It would be hard to find a place more appropriate to showcase the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness than Bend, Oregon. To the city’s west lies Deschutes National Forest, a 1.8-million-acre backcountry paradise of fast-moving rivers, clear lakes, lush forests and snow-capped peaks. To the east is high desert, filled with sagebrush, craggy rocks and dusty trails.
These are the sorts of places Subaru knows its buyers like to explore, and the Forester Wilderness, an off-roading variant of its compact crossover, will take them even further into the wild than before.
The Forester Wilderness is the second Subaru to get the Wilderness treatment, following the Outback wagon. It builds on Forester’s capabilities with higher ground clearance, different gearing, all-terrain tires, a trail camera, more aggressive styling, increased towing capacity and a stout, camping-friendly roof rack.
With off-road adventuring and overlanding now hot even among non-car enthusiasts, the Wilderness aptly balances on-trend exploration amenities and value. This most extreme Forester will start at $33,945 including destination fees. That’s about $3,600 less than the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk but only slightly below Ford’s Bronco Sport Badlands, the Forester Wilderness’ two most likely rivals.
To demonstrate the legitimacy of the Forester’s upgrades, Forbes Wheels sampled the crossover’s abilities on a 200-mile drive around Bend at a Subaru-hosted event. Our route included a dirt trail climb to 4,600 feet above sea level, a dusty trip through an off-roading park, and miles of forest trails ranging from casual gravel roads to serious off-road terrain.
Almost every off-road mile inspired genuine confidence in the Forester, although there are tradeoffs in both on-road performance and fuel economy.
Driving the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness
Beefing up any vehicle for off-road duty is a study in compromise. On the pavement above 40 mph, there are clear concessions to making the Forester Wilderness more capable on the trail, but the tradeoffs are few.
Every Forester is powered by the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque, mated to a continuously variable automatic (CVT) transmission. But the Wilderness gets a different version of the CVT with a higher final drive ratio (4.11:1 compared to 3.70:1), a wider gear range and a different variator pulley.
Ordinarily, a numerically higher final drive ratio means a vehicle feels faster off the line than one with a lower ratio, but the regular Forester is never in much of a hurry on the highway and neither is the Wilderness. Flooring the gas pedal summons a cacophony of noise but only leisurely acceleration to highway speeds. It revs higher once you’re there, but the difference from the regular Forester is only slight.
On the trail, the different gearing puts more useful torque down low. Even on steep sandy grades the Wilderness showed no hesitation and never felt like it didn’t have enough brawn. The revised transmission also has the nice side effect of doubling the Forester’s towing capacity from 1,500 pounds to 3,000.
Higher final drive ratios also mean a hit in fuel mileage, particularly on the highway as the engine revs higher at speed. The EPA rates the Forester Wilderness at 25 mpg in city driving, 28 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg combined. That’s down 1 mpg city, 5 mpg highway and 3 mpg combined from the regular Forester. My test Wilderness performed a little better than the EPA figures, but I also didn’t run through a full tank and re-fill myself, so the jury’s still out.
The All-terrain tires made handling less precise on pavement and under hard cornering they howled, but they weren’t any noisier than a regular Forester. They do, however, make short work of sand, gravel and dirt on the trail.
Longer suspension travel keeps the Forester Wilderness’ tires mostly planted, and it gently absorbs most severe bumps. Even over deep moguls, you don’t get beat up or bounced around too badly. Over many miles of washboard gravel roads, the ride was reasonably soft and rattle-free. Its possible creaks might set in after 30,000 miles of this use, however. If a tire goes flat or a wheel gets damaged on a rock, the Wilderness has a full-size spare on a matching trim with a tire pressure monitoring sensor, unlike the space-saver spare in the regular Foresters.
The harshest test was the last mountain trail, a rocky ride downhill near Broken Top, a dead volcano. The Forester Wilderness occasionally lifted a wheel on this rutted and rough road, and use of the trail cam use was frequent, but the crossover didn’t complain. It’s fair to say that a regular Forester could have handled 80% of the woodsy roads, but probably not this final trail.
After several hours of watching every rut and mogul like a hawk, the Forester Wilderness cruised back to base as quietly and competently as a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4.
Adventure Seekers Versus Off-Roaders
“Mention off-roading and many people immediately think of rock crawling,” said Michael Redic, car line manager at Subaru of America in a pre-drive presentation, “But that’s not what Forester Wilderness is about.”
While many off-road enthusiasts buy their vehicles for the joys of off-roading itself, most Subaru customers use off-road vehicles to get to other adventures, Redic added.
A quarter of existing Forester owners—and more than 2.3 million of the crossovers have been built since 1997—are active campers, more than one-third of them use their vehicles to carry outdoor gear and 16% actively say they off-road their vehicles, Redic says, citing data from Maritz Research. After a decade of living in the Subaru-loving Pacific Northwest, I can confirm there’s a Crosstrek, Forester or Outback parked at every trailhead, a phenomenon also observed on the desolate trails of the Deschutes.
The Wilderness idea is also inspired by what Subaru has observed existing owners do to their vehicles after purchase. Lifted Foresters and Crosstreks abound on PNW trails, and companies like Oregon-based Primitive Racing and Quebec’s LP Adventures make lift kits, protective body cladding, skid plates and other components for Subaru owners who’ve historically wanted more capability than what came from the factory.
Though the aftermarket’s lift kits are more extreme, the Forester Wilderness offers extra capability to buyers who might not have their vehicles modified and who’d prefer to retain more on-road comfort than a fully off-road optimized ride like a Toyota Tacoma or Jeep Wrangler.
The Wilderness’ design also ensures Subaru’s active-safety systems are correctly attuned to the added ride height and new capabilities.
Many Subaru owners choose their cars because of those standard safety systems, which are often extra-cost options on alternative vehicles. Now they can squeeze more out of the Forester without trade-offs. “Adventure seekers are not as willing to compromise on safety or ride comfort as off-road enthusiasts,” Redic says. “They’re looking for a daily driver that can do everything but still get them to their outdoor activities.”
Building a Better Forester
Subaru has refreshed the Forester lineup for the 2022 model year, making it easier for the brand to design the Wilderness. It also means some of the features trickle down into other models.
Every 2022 Forester gets revised front and rear styling and a new version of Subaru’s Eyesight suite of driver-assistance technology with updated cameras that have a wider field of view. Also integrated throughout the line are cargo hooks in the rear and the newest iteration of the automaker’s X-mode off-road control system with its Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud settings. The revised X-mode was designed for the Wilderness, Redic related. X-mode disengages above 25 mph, but this new version will automatically re-engage below 22 mph, so you don’t have to keep hitting the button over and over again in varied conditions.
The Wilderness increases the Forester’s ground clearance from 8.7 inches to 9.2 (many aftermarket lift kits raise it above 10 inches) and adds functional front and rear bumpers, a combination that yields a 23.5-degree approach angle (up from 20 degrees in the other Foresters), a 25.4-degree departure angle (up from 24.6) and a 21-degree breakover angle (up from 19.6) for cresting sharper rises and managing steeper slopes. A forward trail cam exclusive to the Wilderness helps inform the driver in situations involving such extreme angles.
There’s also more protection too, in the form of an integrated skid plate on the new front bumper. A beefier front skid plate and shields for the engine, fuel tank and differential will be offered as dealer-installed accessories for just under $500, sans installation costs, Redic said.
The Forester Wilderness’ more aggressive styling is mainly plastic body cladding designed to ward off damage from brush and branches. The bigger grille is purely for show, but the new front face adds stylish hexagonal-pattern LED fog lights that echo the tiny hexagons embossed in the plastic cladding. It’s certainly distinctive, if not necessarily beautiful.
Up top, chunkier roof rail supports sit 20 more millimeters apart and over a more robust part of the body structure. They can now support 800 pounds when the vehicle is static and 220 pounds when it’s in motion. That allows campers to haul more gear on the roof and lets them set up larger and heavier rooftop tents for more comfortable camping.
Inside, the Forester Wilderness’ seats are upholstered in water-resistant StarTex fabric, and a beefy water-resistant cargo mat lines the rear area. A cargo door light comes in handy when loading loose gear at night. Copper accents and copper-colored stitching set the interior apart from regular Foresters, but the interior design isn’t fundamentally different and uses the same 8-inch infotainment screen and systems.
How the Forester Wilderness Stacks Up
While crossovers promise utility and seem to advertise ruggedness, the Forester Wilderness actually delivers on those points and will far outpace rivals from Toyota, Honda and Mazda off the pavement. The Toyota RAV4 Prime’s EV powertrain generates prodigious and instant torque but it has less ground clearance. Realistically, the Wilderness faces off against the Bronco Sport Badlands and Cherokee Trailhawk.
Both the Jeep and the Ford have more power but not necessarily more refined on-road driving experiences. The Trailhawk has more towing capacity, at 4,500 pounds, but the Bronco Sport less at 2,200 pounds. Both of those SUVs have superior approach and departure angles and trail control modes that do a bit more than X-mode. Still, the Forester has a distinct edge in daily driver practicality.
The Subaru matches the Cherokee and bests the Bronco Sport on passenger room, and it has more overall cargo volume than both. Subaru’s Eyesight 4 System is standard and includes adaptive cruise control, lane centering and other systems which cost extra at Ford or Jeep. The Trailhawk already costs about $3,600 more than the Wilderness, and the Bronco Sport Badlands about $1,500 more. The Wilderness also gets better gas mileage than either.
For adventure seekers looking for value, the Forester Wilderness does venture further in the wild while retaining most of its carlike on pavement demeanor. Most buyers that fit into this category don’t prioritize prodigious highway power, and they’d likely rather use the savings to splurge on a kick-ass rooftop tent and a new Kayak, all of which the Forester Wilderness is happy to haul.
Global supply remains a problem for Subaru; at the time of the drive, the automaker was down to just a two-day supply of Foresters nationwide, though the 2022 models are incoming. The Wilderness, and the other 2022 Foresters, will arrive at dealerships in early December.