The original Subaru Outback was a daring attempt to turn the station wagon into an SUV on the cheap for the brand. Not the first, but the first to do it successfully (sorry, AMC), adding exterior body cladding, extra ride height, and chunkier tires to the Legacy wagon to create a model that would eventually push the long roof Legacy right out of the market. Nearly 30 years later, Subaru is going back to the same formula and looking to strike gold once again. This time taking the Outback and lifting it higher, adding even more cladding, and adding even meatier all-terrain tires to create the Outback Wilderness.
Subaru's Outback already had some of the best ground clearance in the segment, combined with more off-road capability than most owners were likely to ever put to the test, for Wilderness, the brand could easily have continued with what it started with the Outdoor XT trim. A model that added some stain-resistant seats and its own version of body cladding to meet the rising tide of off-road intender crossovers and SUVs that are hitting the market.
Instead, Subaru made actual and useful changes. Like a ride height increase of nearly 25 mm to give it an impressive 241 mm. More usefully, skid plates now protect the important parts of the driveline and high-sidewall Yokohama all-terrain tires offer white lettering for style and more traction in sand, dirt, mud, and snow than all-seasons. They're also more durable so you don't need to worry about every rock on the trail taking out a sidewall. Just in case, Subaru has put a full-size spare in the hatch.
Add the all-weather upholstery and rubber mats, and this is a vehicle that encourages you to head off into, well, the wilderness. Which is exactly what I did in this Subaru, heading down abandoned logging roads in search of new places in the backwoods of Nova Scotia.
Raising the body and adding more suspension travel to go with it is a quick path to ruining the ride of a vehicle - take a spin in any full-size pickup off-road pack for an example - but Subaru has managed to rein in that effect. This isn't the same cushy ride and gentle body roll that a standard Outback offers, Wilderness is slightly firmer riding than we recall the Outback being and it also comes with less body roll, but it's still on the softer side. It translates well on gravel trails and logging roads, soaking up bumps, rocks, and ruts, giving you astonishing ride comfort on the trail. We're talking drink your full hot coffee smooth, here, on roads that would have most SUVs filling their cupholders with that caffeine.
The ride, plus the skid plates and tires, mean you can make good progress in places you're more likely to find ATVs than other crossovers. Making off-roading more comfortable for passengers makes it more likely that they'll want to come with you on those off-road treks, including passengers with two legs as well as four. Adventure is always better with more friends along for the trip, especially if you're headed out of cell phone range.
Power comes from Subaru's 2.4-litre turbo-four. A boxer, of course, making 260 hp. It's got all-wheel drive with various terrain modes, and the transmission is a CVT that simulates gear changes meant to feel more like an automatic. Instead, the CVT feels lazy, always a step or two behind your driving. The off-road kit of the Wilderness cuts into the fuel economy rating by about 1 L/100 km, but I didn't notice much of one on the road.
If you're the kind of person who likes to stay for a night or two in the wilderness, the Wilderness has your number. Use the 920L of cargo space with the seats up (2,144 when folded) to bring your camping gear or make use of the new roof rack that can handle 318 kg of load when the vehicle is parked. That's enough for a few people to sleep in a roof rack tent, something that risks serious roof damage in most crossovers, and handy when you're camping off the beaten track. No, we didn't test it out, but the new rack sure looks beefier than the standard one.
Beyond the seats and the copper interior accents, this is standard Outback up front, meaning Subaru's large 11.6-inch portrait layout screen. The big screen handles most of the climate duties and can show you some off-road data, but it's not exactly cutting edge for the industry. Everything on this screen is huge, unless you're using Android Auto. Then you only get to use about half of the screen, an issue they fixed in 2021 for Apple users. The climate controls are always on screen, which is handy, but the whole system is sluggish. If you're into audio quality, it's even more disappointing. This system is all highs, with everything we listened to overly bright and harsh. Spoken word audio is nearly painful.
Subaru's EyeSight driver assistance system is standard, offering adaptive cruise, lane keep assist, pre-collision braking, and more beeping than a fast-food kitchen at lunchtime. The system works well, despite the noises, though the system's massive top of windshield sensors blocks the sun visors and the view of any drivers sitting high up.
Call this the Outback Squared. If you like the existing Outback, the Wilderness does all of the things its predecessor does and offers some very useful extra features. It makes the Outback even better at giving you that nudge to explore and find new places. It's exactly what we did and found a pristine hidden beach that might be the best-hidden swim spot in the province. No, we're not going to tell you where it is. The point of exploring is to find your own places.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.