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2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness first drive review: Give the people what they want

Thanks to a number of thoughtful upgrades, Subaru's Outback Wilderness is ready for adventure.

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The Wilderness updates look cool.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Subaru says more than half of all Outback buyers put outdoorsy accessories on their SUVs. Think about it: How often do you see an Outback with a storage box or bike rack or a pair of kayaks strapped to its roof? That makes this 2022 Outback Wilderness a total no-brainer, offering rugged-from-the-factory upgrades that lean into Subaru's whole get-outta-town ethos. But you don't have to raid the REI catalog in order to appreciate this Outback's butch updo.

The Wilderness' headline spec is its 9.5 inches of ground clearance, made possible by longer springs and shock absorbers. That's the same ride height as a new Mercedes-Benz G-Class, which is pretty substantial. The 0.7-inch increase allows for extra drive-over-it capability by improving the Outback's off-road geometry. Meaty 225/65-series Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain tires (which have super-cool raised white lettering) wrap a set of 17-inch black wheels and there's a full-size spare below the cargo floor. Extra underbody protection means you won't screw up key mechanical bits should you kick up a rock or three and the Wilderness' retuned X-Mode off-road drive settings won't turn off above 25 mph like they do in other Outbacks.

All Outbacks are surprisingly good off-road and the Wilderness is definitely more capable than the vast majority of midsize crossovers and SUVs. But don't expect to see Wildernesses hanging with Wranglers in Moab; that absolutely is not what this Outback is for. Subaru says its customers want a car that can get them to an experience, rather than the vehicle itself being the experience itself (like rock-crawling with a Jeep).

For that mission, the Outback Wilderness is perfectly fine. It uses the same 2.4-liter turbo flat-4 as other Outbacks, with 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque, a continuously variable transmission and all-wheel drive (duh). Subaru increased the CVT's final drive ratio for the Wilderness -- 4.44:1 compared to 4.11:1 -- and while this doesn't result in any additional power, more torque is available lower in the engine's rev range. Subaru claims this helps the Wilderness climb a 40% grade on a gravel road, and the Wilderness will tow 3,500 pounds, though probably not at the same time.

Easy-ish trails like those at Malibu's Calamigos Ranch is where the Outback Wilderness is at its best. Sure, these two-track trails are pretty manicured, but the Wilderness' ample low-end torque makes it easy to control power delivery without too much throttle input, and the Outback willingly bounds over rough terrain. The 9.5-inch ground clearance is more generous than you think and it's reassuring to be able to just drive over large rocks or the occasional short stump without worrying about a "call a tow truck" snafu.

Here we see the Outback Wilderness in the... wilderness.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

The added rough-road prowess is definitely appreciated, but honestly, I'm way more impressed with how Wilderness drives on pavement. The added spring and shock length makes this Outback's ride downright plush and you can gently roll into the throttle to eke out the turbocharged engine's torque without requiring the CVT to rev really high, or worse, do one of its simulated 'downshifts'. Yes, the stretched-out suspension components means the Wilderness has more pronounced pitch and roll than a normal Outback, but this wagon is hardly ponderous. It's not like anyone's buying an Outback expecting sharp handling, anyway; the added highway comfort is really great.

The Wilderness' only real demerit is that the changes result in a pretty noticeable fuel economy penalty. A standard turbocharged Outback has EPA ratings of 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined, but the Wilderness drops to 22, 26 and 24, respectively.

Of course, the real appeal of the Wilderness is its added functionality. Outside, Anodized Copper accents point to useful bits like tow hooks and roof rail mount points, and Subaru substantially redesigned the Outback's roof rails for Wilderness duty, meaning they can accommodate a large tent and hold 700 pounds while stationary. Moving inside, there's vegan faux-leather upholstery and StarTex water-repellent material on the seats, cargo area and back of the rear bench. LED cargo lights provide better nighttime visibility, but sadly, there aren't any additional power sources back here, just the usual 12-volt outlets in the glovebox and center console.

The Wilderness has water-repellent seat material and Anodized Copper accents.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Overall, the Wilderness' cabin is every bit as nice as other Outback models and the StarTex seats are cushy and supportive. More Anodized Copper accents are found on the steering wheel, gear shifter and contrast stitching. Oh, and when you start the car, the Outback graphic in the gauge cluster actually depicts a Wilderness, which is a small detail many carmakers overlook.

The Wilderness comes standard with Subaru's EyeSight driver-assistance suite, incorporating adaptive cruise control with lane-centering, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning and a head-up display. One super-nice thing about getting a lift kit like the Wilderness' from the factory is that all these systems are recalibrated to account for the wagon's additional ground clearance, so they'll work just as well.

Subaru's Starlink infotainment system carries over from the standard Outback, housed on an 11.6-inch portrait-oriented display. Starlink is... fine. The graphics are a little rough around the edges and the menu structure isn't the most intuitive, but thankfully wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both included. Embedded navigation is available, too, but it's locked into a $1,845 option package that also adds a power moonroof and reverse automatic braking.

With 9.5 inches of ground clearance, you can drive over a lot of obstacles.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

The 2022 Outback Wilderness is positioned between the Onyx Edition XT and Limited XT trims, at $38,120 including $1,125 for destination. With its sole option pack, a fully loaded Wilderness slides in just under $40,000 and naturally, Subaru will offer a whole mess of accessories. Looking at the competition, you could get a loaded Jeep Cherokee for about the same price, which is better off road, but way worse to live with everyday. The Volvo V60 Cross Country is a more luxurious alternative, but it's smaller and more expensive, at $46,565 before options.

All told, the Wilderness is a perfect addition to the Outback lineup, offering added comfort, capability and functionality at a totally reasonable price. It's not just a one-off, either; Subaru's launching a whole new Wilderness sub-brand. Look for the Forester SUV to join the Wilderness lineup in the not-too-distant future. After all, that one's a no-brainer, too.