HOLLY, MI – That little “scritch” of fascia-on-gravel sounds ominous, but on inspection there appears to be no damage.
It might’ve been worse if not for the fact that we’re test driving the ’22 Subaru Outback Wilderness edition, a high-riding new trim level aimed at the extra-adventurous among the automaker’s already outdoorsy and active crowd.
Subaru says the Wilderness – the Outback “Plus” – should grow its volume with outdoor enthusiasts seeking a more capable vehicle to carry their gear deeper into the backcountry.
The Outback annually battles the Forester for Subaru sales leadership, while deliveries of the two nameplates combined challenge the dominance of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 in the Middle CUV segment, Wards Intelligence data shows.
The Wilderness edition’s 9.5-in. (241-mm) ground clearance is an extra 0.8 in. (20 mm) higher than the standard Outback, itself 2.8 ins. (71 mm) higher than the Legacy upon which it’s based.
Tucked-up front and rear bumpers and extended-length shocks and springs give the Wilderness improved angles on approach (20 degrees vs. 18.6), departure (23.6 vs. 21.7) and breakover (21.2 vs. 19.4).
That extra clearance combined with powertrain revisions enable the Wilderness to tackle the tough terrain Subaru throws at us as part of a test drive here at a former sand-and-gravel pit now turned into a public off-roading park.
The Wilderness shares the same 2.4L turbocharged boxer 4-cyl. with Outback XT trims, producing 260 hp and 277 lb.-ft. (376 Nm) of torque, but gets a taller 4.44 final drive along with modified ratios that focus on higher torque in the eight-step continuously variable transmission.
The ratio changes noticeably improve engine response and capability of the standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, enabling Subaru’s newest goat to climb 40-degree gravel inclines.
But the changes come with a penalty, knocking combined fuel economy down 2 mpg (0.9 km/L) to 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km). We observe 21 mpg (11.2 L/100 km) during our relatively heavy-footed 75-mile (121-km) test drive, a combination of surface streets, freeway and off-roading.
Also increasing the off-road capability of the Wilderness is a more expansive version of Subaru’s X-Mode that offers the same Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud modes, but with an extended usable range above 25 mph (40 km/h).
On the downhill runs on the off-road course, severe, loose-sand descents have us happy to let the car’s Hill Descent Control manage the braking to keep the vehicle under control.
Some of the downhills are so dramatic we rely on the Wilderness’ standard front-view camera displayed on the center screen to make sure we’re on the right path before prodding the vehicle forward into the next abyss. Even then, at the top of one incline we have to stop and exit the vehicle to physically verify the proper route ahead.
Completing the Wilderness package are a standard front skid plate, unique copper trim elements highlighting functional exterior elements (tow hooks, roof-rail tie-down points), copper interior highlights (below), LED fog lights, an anti-glare matte-black center hood decal, washable second-row seat backs, an LED rear cargo-area light and Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires mounted on 17-in. matte-black wheels.
A ladder-type roof rack capable of handling a 700-lb. (318-kg) load allows the use of a rooftop tent system. Also available is an optional package of skid plates to protect engine, transmission, fuel tank and rear differential.
Heading into the hinterlands can be an adventure, but to get there most driving comes on pavement. The Wilderness treatment does nothing to diminish the car’s ride or the stellar capability of its Eyesight adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and lane-keeping system. The boxer engine happily revs to 6,000 rpm before mimicking a shift to the next ratio.
We do note a bit more body roll in sharp corners and some negative effects of strong winds on the highway, but with extra off-road capability must come some limitations. This is a trade-off worth suffering for those who seek the wilderness beyond the Outback.
The Outback Wilderness edition goes on sale this summer priced at $36,995, plus $1,125 destination charge.