Off-roading has come a long way in recent years. What used to feel like a hobby reserved for a niche subset of particularly extreme car enthusiasts is now something your neighbors casually take part in on the weekends. Why the rise in popularity? This is kind of a chicken-and-egg situation, but vehicle manufacturers have definitely been producing more models with off-roading capability as of late, making it possible for buyers to partake without having to break the bank on modifications.
The 2023 Subaru Outback is the perfect vehicle for anyone curious about off-roading. It’s not going to be the most capable out on the trail, but it’s got plenty of features that make it good enough for beginners looking to dip their toes in rather than get completely wet. What’s more, the newest Outback is a practical daily driver, so if you find out off-roading isn’t your thing, you’re not stuck driving a mini monster truck that gets 12 MPG.
Subaru offers something that no one else does: an off-roading vehicle with a Boxer engine. Okay, someone else does, but if you can afford the $222,000 Porsche 911 Dakar, you probably aren’t cross-shopping it with a Subaru Outback.
Boxer engines offer a number of benefits both on and off the road. Their pistons fire horizontally, which creates a naturally well-balanced engine. This is in contrast to V engines, which have pistons firing in a V shape, or inline engines, whose pistons fire up and down. Both of the more common options create unwanted vibrations and imbalances that require extra parts to remedy.
Boxer engines also have a lower center of gravity than other engine types, adding stability to the vehicle and making rollovers less likely––a real danger when driving on unpaved, uneven surfaces. Most automakers avoid Boxer engines because they are more difficult to manufacture, and servicing them can be cumbersome. Still, Subaru has managed to pull it off and offer something different for buyers.
The 2023 Outback‘s base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 182 hp and 176 lb-ft. For off-roading, the upgraded turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder is going to be a better choice. It makes 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. That extra power and the superior low-end torque of a turbocharged engine will be important when crawling through mud or climbing up steep hills.
Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive
Aside from a strong engine, all-wheel drive (AWD) is the most important feature for an off-road vehicle to have. Cars with front-wheel drive (FWD) are usually efficient, safe, and spacious, making that configuration common for daily drivers. Vehicles with rear-wheel drive (RWD) powertrains tend to have explosive acceleration and nimble steering, making them fun and engaging to drive. However, AWD vehicles send power to all four wheels, which also aids acceleration and creates more traction in difficult terrain.
Traction is extremely important when leaving paved roads behind. Off-roading means slippery, shifting surfaces, so vehicles need all the traction they can get. Every 2023 Outback comes standard with Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Balance doesn’t end with the engine in a Subaru but extends to the design of the drivetrain as well. Unlike most AWD options, instead of being an FWD-biased system, Subaru’s balanced design always powers all four wheels. This symmetry aids stability and control, while the AWD system boosts grip and traction, all of which will improve handling while driving off-road.
All 2023 Outbacks have a four-wheel independent suspension which is exactly what it sounds like: each wheel can travel independently of the other, reducing how much you feel every little bump in the road. For the rear suspension, the Outback has a double-wishbone system, which has a bit more finesse than the MacPherson struts found at the front end of the vehicle. This suspension also gives the base Outback a ground clearance of 8.7 inches, which is pretty good amongst SUVs. Compared to a model like the CR-V, which comes standard with 7.8 inches of ground clearance, an Outback is going to be far more capable of traveling over obstacles.
As off-roading has gained popularity, driving technology has gotten more sophisticated. In the case of the 2023 Outback, there are several smart features that can make off-roading easier and safer.
Every 2023 Outback is equipped with X-MODE, which increases handling in challenging environments. When engaged, it tweaks things like engine output, the AWD system response, and the transmission ratio to optimize traction when friction is in short supply. Certain trim levels—like the Onyx Edition—have dual-function X-MODE systems. In the case of the Outback Onyx, handling can be further tuned to specifically handle different conditions, like snow, dirt, and mud.
Hill Descent Control
You’ll hear the word “grade” a lot when getting into off-roading. It refers to the angle of the landscape compared to horizontal. A high grade is steeper, while a low grade is flatter. Ascending and descending hills is a fun part of off-roading, and the grade of those hills contributes to the overall difficulty of a specific course or area. All 2023 Outbacks are equipped with Hill Descent Control (HDC), making it easier to drive down steep declines. At low speeds, HDC will maintain a constant speed while descending a hill, so drivers don’t have to fuss with the brake to maintain control.
The Wilderness Trim
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Wilderness trim while discussing off-roading with the Outback. New for the 2022 model year, the Outback Wilderness is upgraded to boost off-roading performance. For starters, it has 9.5 inches of ground clearance and a tuned suspension to compensate for the difference in height. It also comes with a dual-function X-MODE system that adjusts vehicle handling to tackle snow and dirt or deep snow and mud.
The Outback Wilderness is the only trim to come standard with all-terrain tires, a necessity for going off-road. Remember grades? It can climb steeper mountains than your average Subaru, with front and rear bumpers designed to improve its approach and departure angles. Just in case that hill is a little too steep, the Outback Wilderness even has skid plates that add an extra layer of protection.
The rest of the upgrades to the Outback Wilderness are mostly aesthetic, but as they say, dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Looking rugged out on the trail is part of the game, and this iteration of the Outback distinguishes itself from the lineup with hexagonal fog lights, black side mirrors, and raised roof rails.
The Adventure Wagon
With all this being said, you aren’t likely to see seasoned off-roaders opting for an Outback, and if you do, it will probably be heavily modified. The Outback is mainly built for driving on paved roads but is engineered well enough to confidently handle slightly irregular surfaces. Sure, even the Outback Wilderness won’t handle boulders, sand, or mud like a Ford Bronco Raptor or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, but it’s also half the price and far more reasonable as a daily driver. Whether it’s the Wilderness or any other trim, the 2023 Outback is well-equipped for light off-roading, making it perfect for a driver just getting started in this particular realm of automotive recreation.