The Subaru Forester practically sells itself. Fozzy owners love their cars, evident in a faithful following that has buyers returning to the model time and time again over the car’s five generations. Yet to keep up with the times, even Subaru has to spice things up. The new Forester Wilderness is here to fight similarly-minded outdoorsy, off-roady offerings from manufacturers trying to steal Subaru’s thunder. Is the result any good?
What makes a Wilderness, a Wilderness
We’ve covered the Forester Wilderness before. Here’s a refresher on what differentiates it from non-Wilderness models: 9.2 inches of ground clearance, front skid plate, matte black wheels, Yokohama Geolander A/T tires, enhanced X-Mode, re-tuned gearing for improved climbing abilities, 180-degree front view camera, 3,000-pound towing capacity (up from the standard model’s 1,500-pound capacity), and copper accents among other small cosmetic changes. The Wilderness is Subaru’s counter to the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Toyota RAV4 Adventure/TRD, and Ford Bronco Sport. The 2022 Forester starts at $25,895, and the Wilderness at $32,820 ($34,020 for 2023). Our tester’s sticker ran at $35,795.
We explored none of the off-road capabilities during our time with the Forester. Instead, we used it the way most of the models that are sold on four-wheeling aspirations are sentenced to. A few days of around-town use on the harsh New England streets kicked off our week-long loan. The main event was a weekend at the beach in New Jersey, our destination about 175 miles away.
Wilderness in its true element
Around town, the Forester is a decent partner. The outward visibility is excellent, which is a huge help in city driving. Partner that with decent ride quality, somewhat compact size, and a tidy 17.7-foot turning radius, and it’s a winner in day-to-day low-speed use.
The Forester is more than happy to sit at freeway speeds, though it’s not exactly the car’s forte. The 2.5L Boxer engine is merely adequate. It doesn’t feel overtaxed, but 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque aren’t exactly much. It’s worse so considering the Wilderness’ 3,620-pound curb weight. Still, it carries speed just fine once you get there. Truthfully, the powertrain is fine enough, but the CVT used here is somewhat bothersome. Real gears are sorely missed.
Spending a few hours in the saddle makes you appreciate how far the Forester has come. It used to be a no-frills vehicle with basic accouterments. Today’s Fozzy isn’t a luxury car, but the amenities are rather good. The water-repellent seats are very comfortable, the sunroof is large, and there’s a whole suite of safety technology that mostly fades into the background when not actively in use. The 8-inch Starlink navigation/infotainment system is intuitive enough and has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The only interior letdown is the Harmon Kardon system, which could use a bit more adjustability.
Loaded up and truckin’, er, CUVing
We packed the Forester to the gills for this trip. The week prior, we loaded up a 2022 Chevrolet Traverse RS AWD for a trip to New Hampshire, then shoved the same amount of stuff into the Subaru. The Forester only has 26.9 cubic feet of space in its trunk, but it’s basically a big box. You might have to get creative. For us, that meant stashing some baby-related necessities on the unused side of the second row. Subaru owners aren’t scared of a roof box if it comes to that. Note that a rear-facing car seat fits just fine and definitely better than in a Mazda CX-5.
The most notable moments of my time with the Forester Wilderness came at the end of our beach stay. Hurricane Ian had made its way up to the Northeast after ravaging Florida, and the remnants of the destructive storm weren’t going out without a bang. 40 MPH winds and intense rain led us to bail on our stay one day earlier than intended, leaving just as the storm was worsening.
It’s instances like this in which the Forester excels. Through the heavy wind and constant rain, the Forester felt exceptionally sure-footed. Being the right size, easy to drive, and having such great visibility all help inspire confidence in situations such as this. We ran through a few areas of minor flooding and were thankful to have the Wilderness trim’s extra ground clearance. And still, nothing we crossed even grazed the surface of its fording depth limits. Through the storm, the Forester was unflappable.
N/A engine; power N/A
If there’s one manner in which the Wilderness trim falters, it’s fuel economy. Normal Foresters are rated at 26/33 city/highway MPG. The Wilderness, because of its gearing and physical changes that hamper aerodynamics, drops down to 25/28. In today’s realm, that’s not great gas mileage, given how little power the Wilderness makes. Don’t forget that the early Forester XT had a 2.5L turbocharged engine. It made 230 horsepower, and the car weighed almost 400 pounds less than the Wilderness. It got worse gas mileage, but the on-road sportiness once present in the Forester line has vanished.
The lack of power is my main complaint with the Forester Wilderness. Giving it the FA24F engine that’s used in the Outback Wilderness and WRX and pairing it with a manual transmission would make automotive enthusiasts’ dreams come true. But that would cannibalize sales of the WRX, which is the company’s new halo car in the wake of the STI’s death. If Subaru gave us this engine and transmission in the Crosstrek or Forester Wilderness, it would be game over.
So good it hurts knowing how great it could be
As-is, the Forester Wilderness is a truly good vehicle. It’ll go places off-road that most owners will never even consider, and on-road it gets the job done while looking appropriately aggressive. Confidence is king, and why Subaru has made its name on all-wheel-drive branding. The Forester Wilderness is the epitome of what the company has become: Safe, almost to a fault. This model is so good at its intended function that it’s actually somewhat boring. That might not matter to those who buy the car. The Forester Wilderness is the poster child for succeeding at a given purpose. Give it more power, and it would transcend simply checking the boxes, from lifestyle-encourager to true do-it-all greatness.