Certain automotive brands have distinguished themselves as standard bearers of responsibility; reliable, practical and durable Point A-to-Point B transportation appliances. These consumer products command a level of repeat loyalty, creating a measured amount of camaraderie among owners. In some cases, specific vehicles from specific brands carry identifiable monikers, some flattering, some not, that other drivers use to say either “I should have one of those,” or, “I would never drive one of those.”
Funny how four wheels and a glass and metal body can create such passion.
Around 1986, Subaru came out of the wilderness of niche automotive products when it created the Outback wagon, a pretentious all-wheel-drive, five-passenger workhorse that promised a hint of independence — and traction — when the tarmac ended. The brand has been marching up the American sales charts ever since.
Two years ago, Subaru introduced a newer version of the Outback, with a trim called Wilderness. Is the irony that the brand needed to remind buyers of what the original Outback was, or, has the competition forced Subaru to stretch its own paradigm?
For 2022, Subaru rolled out a Wilderness version of the Forester — $33,945 to start, $35,795 as sampled. Change the body-side cladding shape, make it a different color, increase the ground clearance, install some larger tires and wheels, spruce up the working suspension, add some colored accents on the wheels, grille and namebadges (inside and out) and voila! — a new, more capable off-roading Forester. If only it was that simple.
The engine remains the same as the base Forester ($27,070), a 2.5-liter Boxer-four making 182 hp, running through a CVT transmission with power allocated to all four wheels as symmetrical traction sensors determine. EPA mileage estimates are basically the same too; 25/28 mpg versus a realized 25 mpg for 450 miles.
Impressively, the Wilderness retains all of the charm of the other five Forester models. The cabin is spacious in both front and second row, with real adult-friendly accommodations in the back. The visibility is among the best of all crossovers, the ride is compliant no matter what the surface, while the overall driving attitude is relaxed competence. Responses are light and the car feels agile — it is sensible, practical transportation defined. Just don’t confuse the Subaru’s boxer engine with that enthusiast brand automaker that uses similar engine designs in its two-seaters.
After much griping from the critics, Subaru has rectified several control interface issues and upgraded the Forester’s standard features portfolio to better match rivals. An automatic electronic parking brake is now standard, as are an SI-driving mode selector knob on the console, automatic stop-start as well as Apple/Android capabilities. All models except the base trim get Wi-Fi hotspot functionality, while the EyeSight portfolio of electronic driving assists is standard across the board. USB ports are included up front on all models; upgrade trim to get rear-seat ports.
New features also include gesture control for the climate system, an enhanced navigation system with a larger 8-inch screen, plus a nine-speaker Harmon-Kardon stereo.
Picks and pans: The cargo hold easily swallows two sets of golf clubs and pull-carts without folding the rear seatback, which is good because the seats do not fold flat. A two-mode cargo shade helps here, but when in the way for a large load, say from the local big-box store, what do you do with the darned thing? It is amazing that the automakers haven’t designed a slot or clips on the ceiling to store the shade when you don’t want it.
The upgraded screens now feature two conventional knobs for audio functions, yet it would be very interesting to review the focus group research that says owners want the menu screen every time they start the car rather than the pre-selected screen from the last driving event. The console is nicely padded where your right knee impacts this surface, however, the Eyesight system is so sensitive that it repeatedly detected vehicles on the other side of a divided highway and braked as if they were coming at you. This technology is far from ready for true autonomous driving.
The Forester is one of Subaru’s top-selling products, although sales have been harshly affected by this year’s ongoing production issues. Strangely, the brand has lacked an expansive hybrid-powertrain effort, which its buyers would seemingly appreciate and could be provided by its new partner Toyota. Perhaps the new Solterra electric crossover coming later this fall from Subaru (and designed with Toyota) will correct this omission and move the brand from vanilla sundae serious to some emotional and zesty flavors.
Next week: Mazda CX-30 Turbo