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Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness :: First Drive

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness

I am 28 years old, and I’ve already compiled a bucket list so long I fear I’m going to run out of time before I finish it. The U.S. alone is so crammed with gorgeous vistas that I’ve been working on systematically checking off location after location for three years, the entire time since I shed the cubicle and became an auto writer, and I still haven’t made much of a dent in my list.

When Subaru invited me to Utah to check off one of the biggest empty boxes on my stateside must-see list—Zion National Park—I naturally leapt at the chance. To shuttle me through the stunning landscape, Subaru tossed me the keys to the newest addition to its adventure-oriented Wilderness line: the 2024 Subaru Crosstrek. There, as I headed toward the red-rock canyons I’d dreamed of seeing for years, I tried to find out just how well the Crosstrek Wilderness could help me see the best America has to offer.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness parked in front of a retro-themed diner

The Wilderness Formula

The Subaru Wilderness line, first introduced in 2022, is a seemingly straightforward concept: Take Subaru’s most beloved crossovers, and add some ride height, all-terrain tires, rugged-looking plastic cladding, and off-road tuning, and set them loose on the byways of America. The Forester and Outback have already received Wilderness outfitting; the Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness is now joining the duo as part of the Crosstrek’s full 2024-model-year refresh.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek dashboard

The Crosstrek Wilderness is the pinnacle of the Crosstrek trims, and therefore under the hood has the most-powerful 2.5-liter flat-four engine, introduced on the ‘24 Crosstrek Sport. That boxer punches out a naturally-aspirated 182 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque, routed through a CVT as the sole transmission option. The Wilderness, however, also adds a transmission cooler, a beefier rear differential, and a 4.11 final-drive (vs. the standard 3.7 gears on other trims) for more hill-climbing capability. All this, plus some extra engine cooling power via higher-powered radiator fans, results in a significantly higher towing capacity, at 3,500 pounds vs. the Limited’s 1,500 pounds.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek seats

The Wilderness also gets a handful of other outdoorsy-oriented special features inside, including water-repelling StarTex synthetic leather upholstery and rear tailgate lighting. The cabin is tied together with the same 11.6-inch vertically-oriented touchscreen as the Crosstrek Limited and Sport, and creature comforts including wireless phone charging and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.

And of course, the main event of the Crosstrek Wilderness is the half-inch suspension lift that puts ground clearance at an impressive 9.3 inches—just a tenth of an inch less than a base-model Jeep Wrangler. In the extremely crowded adventure-oriented compact crossover market, the Crosstrek Wilderness’s clearance is unrivaled (the nearest competitor in the compact SUV class, the Bronco Sport Badlands, has 8.8 inches of clearance). All this is available for $33,290 (after a $1,295 destination charge), which is extremely competitive for the adventure crossover set, too.

Cliffs outside Zion National Park, Utah

The Subaru Formula

To start my Zion adventure, I would be “camping” (the tent I was in had a hot shower, so I use that term loosely) on the western border of Zion National Park, directly in the shadow of some of its stunning rock formations. My drive day began with a similarly plush “overlanding” experience to the “camping” one; I had to contend with 50 miles of pavement before the red dirt beckoned.

This isn’t an unusual experience for me when checking off bucket-list items stateside, where infrastructure is often built right into the heart of the most beautiful places. Taking fullest advantage of those domestic amenities—like a hot shower fifty feet from Kolob Canyon—requires a different mindset, and set of vehicle attributes, than when all that’s around are body wipes and single-track ruts.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek in Zion National Park

And so, on smooth pavement headed into the heart of Zion, the Wilderness trim’s rugged chops were largely irrelevant and its overall Subaru ethos shined through. A lower-trim Crosstrek already boasts some of the best off-road clearance in its class while still driving largely like a normal, domesticated compact SUV; the Wilderness trim shares this exceptionally well-mannered behavior.

On pavement, the Wilderness drives like a car. The A/Ts (225/60 Yokohama Geolanders on Wilderness-exclusive 17-inch wheels) do not drone at highway speed and are only slightly louder than lower-trim all-seasons. I even found the ride a little smoother than some competing on-road-focused crossovers, thanks to the extra sidewall. The seats are also mounted lower than in previous Crosstreks, so the extra ride height didn’t give me a truck-like driving position.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek in Zion National Park

The Wilderness suspension is on the softer side thanks to the physically longer shocks and springs to provide the lift, but it doesn’t dive under hard braking, which helps it still feel controlled. While steering (provided by a dual-pinion electrically-assisted rack) isn’t what I would describe as razor-sharp, it’s still vastly more accurate, especially on-center, than anything else in the nine-inch-plus ground-clearance category. The Crosstrek Wilderness also comes with Subaru’s most robust set of EyeSight driver assistance features standard. My test car also had the single option package available for the Wilderness added, which gave me a Harman Kardon 10-speaker sound system, 10-way electric power driver seat, and a moonroof ($2,270).

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness in Zion National Park

With all of these amenities, it was hard to imagine wanting a different vehicle for the drive through the heart of Zion. The sights were as gorgeous as I’d hoped, and the Subaru compromised nothing as it showed me my bucket-list dreams, even on the smooth switchbacks of asphalt snaking through the canyons.

All of this made the Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness feel a bit like the hot shower I’d taken in my tent that morning: I didn’t need something this well-mannered and composed to check off my bucket list, but I was sure happier for having it.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness in the sand in Utah

The Wilderness Beckons

But of course the canyons of Zion faded into the rear-view and next through the windshield was the sand and brush of the high desert, and here, the Wilderness part of my Crosstrek became relevant once more. My route consisted of some few dozen miles of soft sand, rocky ascents, and rutted Jeep trails that would eventually lead me to an off-road park, where Subaru had set up a fullest-capabilities 10/10ths demo route for us journalists to three-wheel on.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness climbing rough roads in Utah

While the on-road comfort I’d experienced earlier in the day was expected—it is a Subaru, after all—what I didn’t expect was how comfortably the Wilderness drove in the dirt. A lot of the Crosstrek’s competitive set offer off-road trims nowadays that have extra ground clearance, but the tuning on those vehicles is still heavily biased for on-road use, and so taking them off-road is usually a good way to feel what a geode would feel like in a rock tumbler.

The Crosstrek Wilderness, on the other hand, is tuned to be eminently comfortable offroad. Even when riding shotgun over relatively ungroomed single-wide forest service trails, I never found myself ping-ponging around the cabin. Over cattle guards and rocky trails there was no crashing or jolting. If it weren’t for the Crosstrek Wilderness’s stubborn refusal to break the rear end loose, you could mistake it at speed for a more rally-minded car than a camping-minded one, just because of how placid it keeps its passengers and how settled the chassis feels off-road.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness climbing rough roads in Utah

Once at the off-road park, I found that the extra clearance the Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness delivers is phenomenal. The Wilderness gets its approach angle increased over the standard Crosstrek by two degrees, to 20, its breakover improved from 19.7 to 21.1, and its departure angle increased by almost three whole degrees to 33. On most forest service trails that I encountered, choosing a proper line felt like overkill. I was reassured that even if I’d made a strategic error on the way to my bucket-list checkboxes where the only way out was through, the Crosstrek could handle it easily.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness driving through mud in Utah

And even if I still somehow botched it, the engine has a skid plate, meaning I wouldn’t hurt any of the Crosstrek’s vitals. Even all that unpainted plastic cladding is modular, and designed to be easily replaced; it’s not just there to look rugged.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek near Zion National Park in Utah

How To Check A Bucket List

After the off-road park, I drove on the western side of St. George, slowly heading my way back into the heart of Zion, and managed to catch the sunset glowing off the rocks as I headed back to my “tent”. It was breathtaking.

I could not have asked more from a visit to Zion, and the Subaru was essentially the perfect vehicle to see it in. In the arms race for off-road prowess that has intensified in the years since Covid, there have been an ever-increasing list of crossovers that could get most places you’d ever want to check off your bucket list. But there are precious few crossovers I’d ever actually want to get me to my off-road to-do’s. They often are a case study in sacrifice—comfort, actual off-road ability, handling, noise—and so a day in one is exhausting. Dealing with the vehicle becomes the focus of the day, rather than the sights.

2024 Subaru Crosstrek near Zion National Park in Utah

The Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness does not believe in oblation at the altar of overlanding prowess, and provides a virtually trade-off-free experience. It isn’t just its numerical strength—breakover, ride height, etc—that appealed to me here; it’s the comfort that it delivers it with, both on and off the road. When I zipped my “tent” that night and crawled into bed unshrieved by the Subaru’s ride and barely tired from my travels through Zion’s beauty, I realized I had suffered none to sight-see one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Perhaps for some the lack of suffering makes it feel like less of a victory, but for me, a hot “tent” shower and a Crosstrek Wilderness seems like the best way to check a bucket list.

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Victoria is a freelance author, journalist, and photographer based in Seattle, WA. After a career in software culminating in a stint at NASA Mission Control, she decided cubicles weren't for her, changed lanes entirely, and chased a life in automotive writing instead. She began her journalism career while living in an imported Toyota Hiace as she traveled the American West, and her job has since taken her to every corner of the country and behind the wheel of every car imaginable. Her byline can be found at Road & Track, Jalopnik, Slashgear, Motor1, and Insider, among others. Her first photobook, Postcards From the End of the World, was published in 2022, and her second photobook will arrive at the end of 2023.