a slight fuel efficiency penalty: 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) combined for the Wilderness vs. 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) for the 2.5L in other Crosstrek trims.
Crosstrek’s Premium, Sport, Wilderness and Limited trims come equipped with the 11.6-in. (29-cm) Subaru Starlink touchscreen multimedia system with six speakers and wireless Apple CarPlay, plus all features of the base system. If there is one consistent beef with Subaru, it is the mediocrity of Starlink, with its low-grade graphics and lousy voice-command response. In our test, we were also baffled trying to engage the onboard navigation system, though we were assured our car was equipped with one.
Subaru long has been revered for the traction its vehicles get in any on-road conditions. Now, it sees a strategy for expanding its audience. A hybrid version of the Crosstrek is widely expected to arrive in 2025, thus potentially increasing fuel economy to perhaps close to 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) combined.
To prep a vehicle for getting muddy off-road, the exterior also must work hard and pay its own way: there are new bumpers that are designed to be replaced cheaply when damaged, a matte black hood and big clad wheel arches and door cladding to protect against scraping branches and rocks.
Thanks to longer travel in front and rear shocks and longer springs, approach, departure and breakover angles all increase to aid in handling tough terrain.
The off-roading trend is real. According to Grandview Research, the global off-road vehicle market was estimated at $22.09 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 5.3% from 2023 to 2030. For those overlanders who pull a small camper, Wilderness adds a transmission cooler that boosts towing capacity to 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg), up from 1,500 lbs. (680 kg) in non-Wilderness models.
For people who want a go-anywhere on-road vehicle, Subaru has long engendered intense loyalty among drivers in snowy climates: New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies and the Great Lakes states. Its growth in sunshine states and coastal suburbs has been slower but steady.
The overall Crosstrek lineup, new for '23, and the new '24 Wilderness trim, should be an opportunity to grow the brand in those markets. At a time when the average transaction price for a new vehicle hovers around $48,000, a vehicle this solid, versatile and likable at a price under $36,000 can’t be ignored. The baseline Crosstrek starts at $24,990 and goes up to $33,290 including a $1,295 destination charge. Tick all the boxes and a fully loaded Wilderness goes for just $35,560.
The Wilderness, too, expands the Crosstrek product line, which may well represent the single best value-for-dollar model line in the entire industry, especially when you factor in Subaru’s exemplary safety ratings.
The overall size and performance of the Wilderness is unlikely to convert devotees of Wranglers or Range Rovers, but what it absolutely does is give Subaru owners, including CUV owners it conquests, far greater confidence to hit national parks a few times a year without worry that the messy, rugged, deep-sandy, muddy, rutted trails will be too much for the tough little Subie.