All hail the halo.
My first car back in 1984 was the halo Volkswagen Golf GTI (nee Rabbit), the ultimate expression of the Golf hatchback. I have also owned the BMW M3 and Honda Si, halo vehicles for the 3-series and Civic, respectively. Halo badges like the GT3, STI, ZR1 and Scat Pack have also defined performance lineups for years.
But in the Age of Ute, the halo is changing. Where halo once denoted raw track performance, now it defines off-road performance as well, as buyers crave high-riding, adventure-mobiles. Sure, track prowess has translated to SUVs, with Frankenstein monsters like the Dodge Durango Hellcat and Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk — but generally the off-road halo segment is suddenly the bee’s knees. Think Jeep Rubicon, Jeep Trailhawk, Ford Bronco Sport Badlands, Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road.
Welcome the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness to the campfire.
Like its competitors, the Wilderness is based on solid off-road bones. The 2020 Outback is a treat, with its signature all-wheel-drive capability now matched by bold styling, modern interior, and even a competent driver-assist feature. Get it in black-trimmed Onyx guise and you’ll be the envy of Subie nation.
Wilderness then cranks the volume knob to 11. It wears one loud suit. If the winged Subaru WRX STI got its wardrobe tips from a Formula One car, then the Wilderness looks like a blown up La Sportiva Bushido trail running shoe.
Black cladding is everywhere, from the new front fascia to the fenders to the rear corners — even the hood gets a big black decal. Like tattoos on a cage fighter, these black marks are the markings of the off-road clan. Just check out the segment’s trend-setting Jeep Trailhawk.
It’s a halo thing, and I like it. STIs are defined by the wing, GTIs by their turbine wheels. The off-roaders gotta have their own style lingo, dude.
I’m less enamored of the drivetrain. Subaru says its customers are looking for an off-road destination vehicle — not an off-road immersion vehicle like a Jeep (ORV joke: What’s an off-roader’s nickname for a Jeep? “Subaru rescue vehicle.”). Where the STI halo gets a turbo-4 blown out of its mind, the Outback is content to supply Wilderness with the same 260-horse turbo-4 as the Onyx.
I grunted around the sandy caverns of Holl Oaks ORV Park in the Wilderness and pined for more sand-churning torque. I’m not asking for a 6.4-liter beat like the Jeep Rubicon 392, but for 40 grand, Wilderness deserves more.
Happily, Wilderness doesn’t hold back in the chassis department.
To go beyond asphalt, Outback’s top trim goes beyond its Onyx trim. Ride height is cranked up to 9.6 inches — on par with the Jeep Wrangler and higher than some other off-road stalwarts like the Chevy Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD pickups.
Clawing along the sandy trails of Darlene’s Ridge at Holly Oaks, the added lift came in handy — as did increased approach, departure, and breakover angles. The Outback is not a short vehicle after all — this is a midsize SUV over a foot longer than a Cherokee or Subie Crosstrek. Still, the long front overhang is not ideal for off-roading, so for when the approach angle ran out in some steep moguls — GRONCH! — Wilderness is armored with a front skid plate.
For another $700, you can fully armor your underbelly. It’s money well spent if you plan on going off-road frequently.
Further grip is provided by 17-inch rims and meatier sidewall Yokohama Geolander A/T off-road tires. All this hardware compliments Outback’s most ingenious electronic feature: X-mode.
Also available on the Onyx, X-mode allowed for pedal-free descents over Holly Oaks’ most diabolical descents. X-mode is conveniently located high in the Outback’s huge, Tesla-like center console screen. I punched SAND/MUD mode, and the Subie would manage hill descents at whatever mph I desired.
More precise descent control can be found on off-road beasts like the Ford Bronco, where you can set your mph. But the Outback’s feature is good enough and avoids harrowing, locked-wheel descents by carefully managing driveline torque.
X-Mode’s careful steps are also a welcome reminder that this isn’t a ladder-frame Bronco that you can muscle though the dirt. This is a unibody crossover vehicle with expanded off-road element. Expansions include roof rails that will hold a roof tent (and occupants), washable seatbacks, front-view camera and full-size spare.
Most of the time, its purpose is as an on-road commuter where the Outback’s roomy, quiet interior is more tolerable than a raw off-roader. You can talk to your fellow passengers in the back seat — including six-footers (like yours truly) who will enjoy its midsize leg room compared with smaller compacts of the off-road halo species.
2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger SUV
Price: $38,120, including $1,125 destination fee ($39,965 as tested)
Powerplant: 2.4-liter “Boxer” turbo-4 cylinder
Power: 270 horsepower, 266 pound-feet of torque
Transmissions: Automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT) with 8-speed manual mode
Performance: 0-60 mph (5.8 sec., Car and Driver); towing, 3,500 pounds
Weight: 3,896 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA, 22 mpg city/26 highway/24 combined
Highs: Rugged bod, X-mode off-road
Lows: Same ol’ turbo-4, touchscreen is distracting
Overall: 4 stars
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
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