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2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness first drive review: Ready for adventure

Added ground clearance, beefy tires and a retuned suspension make this Forester fantastic.

2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness
Geyser Blue is a Wilderness-exclusive color.
Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Buyers have been lifting and customizing their Subarus for years (a friend of mine even fabricated rock rails for his), but now the company is offering extra capability right from the factory -- and with a warranty, too. The first off-road-ready Subaru was the 2022 Outback Wilderness. Now, the company is giving its Forester SUV a similar treatment.

A lot of the changes are familiar from the Outback: new grille, restyled bumpers, extra body cladding, copper accents and, crucially, more ground clearance. The Wilderness sits half an inch higher than a standard Forester, for 9.2 inches overall. That's more than the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands and Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. Because of the lift, the Forester's off-road geometry improves as well, with a 23.5-degree approach angle, 25.4-degree departure angle and 21.0-degree breakover. Those numbers fall behind the aforementioned Bronco Sport and Cherokee, mostly because of those SUVs' shorter overhangs, but the Forester Wilderness is still very capable for this crossover class.

The tires, including a full-size spare, come from Yokohama. These 225/60-series Geolandar all-terrain tires wrap Wilderness-specific 17-inch black wheels, and these Yokohamas can handle everything I throw at them on my test drive through the mud- and slush-covered roads of Oregon, even without having to air down. Further credit to these tires: I ran them on the Volkswagen ID 4 during the NORRA Mexican 1000 off-road race and didn't have a single flat.

The real star of the Forester Wilderness is its suspension. The retuned coil springs and dampers provide an exceptionally smooth ride. Hit a rut in the Forester Wilderness and it soaks it right up. Navigate a swath of rocks and your head won't be jostling around like crazy. I expected to be tossed around a lot more during a day of off-roading. Great stuff.

In addition to the lift, suspension tweaks and great tires, Subaru retuned the Forester's drivetrain. The Wilderness has the same 2.5-liter flat-4 engine as other Foresters, with 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque and a continuously variable transmission, but the individual gear and final drive ratios were revised. By lowering the final drive ratio, more torque is sent to the wheels at low rpm. An added bonus: Rejiggering the transmission means the Wilderness can tow 3,000 pounds, which is double that of the standard Forester.

These 17-inch wheels and all-terrain tires are unique to the Forester Wilderness.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Wilderness has extra underbody protection, thanks to a standard aluminum skid plate, but buyers can opt for a beefier one as a dealer-installed accessory. You can also add protection for the fuel tank, transmission and differential. If you plan on taking your Wilderness way into the, uh, wilderness, I highly recommend these upgrades. And if you want to camp in your Forester, the redesigned roof rails can hold 220 pounds while in motion or 800 pounds while parked -- approximately enough for three people in a rooftop tent.

The Forester Wilderness comes standard with Subaru's X-Mode off-road drive settings, but I don't even need to use them on these Oregon backroads. Unlike the standard Forester, the Wilderness' X-Mode will stay on above 25 mph and will automatically re-engage when you drop below 22 mph, meaning you don't have to keep turning it back on.

No, the Forester Wilderness isn't a hardcore rock crawler, but Subaru knows its customers use these vehicles to get to their next adventure, rather than the car itself being the adventure. All of the Wilderness upgrades are nice, but if I have one gripe, it's the forward-facing camera. Yes, it provides a 180-degree view and the picture is pretty clear, but it's projected onto the tiny upper dash screen rather than the actual 8-inch infotainment display. Come on.

Copper accents are found throughout the interior.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

On paved roads, the Forester Wilderness holds its own. The revised suspension means the ride is softer and there is a bit more body roll, but it's not intrusive, and actually makes the Forester more comfortable over longer drives. Yes, the four-cylinder engine is a little underpowered -- the Outback's 2.4-liter turbo is much better -- but the retuned CVT is a big improvement. Furthermore, the revised gearing doesn't seem to hamper the Forester's ability to cruise at higher speeds on the highway. Unfortunately, fuel economy suffers slightly, with the Wilderness estimated to return 25 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. The regular Forester does a bit better, at 26 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined.

Inside the Forester, you'll find more copper accents and plenty of Wilderness badging. The StarTex fabric upholstery is water repellant and the all-weather floor mats can handle my slushy, muddy shoes. The seats are nice and comfy and the bun-warmers keep me nice and toasty all day long.

Subaru's EyeSight suite of advanced driving aids is standard on the Wilderness, with blind-spot monitoring, precollision braking, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keeping assist. The lane centering and adaptive cruise control work together reasonably well, but are not the most sophisticated. The lane centering gets confused when a right-hand turn lane appears and the adaptive cruise control disengages pretty quickly after coming to a full stop. Other SUVs do this stuff better.

The Wilderness treatment makes the Forester even better.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Forester's Starlink infotainment system is serviceable at best. The graphics are meh, and I wish it had some kind of off-road app with information on pitch and roll, tire pressure, GPS coordinates and the like. Regardless, Starlink itself is pretty simple to navigate and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard.

As for pricing, the Wilderness trim sits in the middle of the Forester lineup, starting at $33,945 including $1,125 for destination. Considering the added capability and extra standard equipment, that's an excellent price for such a well-rounded SUV. Look for the first cars to hit Subaru dealers in December.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.