2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness First Drive Review: An Off-Roadable Daily

The 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness you see in the photo above is dusty and muddy after an afternoon of trawling through a national forest, as it should be. One of its wheels in the air as it successfully navigated through a particularly gnarly bit of trail that looked as though someone hand-grenaded it. Also as it should be. This is the off-road version of the Forester and it lives up to expectations. 

With the Forester already beloved by fans for its practicality and versatility, Subaru made the Wilderness version of it ready for just about anything with a slew of off-road additions. So if you’ve ever looked at a muddy embankment while sitting in your normal Forester and wondered if you could get through it, the Wilderness is the answer to those musings. As long as you don’t ask it to do this, the two of you’ll be copacetic. 

2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness: By the Numbers

  • Base Forester price (Forester Wilderness as tested): $26,320 ($34,165)
  • Powertrain: 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder | continuously variable transmission | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 182 @ 5,800 rpm
  • Torque: 176 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Cargo volume: 26.9 cubic feet
  • Max towing capacity: 3,000 pounds
  • Off-road angles: 23.5° approach | 21° breakover | 25.4° departure
  • Curb weight: 3,643 pounds 
  • Ground clearance: 9.2 inches
  • Estimated fuel economy: 25 mpg city | 28 highway | 26 combined
  • Quick take: An off-road-capable Forester that doesn’t lose what already makes the Forester a great daily driver.

The Basics

As one of Subaru’s top-selling models (the Outback and Forester traded places for first between 2019 and 2020) it was only a matter of time before the automaker Wildernessified the Forester the same way it did the Outback Wilderness back in March of this year

But unlike the Outback Wilderness, the Forester Wilderness does not come with the coveted 2.4-liter turbocharged engine. Rather, it uses the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder to send its power to all four wheels via a CVT. (When asked why the Forester wouldn’t be getting the turbo unit, a Subaru rep said that it came down to pricing; the addition of the upgraded motor would have raised the Forester Wilderness’s pricing to be too close to the Outback Wilderness’. Shame.) That CVT, however, has been slightly retooled here to have better low-end torque and the towing capacity has been increased from 1,500 pounds to 3,000 pounds.

I’ve never found the current-gen Forester to be a particularly attractive vehicle, but in this guise, it does look pretty cool. Wilderness-specific exterior features include all-new front and rear bumpers, new LED fog lights, an anti-glare hood decal, Wilderness badges, and extra plastic cladding all around. A fixed roof rack—good for a 200-pound dynamic load capacity and an 800-static load limit—comes with attractive copper-colored detailing. The 17-inch alloy wheels are wrapped in Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain tires and there’s even a full-size spare—wheel and tire included—under the floor of the trunk.

There’s an aluminum front skid plate as standard and the overall ride height has been raised from 8.7 inches to 9.2 inches. Subaru says the suspension has also been retuned to reduce body roll despite the added height. 

Inside, it’s pretty standard Subaru fare, with all the controls where you’d expect them to be, just accompanied by copper-colored accents and contrast stitching. The infotainment system is accessed via an eight-inch touchscreen with physical dials and buttons for the radio and climate. Here, however, the seats have been upholstered in a water-resistant material that makes them easier to clean. A black headliner means that scuffs won’t show up as easily and rubber floor mats come as standard. Finally, there’s an LED light located in the ceiling of the trunk so that you can load your nature toys more easily after the sun’s gone down. All in all, it’s a very thoughtful interior that, at first pass, feels like it’ll hold up to outdoor recreation well.

Paved Driving

Almost immediately, I noticed how much quieter the Forester is on highways than the Outback is. Yes, the engine drone is very loud when you lean into the throttle, but at cruising speeds, the wind and road noise never exceed an acceptable minimum, which was impressive given the all-terrain tires. And good to Subaru’s claims, the Forester Wilderness didn’t have the bounciness that the Outback Wilderness did. There was no more body roll in the corners than normal. 

From the driver’s seat, I was pleased by how high I could raise the seat itself because it meant that I could look down the hood instead of over it. And because the beltline is relatively low and the windows are big, seeing out of the Forester Wildnerness was a breeze. After a couple of hours spent in both the driver’s seat and the passenger seat, I can also say the Forester is a comfortable place to sit.

The brakes were responsive and despite the lack of a turbocharger, the 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque were more than enough for merging and passing. Similarly, the CVT was perfectly adept at doing its job, making the Forester an agreeable around-town car and highway cruiser. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t even notice it was there, which is the hallmark of a good transmission that isn’t supposed to draw attention to itself.

But the whole point of the Forester Wilderness is to do some off-road stuff, so that’s exactly what I did next with it.

Not-Paved Driving

As I said before, I don’t know if this car can handle Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco levels of rock-crawling. But for those, like, 95 percent of other unpaved situations, the Forester Wilderness is the friend you want.

Over slippery sand, up and down a gravel hill, and across a heavily rutted and muddy road, the Subaru confidently planted its tires and happily stuck its nose right into the thick of things. In the off-road-specific X-Mode—which comes with two settings: Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud—it was able to control individual wheelspin so that I felt confident driving up a hill I didn’t love walking up moments before.

If the CVT was invisible on-road, I never even spared it a thought off-road. Especially when it came to climbing stuff: It kept the power coming smoothly and without any hiccups so I could focus on everything else the car was doing. With the windows down, I could hear the wheels slipping occasionally, sure. But from a forward momentum perspective, the uphill action was uninterrupted. I could still steer and power up a loose surface without a worry.

Similarly, the car’s hill descent system made coming back down just as easy. Maybe it’s something you find invasive, but I welcomed it. I don’t do a lot of off-roading, so I found the aid to be an extra security net. I could modulate the throttle without using my other foot to brake because the car was doing it on its own—think of it like one-pedal hill descent. 

Scroll through the video carousel below to see the car in action:


The improved ride height and off-road angles came in especially handy during the grenaded-looking part of the trail. Lesser SUVs would have bottomed out here for sure, but it didn’t stop the Subaru. Bouncing slightly on its suspension, I was able to ease the car over the aggressive terrain. It jostled me in my seat—and there were times where I was convinced I’d be stuck—but the worst never happened. The Forester Wilderness bopped its way onto level ground and was ready for more. You’ll thrill your friends because you, too, can do all that in a Forester, man!

Two complaints arose during the off-roading, however. 

First: The image from the car’s front-facing camera did not appear on the larger, eight-inch, main infotainment screen, but rather on the secondary screen above it. This secondary screen was not only smaller but was also set further back, which made the feed difficult to see. When the car’s nose is pointed at the sky and I’m not sure where the rest of the road is, I’d like to be fed as much visual information as easily and as clearly as possible before I make my next move.

Second: The lightly weighted steering that makes the Forester so effortlessly liveable on paved roads didn’t offer as much communication as I would have liked on the trails. There were times when I couldn’t really see where the trail was going but I also wasn’t getting the information I needed through the steering column via the front wheels, which shook my confidence a bit. 

These two things are by no means a dealbreaker, of course. As a whole, the Forester Wilderness surprised me with how capable it is off-road. As with the Outback Wilderness, this isn’t just some SUV with a few off-road vanity bolt-ons. It’ll roll in the mud and muck alongside anything this side of a Wrangler.

Pricing and Competition

Subaru Forester Wilderness models come from the factory already pretty loaded up, as they’re based on the Forester’s Premium trim that includes a 10-way powered driver’s seat, a sliding panoramic moonroof, and an optional powered rear gate. As mentioned above, Wilderness-trimmed Foresters get the heightened ground clearance, 17-inch matte-black alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, X-mode, hill descent control, a water repellent interior, a 180-degree front-view camera, Subaru’s EyeSight driver-assist tech with advanced adaptive cruise control, and copper accents within and without. All of that can be had for a starting price of $33,945 including destination.

The test car I drove was basically the basest Forester Wilderness model you could get, with the only optional extra being a $220 engine under-guard. Total MSRP for that car came to $34,165.

Regular Foresters can count the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Nissan Rogue, Jeep Cherokee, Hyundai Tucson, and Kia Sportage among its competitors. But when you Wildernessify it, only the Cherokee Trailhawk really stands a chance, as the rest of the bunch probably wouldn’t be able to keep up as easily on the trails. With a starting price of $38,095, however, the Jeep is a tad more expensive than the Forester Wilderness—yet it uses a naturally aspirated 3.2-liter V6 that produces almost 100 more horsepower.

During my drive, though, I wasn’t wanting for more power in the Subaru. You don’t need to go more than 10 mph on the trails anyway. And off the trails, I happily took the comfortable seats and good driving position over additional power and speed. The car shines as a daily and impresses as a medium-rare off-roader. 

The Forester Wilderness is the one that’ll take you and your muddy mountain bikes to the trailhead that’s five miles off the beaten path. It won’t climb the mountain for you, but it’ll get you close enough that you’ll be able to do it yourself. And it’ll be there to take you home when you get back, washable interior and all.

Got questions? Hit me up at kristen@thedrive.com.


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