Everything old is new again
THE GOOD
  • Appealing exterior design
  • Jeep-like ground clearance
  • Smart cargo solutions
THE BAD
  • Miserable CVT behaviour
  • Fuel economy penalty
  • Crowded infotainment screen

Aging is a funny thing.

Live long enough and you’ll eventually see trends and patterns repeat themselves. Clothes come back into style, design cues which were once derided as old are now trendy, and Vanilla Ice is finally cool again. (OK, maybe not the last one.)

It would appear this phenomenon applies to cars as well. Back in the mid-’90s (which your author steadfastly refuses to believe was nearly three decades ago), Subaru witnessed customers ditching station wagons and minivans in favour of SUVs. Not content to sit idly by, the brand applied a tall-riding suspension and body cladding to its all-wheel-drive Legacy wagon, hired Crocodile Dundee, and created the Outback. The plan worked, and the Outback has long been among the brand’s best-sellers.

Jump ahead to today, and the automaker is hoping lightning will strike twice with the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness – a taller-riding, more heavily cladded version of itself. With increased ground clearance, burly styling cues, and a set of meaty all-terrain tires, the Outback’s been Outbacked.

Power: 8/10

Under the hood is a 2.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine that’s good for 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. It’s the same motor found in more expensive trims, and it’s the right choice for a vehicle of this size. That the 2.4L is the right fit for the Outback and this is the cheapest trim it’s offered in is enough to recommend the Wilderness as the pick of the litter.

Hooked up to that engine is an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that seeks to cosplay a conventional one with steps to simulate actual gears. Being a Subaru, all-wheel drive is standard equipment.

Practicality: 8/10

Cargo space is typical Subaru – large and well-shaped. The rough-n-tough rubber cargo mat is standard kit, but consider popping for the cargo sidewall and rear seatback protectors as well if you plan on frequently stuffing lifestyle gear in the back of this thing. Levers for folding the rear seat are easy to reach, as is the cargo cover that keeps valuables away from prying eyes. The tall roof rails have a higher payload capacity compared to other Outback models, and are good for 100 kg (220 lb) of gear on the move or 363 kg (800 lb) when parked – good enough for a rooftop tent. The downside, of course, is that they lack the integrated crossbars that are equipped on other Outback models.

Driving Feel: 6/10

This isn’t explicitly a diatribe about the drawbacks of CVTs. On the contrary, some engineering teams have worked magic with this technology and created these types of transmissions that are unobtrusive and inoffensive. This is not one of those times.

While generally well-behaved during normal acceleration on paved surfaces, it’s far too easy to catch it flat-footed when trying to beat a light or catch a gap in traffic. It’s like when this author asks his teenage son an unexpected question and it takes a moment for The Boy to collect his thoughts. Also like that young man, the bones of the Wilderness powertrain seem strong but could definitely use a little tweaking.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

You know how donning a heavy set of winter boots suddenly requires more effort on your part to move your feet than if you were wearing a pair of summertime flip-flops? The Wilderness trim, with its taller stance and all-terrain tires, suffers a similar effect when compared to other Outbacks with the same 2.4L turbocharged engine. It translates into roughly a 1.0 L/100 km penalty across the board, with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) rating the Wilderness at 10.9 L/100 km in the city and 8.9 on the highway. Across 225 km of testing, the Outback burned 25.1 L of regular-grade gas, working out to 11.1 L/100 km.

Styling: 9/10

This is the first mainstream crossover in ages which garnered unsolicited parking lot compliments about its appearance. Perhaps it’s the Yokohama Geolandar tires, the Geyser Blue paint, or maybe the rugged body cladding that looks as good on the Wilderness as it does terrible on the redesigned WRX.

Jumbo LED auxiliary lights certainly don’t hurt matters, nor do the anodized yellow accents on the front and rear bumpers. Fun fact: if you seek attachment points for tow hooks, they’re hidden behind the anodized covers that are easily removed with the blade of a multi-tool.

Comfort: 8/10

Given it has just 15 mm (0.6 in) less ground clearance than a base Jeep Wrangler, the Outback Wilderness rides pleasantly on city streets (where it will undoubtedly spend the vast majority of its time). The knobby Geolandar tires produce less road noise than the rubber found on Trailhawk variant of the Jeep Cherokee, likely due to the more favourable tread block design. So-called “all weather” upholstery feels robust and is likely to outlive the car. Head- and legroom were more than adequate for this long-of-limb driver.

Features: 8/10

In terms of creature comforts, the Wilderness trim brings heated seats for all outboard passengers, a front-view camera for peering over the next obstacle (or that tricky parking spot at the mall), and a handy de-icer grid beneath its windshield wipers. These types of too-practical features will make the car a pleasant companion when winter arrives. The audio system is perfectly adequate if not outstanding in any particular way, and it incorporates the likes of smartphone integration plus plenty of USB ports into which occupants can plug their devices. The centre air vents are a bit slim thanks to the jumbotron of an infotainment screen, hampering airflow.

User Friendliness: 7/10

That new 11.6-inch tablet-style infotainment system is quickly spreading across the Subaru line of vehicles, popping up here in the Outback Wilderness and dominating the centre stack. Its day-glo icons are reminiscent of Apple’s iOS, if in appearance but not in function. Some on-screen displays, such as the audio, are packed like a crowded PowerPoint presentation. Wireless charging for devices is conveniently placed as is a handy storage ledge in the dashboard just ahead of the passenger.

Safety: 9/10

Subaru likes to make noise about its suite of advanced safety equipment, and rightfully so. It includes typical kit such as lane-centring assist and pre-collision braking, while also packing in the likes of adaptive cruise control. What makes the system unique is the positioning of its forward-facing cameras, which are smartly tucked inside the car near the rearview mirror. This lessens the chance of damaging expensive equipment in the event of a minor front-end fender bender. In official crash tests, the 2022 Outback earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating, the highest honour given by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Value: 8/10

To properly assess the question of value, we need to frame the Outback Wilderness in the correct context. While it is priced some $3,000 less than a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, it lacks that rig’s low-range gearing and mechanical rear axle lock for true off-roading prowess. Whether one will ever deploy those features is up for some debate, but there’s no denying their impact on image. Aside from that consideration, the Outback Wilderness is priced appropriately for its technology and feature count.

The Verdict

By returning to the well and helping itself to another drink from the glass of “add ride height and body cladding,” Subaru has created a surprisingly good-looking machine that packs an extra dose of practicality. This new Wilderness trim has already been extended to the Forester line as well, leading one to believe Subaru feels it may have struck lightning (again) with this formula. Judging by the positive reactions of our friends and neighbours to the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness, the brand might well be right.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.4L   Model Tested 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $41,995
Peak Horsepower 355 hp @ 5,600 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 383 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm   Destination Fee $1,875
Fuel Economy 10.9 / 8.9 / 10.0 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $43,970
Cargo Space 902 / 2,144 L seat down  
Optional Equipment
None