The Subaru Outback has been taking people into the great outdoors for over a quarter-century, and now there’s one to help you avoid all of them who are crowding up the place.
The Outback Wilderness is the most off-road capable version of the popular wagon utility vehicle. Subaru says it didn’t design it for the purpose of going 4×4 driving, but rather to get its most adventurous customers to more remote locations for the other fun stuff they like to do like rock climbing, kayaking and searching for bigfoot, I suppose.
It’s the first of what will likely become a sub-brand of slightly more extreme machines for Subaru and instantly recognizable by its chunky matte black bumpers, wheel arch protection and giant fender badges, which look inspired by park service logos.
Its suspension has been redesigned and uses longer coils to help increase its ground clearance from Subaru’s signature 8.7 inches to 9.5 inches, which is more than some pickups and real deal SUVs offer. It has a front skid plate, four tow hooks hidden behind copper covers and knobby all-terrain tires on 17-inch wheels including a full-size spare mounted to the same rim design.
The all-wheel-drive system has been updated with lower gearing to deliver a little more grunt from the 260 hp 2.4-liter flat-four-cylinder to the wheels through the Outback’s continuously variable transmission, and the X-Drive traction management system reprogramed to make the most of it on a variety of surfaces.
Water-resistant upholstery, an uncarpeted rear seatback and rubber floor mats are aimed at better handling messes, while a stronger roof rack with a 700-pound static weight rating can handle a rooftop tent. It uses fixed crossbars for the extra strength, however, rather than the Outback’s trick foldaway type.
On the road, the Outback Wilderness feels like a lifted custom and a bit more roly-poly than the other models, but the EyeSight electronic safety system, with automatic brakes, lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control, has been calibrated to accommodate for the changes. Try doing that in your garage on a modified vehicle.
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A couple of quick saws at the steering wheel are all it takes to get the stability control system to engage, and very evident of Subaru’s safety-first philosophy, even if you plan to do life-threatening activities once you get out of the vehicle.
Stay in it when the road gets rough and you’ll find that it’s a very competent machine. Eight tenths of an inch doesn’t sound like much, but it does wonders for approach, departure and breakover angles and can unlock new levels in your favorite forest.
It’s not afraid to go for a swim, either. The ambitiously rugged trail Subaru set up at the Monticello Motor Club for a test included a rocky stream that was deep enough to reach over the bottom of the doors and create bow waves that crested the hood. Suffice it to say, I made it out with dry shoes and the engine running.
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The all-wheel-drive system is commendable, but does still slip more than a true 4×4 system would on steep loose slopes as it decides where to send the power. On the way down, the hill-descent control locks it at crawl speed without any need to hit the brakes and gives you time to enjoy the view through the optional front camera.
Fuel economy drops from 26 mpg combined to 24 mpg due to the tires and an aerodynamic profile compromised by the lift, but the Wilderness maintains the Outback’s 3,500 towing rating.
The Outback Wilderness starting price of $38,840 drops it into the lineup among the more luxury-mined Limited and Touring models, but it rises above all of them.