Expert Reviews

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness First Drive Review

On the trail, preparation is key; but sometimes I’m the sort to fly by the seat of my slim-fit pants.

Life’s more exciting that way, if you ask me – and for the purposes of this particular tale, dear reader, I’m going to assume you did.

That’s how I ended up deep in the Arizona desert, sitting in the saddle of a fully suspended steed, pondering the next stretch of singletrack carved into the red rock that makes this area so unique. Well, what actually brought me to Sedona was the 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness, a crossover that’s ideally suited for adventure of some sort or another.

Style and Substance

Whether it’s shuttling bikes to some far-flung trail network or setting off along a rutted old logging road – or simply looking like it’s ready for either at a moment’s notice – this brawny B-segment entry isn’t your average subcompact. In truth, the Crosstrek has been begging for this sort of soft-road treatment for years now, and this Wilderness kit provides some proper presence right from the factory.

Anodized yellow accents pair well with extra cladding all around, plus there are the requisite reinforced roof rails that seem to be part of every pseudo-adventure package these days. Add in unique graphics and badges, black wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires, and an elevated ride height, and there’s no denying the Crosstrek Wilderness is dressed for whatever occasion it might encounter.

But much like Merino wool, this Subaru’s moniker is one that actually means something. That’s why the Crosstrek Wilderness comes with the kind of equipment intent on enhancing its performance off the beaten path. Beyond the tires that are just aggressive enough while remaining smooth and civilized on the street, there’s 235 mm (9.3 in) of ground clearance, a steel skid plate to protect vital components up front, and better approach, departure, and breakover angles than the standard Crosstrek.

Mechanically, the transmission’s final drive ratio has been lowered for better crawling capability, plus there’s a transmission oil cooler, and a bigger radiator and fan that together push towing capacity to a claimed 1,587 kg (3,500 lb). There’s also the kind of electronic trickery found elsewhere, like drive modes for dirt, snow, and mud, and hill descent control.

A Limited Engagement

Even without the extras, the Crosstrek is a capable little crossover that benefits from a full-time all-wheel drive system and 220 mm (8.7 in) of ground clearance of its own. More than that, it’s been hilariously over-engineered, allowing this subcompact to go further off the beaten path than its largely unassuming stature might suggest.

I was reminded of those inherent abilities during a drive along what can be best described as a rutted and rocky path akin to an old mining road jutting across the jagged landscape outside Sedona. Following closely behind an identical 2024 Crosstrek Limited, I was mesmerized by the way the exposed control arms danced rhythmically in response to the uneven surface below.

Rising and diving over and again, successively – and successfully – softening blow after blow, and all while keeping the body comfortably in control. It was a crescendo of subcompact proportions – a build-up towards the impending excitement only proper trail-riding can provide.

All-In on Adventure

There’s something hilarious and confidence-inspiring all at once about being behind the wheel of a stock Subaru on a trail where the only other vehicles encountered are modified Jeep Wranglers and extreme side-by-sides. While nothing on this designated drive route felt like it pushed this Crosstrek’s newfound limits, that’s a testament to its impressive turnkey capability.

From suspending a single wheel in the air while traversing undulating ruts deep enough to devour a conventional crossover’s rocker panels to casually climbing a rocky incline steep enough to leave nothing but clear blue sky to fill the windshield, this is a Subaru with serious off-road chops. The transmission’s new final drive ratio came in handy while climbing, handling the aggressive grade entirely free from drama, while the suspension articulated its way over rocks and shelves, and the tires provided all the traction needed across dry and occasionally loose terrain.

Back on the road, this Crosstrek behaves like any other. Sure, the tires generate a bit more noise than the ones used across the rest of the lineup, but there’s no real penalty opting for this package. Well, except its asking price – but more on that shortly.

Switching to Singletrack

Arizona being the kind of place where a Jawa might head when he’s feeling homesick (forgive the Star Wars reference, please and thanks), its landscape is tailor made for adventure. And since the when-in-Rome proverb applies to pretty much any place on the planet, I decided to carpe a couple diems and take to the trails by bike.

I was equal parts nervous and excited before I even picked up my rented ride – a carbon-framed Specialized Stumpjumper Comp. With a 140-mm travel fork and 130 mm of travel in the back, this trail bike felt a lot like the Crosstrek Wilderness in its approach: well-rounded and ready to handle most of what it might encounter.

Elevation change in this part of the world is as deceptive as it is dramatic, with climbs that can be taxing on both man and machine. In the case of the Crosstrek Wilderness, a 2.5L four-cylinder pumps out 182 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque – adequate enough to keep it from wheezing its way along. In my case, the lack of oxygen was slightly more challenging, but it left the trails no less rewarding as I worked my way across unfamiliar terrain.

Heading west, near Cathedral Rock, singletrack gashed through the underbrush like veins of rust. To the east, Llama Trail mixed fun flow with chunky climbs that would make its namesake species proud. Grip feels endless here, while hills of red, yellow, and green stand tall in the distance, their colours stacked like psychedelic layer cakes. It’s all enough to make you want to fight through the thin atmosphere in pursuit of one more obstacle – one more hurdle to overcome in the chase for Red Rock glory.

Final Thoughts

As I pondered my days’ adventures over pizza at Rotten Johnny’s, a local gem, I was struck by a sense of awe – awe of this area of Arizona that’s so unique, not to mention how I explored it. In the case of the 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness, it’s legitimate improvements that set it apart. Just as tubeless tires and a dropper post elevate what a trail bike like the Stumpjumper is capable of, the stuff strapped to this Crosstrek maximizes what it can do when the pavement ends.

Taken together, it’s a bit like what the Rubicon package is to the rough-and-tumble Wrangler – not that this Crosstrek is nearly as rugged; rather, it’s a matter of what the upgrades do to enhance this crossover’s already impressive abilities.

Equally undeniable is how expensive it is. Because unlike the Outback and Forester, both of which see their Wilderness kits slide in a couple trims from the top, this Crosstrek is the most expensive of its kind. And at $37,995 (plus a non-negotiable freight fee of $2,195), it’s a pricey proposition no matter what features it’s been fitted with.

But then there’s a specialness to this subcompact crossover that’s almost entirely unmatched in the segment. Like the Red Rock region of Arizona and its vortexes, not everyone will feel it. For those who don’t, a lesser trim like the Limited will do just fine. But for those willing to embrace what sets the Crosstrek Wilderness apart, there’s nothing else like it.