From the February/March 2022 issue of Car and Driver.
In 1982, my parents replaced their rear-drive Buick Regal with a four-wheel-drive Subaru GL wagon, a car that revolutionized Maine winter driving for the Dyer household. No more begging for ashes from a neighbor’s wood stove to throw under the tires—just pull the stubby lever to the left of the shifter and you were on your way. The GL’s deep-snow acumen implied all-terrain invincibility. And as soon as spring arrived, my father took the wagon out on some nearby trails and got it righteously stuck, high centered on a log lying across the path. That day Dad learned that when it comes to off-roading, a four-wheel-drive car is still a car.
Despite ads glorifying river crossings and dusty dirt roads, I don’t recall early-1980s Subaru promising any real trail capability for its diminutive four-by-fours. Forty years later, the humble Subaru wagon has evolved into something more like a real SUV, in the form of the 2022 Outback Wilderness. More than cosmetic, the Wilderness brings legit hardware: a lifted suspension that provides 9.5 inches of ground clearance, a front skid plate, revised bodywork to increase approach and departure angles, and Yokohama Geolandar A/T G015 tires. Those all-terrain tires sport raised white letters, a feature scientifically proven to increase both off-road prowess and the odds that fellow motorists will ask for your CB handle. Under the hood, a 260-hp turbocharged 2.4-liter flat-four is standard equipment, and low-speed trail pickin’ is facilitated by a shorter final-drive ratio: 4.44:1.
To put all of this to the test—along with, maybe, the Wilderness’s water-resistant upholstery and rubber floor mats—I point the Outback’s flat-black hood toward Broken Nut Off Road Park, a 350-acre spread in Jefferson, South Carolina. There’s little online about Broken Nut besides a few Google reviews that imply lots of mud and “random stuff out in the woods.”
When I pull onto the access road, I’m not entirely sure I’m at the right place. The drive in passes a junkyard filled with unlikely detritus—tractor-trailer trucks, heavy equipment, dismembered ATVs. A rusty forklift marks the entrance to a homemade carwash fashioned out of steel I-beams, complete with a credit-card swipe machine (none of it working). There are a disconcerting number of overturned port-a-potties. If you’re in the market for dump-truck parts and tetanus, it’s a one-stop shop. The woman who checks me in (admission: $15) is very nice. She also represents the last time I will encounter any kind of supervision.
Farther down the road, the trees and defunct machinery give way to a parking area fronting two 50-yard mud bogs. The rat-a-tat-tat of piped quads echoes off the hills as the morning crowd unloads trailers and makes the first passes at the bogs. Most of the ATVs are jacked-up models with huge tires and snorkels, a portentous clue about the type of terrain awaiting out back yonder.
Water hazards in places like this are always treacherous because you don’t know whether they’re 10 inches or 10 feet deep. I watch a few quads go through the nearest bog before deciding whether to subject the Subaru to its first challenge. The water doesn’t look much more than a foot deep, evidently with plenty of traction down below, so I pull around to the end of the pit and select the Deep Snow/Mud setting on the Wilderness’s X-Mode terrain-management system. I’d expected the local Realtree ATV crowd to be maybe a little hostile toward a Subaru on their turf, but as I’m steeling my nerves, a guy rides up and cheerfully calls out, “You can do it! No problem!” I’m keenly attuned to notes of sarcasm, but if I’m not mistaken, he’s just honestly encouraging me. I plunge in. And the engine promptly stalls.
As per my recon, the water isn’t deep, maybe up to the lower bumper. Couldn’t be hydrolocked. So I restart and plow forward another 50 feet, pushing a modest bumper bow wave—and stall again. Uh-oh. One more restart and I make it all the way out, but the Wilderness seems to dislike water of even modest depth. I pop the hood and open the airbox to find the filter totally dry, as expected. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Subaru doesn’t brag about fording depth, in the manner of Jeep, Land Rover, and, uh, Ford. Well, we’ll avoid the ‘Sippi holes from now on. Plenty other terrain out here.
Deeper into the property, the trail becomes unexpectedly beautiful, wending through tall pines as it descends toward a perfectly clear river. At one point, I encounter a log and take advantage of that healthy ground clearance to pop right over it, exacting revenge on behalf of all Subaru wagons against all logs over the past four decades.
Down near the river, a swampy area fronts some steep hill-climbs, so I decide to test those approach and departure angles along with Subaru’s claim that the Wilderness can claw its way up a 40 percent gravel grade. My chosen slope isn’t that steep, but it is daunting, rutted and crisscrossed by eroded tree roots. After one failed attempt, a bit more speed bounces me ahead, the turbo four’s 277 pound-feet of torque cooperating with the short gearing to huck 3973 pounds of Outback over the summit. On the way down, the CVT’s grade sensing kicks in, amping up the engine braking as the car points straight down. When the nose pulls back up, I see that several members of the Carolina Mudderz ATV club have paused their muddin’ and water wheelies to watch the Subaru flex its talents. I think they’re impressed, even if I don’t follow them into a nearby bog. I’m brave but not bonkerz.
I still haven’t found terrain that really gives me that “Is this a bad idea?” sour stomach familiar to any seasoned off-roader. I soon find such a trail, essentially a terraced path along the river, with an unclimbable hill on the left and the water about 20 feet down the bank. There’s mud and rocks and nowhere to turn around. Once I’m in, no way through it but to do it.
I make it about 100 yards before the Outback’s skid plate fetches a pumpkin-sized rock hiding under the mud as the ruts send two tires nearly in the air. A passing ATV rider jumps off and rocks the car, helping it find traction for a moment, but there’s nowhere to go.
Time to put on my waders and tag in the Raptor. Have I failed to mention the Ford Raptor? My bad. You see, when off-roading, it’s prudent to employ the buddy system, especially when that buddy has 450 horsepower and 37-inch tires. Unfortunately, I’d gambled that my comeuppance would involve getting towed out from the front, so I have the tow eye and strap ready to go on the wrong end of the car—set up to drag the Subaru deeper into this mess rather than out of it. I plod around front, mud trying to suck the waders off my feet, and transfer the tow eye from the front left to the rear right. With the Raptor helping rewind the final 50 feet of the journey, I get the Outback to the trailhead. Several warning lights are ablaze. I don’t know why, since nothing appears to be mechanically awry. Maybe the Subaru just didn’t like being stuck—”check engine” as bruised ego.
But the Wilderness is running and driving perfectly, so I set off on the two-hour drive home. Along the way, I stop at three carwashes in a bid to ensure that the Outback doesn’t harden into a rolling brick of South Carolina clay. By the time I’m nearing my house, there’s no outward evidence that earlier in the day this car was plunging into the muck with the likes of Can-Am high-lifters and trail-rat XJ Jeep Cherokees.
And that’s what’s impressive. As my dad haphazardly discovered in the 1982 GL wagon, getting into the wilderness is easy. The hard part is getting back out.
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