Kingston, ON - In a few years, when the pandemic is behind us, we'll be able to gauge just how much this global crisis has changed our daily lives. One of them is certainly a renewal of the desire for adventure and enjoying life to the fullest, especially in Canada where travel outside the country was almost out of the question for many months. Canadians turned to other projects: some finally renovated their homes, others bought the sports car of their dreams, and son. Some outdoor enthusiasts took to the road again, and pointed their vehicle towards the most remote regions they could get to.
That last group is more or less the target audience of the new 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness that I had occasion to test drive for a day recently in and around beautiful Kingston, Ontario.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: the Subaru Outback is already an excellent choice for exploring our vast country, just like a number of other utility and family vehicles are. I say this because, for those who don't like to overtly advertise themselves as outdoor enthusiasts, like this Outback Wilderness does, any of the six other versions of the model can easily play the same role as this new, more-focused edition.
Wilderness. Remember the name
During the virtual presentation of the new variant, the folks at Subaru Canada remained evasive about the future of this new badging affixed for the first time to a Subaru product. But it's clear that the automaker has plans for the Wilderness trim level. It may well even become a sub-brand oriented towards off-roading, designed to appeal to those not apt to go for other-level-rugged 4x4s.
The important thing to remember is that if this new trim is successful, Subaru won’t hesitate to extend its marketing strategy to other models. Think of the Crosstrek and the Forester, for example. After all, if the Subaru Outback's Outdoor XT trim is giving way to the Wilderness edition for 2022, why not the same strategy for the Crosstrek Outdoor? We’ll know more about that in a few months.
So what is the Wilderness?
Before I give you my driving impressions, it’s worth going into the particularities of this Outback variant with its more aggressive look. Worth mentioning are the black plastic-rich silhouette heavily treated with black plastic elements, fender flares and bumpers that are more rugged in appearance - some colleagues have even compared the two ends of the crossover to the now-defunct Pontiac Aztek - and those creases in the corners of the bumper.
The LED fog lights, exclusive grill and matte black decal (to reduce glare, we're told) are also noteworthy, as are the exclusive wheels from Enkei, wrapped in Yokohama Geolander G015 A/T off-road tires. Note also the presence of a fifth rim identical to those bolted to the vehicle and a tire from the same series. In other words, if a flat tire occurs in the woods, the adventure can continue and you’ll never feel the difference.
The model also gets exclusively-designed roof rails that can support more than those of the other Outbacks. Great for supporting a retractable tent, for example! As for all those anodized copper-coloured accents, they harbour new locations for the tow hooks in the bumpers, among other elements.
Underneath the vehicle, the Outback Wilderness has four skid plates (to protect vehicle front, engine, transmission and differential), and these can be life-savers when making certain manoeuvres. Ground clearance is also higher at 9 inches instead of the regular 8.7 inches, while the calibration of the springs, shocks and even the steering is modified to improve stability or to match the new suspension settings.
The X-MODE mode has also been reworked for the occasion, with a “Deep Snow/Mud” mode that can operate at any speed, while the angle of attack can be seen on the central touchscreen on the dashboard.
Finally, the interior reveals a few new features such as rubber floor mats and headrests with the Wilderness logo, as well as easy-to-wash fabric on the seats - a “must” for a vehicle destined to go where it’s dirty. There’s also yellow stitching and “anodized copper” accents on the steering wheel and the gearshift lever.
The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is equipped to venture out, even if it doesn't have the same arsenal as the really tough guys.
On the road
Our test drive in Ontario allowed us to discover an Outback that's as agile as its more-sober brethren in the model lineup. Winding roads never rattled the family vehicle and the more aggressive tires didn't make it louder, which is good news for those who like the look of the vehicle and don't necessarily need an off-road vehicle every day. More on this in a bit.
Despite a slightly spongy feel, the steering is responsive and the steering wheel feels good in your hands with its particularly thick wheel rim. Even though the crossover is exclusively equipped with a CVT, you can change gears yourself when you feel like playing “driver” in tight corners. Otherwise, the automatic unit does very well, although it’s not recommended to push too hard. Grating spikes in decibel levels are still part of the CVT reality.
On that note, the 2.4L turbocharged flat-4 engine (260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque) is very well suited to the SUV's chassis, and passing manoeuvres are painless and more or less effortless. It is a shame that this model doesn't come with a “Sport” function, if only to deliver more rumbling from the engine bloc, but then the Outback's mandate is not to make like the WRX.
Away from the road
The folks at VDG (Vehicle Dynamics Group), the agency mandated by Subaru Canada to organize the driving event, had prepared for us a nice off-road course that was clarely used by other off-road clubs in the area. And it was here that we were confirm for ourselves that you don't have to drive a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon to clear off-road obstacles, at least mild-to-moderate ones.
The itinerary included a rocky section at very low speed and a crossing of a hole of impressive depth that looked like it would pose a real challenge to a vehicle like the Subaru Outback. Then came sections practiced at higher speeds and even a very steep climb. I'll be honest, it wasn't the roughest ride I've seen in my 15 years in the business, but for an elevated station-wagon like the Subaru Outback, the challenge was real.
The two drive modes offered by the X-MODE function work very well in rougher situations, as does the all-wheel drive. Where the vehicle loses a few points is in terms of traction. The all-terrain tires performed very well on pavement, but in a few places, they did lack bite.
Mind you, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the crossover will be used mainly on asphalt roads. But for those who are used to all-terrain driving, let's just say that there are more specialized tires for this type of exercise. Subaru's choice is a clever compromise between on- and off-road needs.
The last word
This new Outback trim actually allowed me to reacquaint myself with my love for Subaru’s elevated wagon - although Subaru doesn’t call it that of course since wagon a taboo phrase within the brand apparently.
Whether you opt for the Wilderness option or any other trim level, the Subaru Outback is the perfect definition of what an automotive Swiss Army knife should be. Super practical with its large trunk and roof rails to accommodate a cargo box, comfortable on or off the road, capable of crossing shallow rivers or tougher obstacles yet comfortable on the asphalt, Subaru’s crossover can wear many hats!
The outdoorsy look
Impressive off-road capabilities
Overall handling on the road
We like less
Off-road tire traction (on occasion)
The decibel level increases
Some functions on the touchscreen are difficult to access