The only thing hotter than a factory “Safari” car from Subaru may be the temperatures at the Safari rally itself. Subaru made their World Rally Championship debut at the Kenyan Safari Rally in 1990, and have been known to inject a little bit of that rally heritage into each of their vehicles ever since. And even though they *understandably* didn’t send us to Kenya to test out the new 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness, we did get an entire day off-road in Zion National park.
Enthusiasts have been creating their own version of the “Wilderness” trim for years by installing all-terrains, lift kits, and anything else their heart desires on their cars to make them more off-road capable. Subaru finally introduced their own version in 2021 when they debuted the Outback Wilderness. It was followed closely by the Forester Wilderness, and now they’ve given the Wilderness treatment to their smallest crossover. While nothing about the Wilderness trim is particularly “Wild” on paper, it is a specifically curated and well thought out list of factory upgrades that are meant to take you just about anywhere you’d want to go in a family oriented compact SUV.
What Is the 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness?
The third-generation Subaru Crosstrek was released earlier in 2023. With it came a 10% stiffer chassis, a re-tuned 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine, and a host of interior and tech upgrades. The Wilderness trim is now the top-of-the-line Crosstrek with all of the same features as the Limited, but with added hardware and software to help you venture even further off the beaten path without ruining your warranty.
The now-standard CVT has been fitted with an extra internal pressure sensor for quicker response to throttle inputs and more optimal “gear” selection. Sadly the option for a manual in any Crosstrek has gone away for 2024. The CVT will mimic a traditional automatic with eight simulated gears when flicked into manual mode. Additional transmission coolers have been added to help reduce temperatures while you crawl along low-speed trails. The final drive ratio has also been shortened to 4.11 from 3.70 to give the four-cylinder more grunt up hills or through mud and sand.
The underbelly of the Crosstrek Wilderness is now shielded by a factory skid-plate to protect it from anything that its 9.3 inches of ground clearance won’t allow it to glide over. It stands 0.6 inches taller than the standard Crosstrek thanks to a set of beefed up springs, and falls just 0.4 inches short of an entry-level Jeep Wrangler S. From the rear it looks purposefully tall in person, and the added ride height allows you to see all of its suspension and differential bits more visibly. Topping it all off are a set of 17-inch all-terrain tires wrapped around matte black wheels adding even further to its “Safari” vibe. Subaru’s X-Mode AWD has been retuned with added drive-modes to mimic a set of mechanical differentials.
All of this comes together for a price of $31,995 and is extremely good value for money on-paper. Especially when you consider it’s only $1,100 more than the Limited trim just below it. All-terrain tires alone will cost you that much if you tried to replicate the Wilderness’ upgrades by sourcing aftermarket parts.
Mind Your (Road) Manners, Ma’am
The worst thing about modifying any vehicle for off-road use are the compromises you make in road manners and refinement. But when you let a manufacturer do that job for you, the downsides can be significantly reduced. Or in this case, non-existent. If anything, the Wilderness feels even better thanks to its revised final drive ratio. The Crosstrek has been criticized from the start for its powertrain. And while the bump in engine displacement certainly helped, the revised final-drive ratios are where the magic lay, to the tune of about 0.5 seconds to 60 mph according to some tests.
I wish I could say that completely cured the Crosstrek of its power problems, but at times I really could have used more. Which was a theme that continued off-road. But the simplistic reliability of a naturally aspirated Subaru boxer far outweighs my yearning for boosted rally-car power.
The increased ride height and all-terrain tires have no negative affect on handling, composure, or road noise. Some all-terrain tires howl louder at highway speeds than the coyote I heard outside my tent the night before. But these were no louder than regular all-season rubber. Composure around corners was confidence inspiring with zero wallow on its taller springs. Any attempt at twisty fun resulted in safe but expected understeer.
Rally Inspired Regality
The 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness isn’t compromised at all on the pavement. So while a lack of heavy duty hardware like differentials or fancy shocks could fool you into thinking it’s a weak off road adventurer, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Once I detoured off-road I realized the Crosstrek Wilderness feels more at home absolutely bombing down dirt paths in the desert than it does gingerly crawling along. For the sake of your spine it wills you to drive faster to allow the dampers to reach a speed where they almost glide over washboard ruts and undulations.
Corner entry oversteer is real, too. Even if it is quickly reigned in by electronics, it allows you to live out all your rally driver fantasies without worrying about the consequences. After multiple outings in AWD Subarus on track, oversteer was the last thing I expected to encounter with this Crosstrek. But corner after corner it wagged its tail on entry as if to communicate just how pleased it was to be getting a little dusty.
Let off, turn in, opposite lock, and power out. Rinse and repeat for as long as your lungs can stand the dust clouds.
Once I sufficiently danced my way through the dessert, Subaru slowed us down to conquer some more serious off-roading. Almost anything will wag its tail down a fire-road, but deep sand, steep hills, and rocky ledges are a completely different story.
As I turned into the off-road park Subaru set up for us, my first challenge was to drive up a muddy clay-packed stream nestled at the foot of some seriously steep sandy inclines. Step by step, the Crosstrek Wilderness hopped up each wet clay covered ledge with ease, a testament to how a good set of tires and confidence in ground clearance can claw you through the even the muddiest of trenches. Street tires would have become caked with clay and struggled up the wet rocks.
Climbing out of the river required a full-lock turn to the left up a steep and rocky hairpin incline. The front tires slipped the tiniest amount as computers quickly sent power rearward where there was more grip. Meanwhile the only thing I could focus on was the scorching desert sun in my eyes thanks to the sheer incline. As the hill crested, the Crosstrek’s hill descent control immediately recognized the change in slope and braked each individual tire as it effortlessly crawled me down the other side.
From there I was met with the last and steepest obstacle of the day, the only obstacle to make myself and the Crosstrek Wilderness pause for a moment. At this point I was getting extremely confident in the Crosstrek’s ability to scale just about anything this part of the desert could throw at it. So with a slightly heavier foot I stepped on the accelerator to make it up the much steeper, and much sandier hill. Quickly realizing I had completely underestimated the severity of the incline, I buried the accelerator in the floor. But it was too little too late.
Within the last 10 feet of climb, the Crosstrek simply ran out of power and couldn’t carry us any further. There was no wheel spin or struggle for traction, it just didn’t have quite enough grunt to get us there. Extreme situations like this are where a real low-range gearbox could carry us the rest of the way. But that is a completely unrealistic ask on just about anything other than a Jeep or G-Wagen. So being no stranger to momentum driving, I reversed down the hill to have another go.
With a running start, using all of the accelerator’s travel, the Crosstrek Wilderness bounced its way up the mountain much easier the second time, though it still seemed displeased when it reached the steepest section of this chore. Part of off-roading is knowing your literal line through the sand. Once I learned how to accommodate the Subaru’s software I became extremely confident in its ability. Anything steeper and longer than our test hill could have been host to a hillclimb event.
Zion under the Subaru Stars
As I pulled into our Glamping Grounds at the end of the day I finally started to understand why Subaru loyalists are indeed so loyal. When the vehicle you drive is able to carry you through some of the most beautiful regions of the country in comfort, make you laugh along the way in via doses over oversteer, and then get you home comfortably and safely, it strengthens and expedites the bond you share with it.
When intangible emotions start creeping into your soul, a lot of small less than ideal tangible details about a car can be forgiven. The more you use a Crosstrek Wilderness for all that it can do, the faster you bond with it. There aren’t many places the Crosstrek Wilderness can’t take you. But if it can’t, I’m not sure you want to go there anyway.