Subaru has gone to great lengths to entice outdoor enthusiasts with its well-touted symmetrical all-wheel-drive, and model names like Forester, Outback and Crosstrek.
But nothing says rugged better than the new Wilderness trim, actually a new sub-brand for Subaru. It's already affixed to the Outback and now joins the Forester lineup for 2022 and beyond. It's more than a rugged appearance package and badges; the compact SUV has greater ground clearance, upgraded suspension and off-road drive modes like deep snow/mud.
It also is equipped with a strengthened tent-ready roof rack that can accommodate 800 pounds of campers and gear when parked. Better to stay off the wet ground and away from whatever lurks in the wilderness.
Approach and departure angles have been increased to 23.5 and 25.4 degrees, respectively, and two skid plates protect the engine and rear differential (aluminum up front, steel in the rear). A set of Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain tires handle the rough trails and choppy ascents. So, yeah, the Wilderness means business.
All Foresters get a styling refresh this year with tweaked grille and LED fog lights, but the Wildnerness gets an exclusive grille. It also adds larger wheel arches with black body cladding to fend off mud and branches, black bumpers front and rear, and a matte-black hood decal to reduce sun glare. Copper-finish accents and badging add a special look and attitude.
All Foresters get power from a 2.4-liter flat four-cylinder engine that puts out 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. A CVT (continuously variable transmission) with eight-speed manual shift mode sends power to all four wheels.
The powertrain is less punchy than most rivals. It delivers the SUV to 60 mph in around 8 seconds, which lags against foes from Honda, Toyota, Mazda and Kia. But it's fine for practical daily driving, commutes and such.
The ride is firmer than its brethren in the Subaru lineup but compliant and comfortable enough around town. The off-road tuned suspension subdues the asphalt imperfections, too, and keeps it stable on corners. Steering is accurate and braking is firm.
In traffic, a handy alert tells the driver when the car in front is moving again — so you won't get beeped from behind while checking last night's hockey scores.
But it really shines on broken dirt and gravel trails, combing over them like a personal watercraft on rippled waters. Forester's dual-function X-Mode applies the proper gearing for conditions: Normal, Snow/Dirt or Deep Snow/Mud modes optimize the traction control and power delivery.
While descending hills and maneuvering through forest trails, a 180-degree front camera offers a clear view of obstacles ahead.
The Wilderness also gets a towing boost to 3,000 pounds for easy transport of ATVs, watercraft or a small camper. It has trailer stability assist, too.
Subaru says the 3,643-pound Wilderness should get around 26 mpg combined: 25 city, 28 on the highway. Those figures are a tad optimistic, according to owner forums. Aerodynamic they're not.
The cabin reflects the wilderness theme, starting with water-repellant StarTex upholstery that looks durable and is easier to clean. All-weather floor mats keep mud and sand off the carpet. Mats and front seat headrests get embossed Wilderness logos.
Seating is comfortable and roomy, offering good visibility and ample head room for all. Driver's seat has eight-way adjustable controls. Back seats are unusually spacious for the segment, and have their own climate vents and USB connections.
Copper-colored accent stitching offers flair to the seats and matches the copper-finish accents on the dash, doors and center console. Driver pedals have brushed aluminum accents.
The infotainment system mirrors the rest of the Subaru family: An 8-inch high-resolution touchscreen serves as home to Subaru's Starlink interface and is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It is not a wireless system and has no wireless charging, but it offers Bluetooth hands-free phone and streaming. A smaller screen above is for the front camera and driver data.
The instrument panel includes analog dials for speed and RPM and a data display at center. For audiophiles, there's an available nine-speaker Harman Kardon premium sound system with 576-watt amp.
The cargo area is built for adventurers with an extra-wide hatch opening and up to 72 cubic feet of space with rear seats folded. The power lift gate also offers bright LED lighting for loading in the dark, and handy hooks on the inside of the hatch to hang wet gear while the gate is open.
Subaru's Eyesight suite of driver-assist features has upgraded camera sensors, which offer a wider view ahead and are better at detecting pedestrians or cyclists. Also new this year is an automatic emergency steering system, which Subaru says can actually turn away from obstacles.
Subaru already has a following with those chasing the rugged terrain, but the Forester Wilderness goes one better: It's more capable, can tow the outdoor toys, and even offers rooftop accommodations at day's ends. When this car's rocking....
2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness
As tested: $36,015 (Includes navigation with 8-inch multimedia touchscreen, 9-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio, reverse automatic braking, power rear gate, $1,850; engine skid plate, $220)
What's all the excitement about? Wilderness trim gives Forester serious off-road credentials, including multiple drive modes, greater ground clearance, approach and departure angles, plus upgraded suspension and towing capacity
Powertrain: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine good for 182 hp and 176 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to CVT transmission with 8-speed manual shifters
How's the performance? Not much punch on road, but good handling; 0-60 mph in 8 seconds; More fun and capable on rough trails, ascents and descents
Fuel economy: Subaru says 25 mpg city, 28 highway, for 26 combined