About 136,000 years ago, the island of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean flooded, wiping out the Aldabra rail, the species of flightless bird that lived there. Eventually, dry land reemerged, and the Aldabra's winged progenitor, the white-throated rail, flew back. And then, over another 20,000 years or so, those birds gradually lost their wings—there are no predators on the island—and the Aldabra rail evolved, independently, all over again. If you're patient, we'll explain what this has to do with cars.
When a species evolves twice from the same ancestor, the process is called iterative evolution, and it's happening right now, in our lifetimes. The species SUVus ponderous—characterized by towering ride height and superfluous off-road ability—evolved from station wagons, was driven nearly to extinction by crossovers, and is now showing evidence of a comeback. By way of proof, we present the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness, which traces its lineage to Subaru's tidy little station wagons from the 1970s but is a couple genetic mutations away from turning into a Toyota 4Runner. If 9.2 inches of ground clearance isn't evidence for iterative evolution, we don't know what is.
That trucklike ground clearance, delivered via a half-inch suspension lift, splits the difference between that of a rear-drive 4Runner's 9.0 inches and the four-wheel-drive model's 9.6 inches. The Wilderness also gets a front skid plate and Yokohama Geolandar A/T G015 all-terrain tires that announce their bad intentions with raised white letters, signature plumage of the braggadocious SUV. Its hexagonal LED fog lights look a lot like the Rigid ones that are bolted to seemingly every Wrangler and Raptor on the road, and they're mounted in a revised front bumper that increases the approach angle from 20 degrees to 23.5 degrees. Under the floor of the cargo area, you'll find a full-size spare, so you won't have to limp out of the woods on a space-saver donut. And a flat-black hood ostensibly cuts glare when you're out summiting a steep trail at high noon, but also echoes the aesthetic treatment that Jeep gives its off-road-oriented Trailhawk models. Probably a coincidence.
Inside, the biggest difference between the Wilderness and the Forester Premium (upon which it's based) is its StarTex water-resistant upholstery, optimized for all the muddy outdoors exploits that such a vehicle will surely inspire. At $33,945, the Wilderness costs $4625 more than the Premium, and its off-road attitude incurs costs beyond that increased financial outlay. When we tested the more street-oriented Forester Touring, it recorded 0.83 g of grip on the skidpad and a 168-foot stop from 70 mph. The Wilderness, with its mud-happy tires and jacked-up suspension, managed only 0.77 g and required 181 feet to stop from 70 mph—numbers that are closer to those of the Ford Bronco Outer Banks than to the Wilderness's own Forester kin. Going the Wilderness route also sacrifices 3 mpg on the EPA combined fuel economy rating, which drops from 29 mpg to 26 mpg. On our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, the Wilderness averaged 28 mpg. matching the EPA's estimate.
However, the Wilderness did surprise us with its relative quickness, running to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds, a half-second ahead of the Touring. All Foresters use a 2.5-liter flat-four that makes 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque, but the Wilderness gets a different continuously variable transmission with a wider ratio spread. Whereas other Foresters have seven manually selectable ratios, the Wilderness has eight, along with a lower first gear ratio (or, given that this is a CVT, "first gear" ratio)—4.07:1 versus 3.60:1. Subaru says that change was made to help the Wilderness slog along in off-road crawling situations, but the shorter gearing has the side effect of getting the car off the line with noticeably more urgency. By the end of the quarter-mile, both the Wilderness and the Touring are doing 86 mph, but the Wilderness gets there quicker, at 16.3 seconds compared to 16.6. However, if it's a legitimately muscular Forester you're after, go find a 2003 Forester 2.5XT and enjoy its 5.3-second sprint to 60 mph.
The Forester's unhurried mien recalls an old Land Rover Discovery or an FJ80 Land Cruiser in a lot of ways—tall and upright, great outward visibility, nicely appointed cabin, deliberate in its responses. Like any good turn-of-the millennium SUV, the Forester's interior features plenty of buttons, with rocker switches on the console for the seat heaters and drive mode buttons on the steering wheel (one to put it in Sport mode, another to take it out of Sport mode). Even the power liftgate uses two separate buttons: one to open and close it, and a second to set its opening height. If the Forester Wilderness is evolving into a beast from the SUV glory years, this is a trait we can appreciate, because a physical seat-heater switch will always be more satisfying and intuitive than a virtual touchscreen button.
That power rear liftgate is part of an $1850 option package that includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen with navigation system and a Harman-Kardon sound system. There are no other options, but there are some dealer-installed accessories, like extra underbody armor, that can further upfit the Wilderness for overlanding shenanigans. To that end, the 2022 Forester's roof rails are upgraded, now supporting 220 pounds while the car is in motion (up from 176 pounds) and 800 pounds when parked (up from 700 pounds). If your rooftop tent looks like it belongs to a circus or a wedding reception, the Wilderness has you covered.
There are plenty of reasons that off-road-ready SUVs fell from favor as the default choice for everyday family transportation—fuel economy, packaging, on-road manners. And that's proper, since most people try not to leave the pavement if they can help it. So far this year, the carlike Toyota Highlander is outselling its troglodyte sibling, the 4Runner, at a rate of about two to one. But it seems there is a niche for a car—dare we say, an SUV?—like the Forester Wilderness, a missing link between on-road refinement and off-road heroism. You get some real off-pavement ability, without dragging around a bunch of truck components that are great for the trail but useless on dry pavement—stuff like a part-time four-wheel-drive system and a low-range transfer case. Although, you know, Subarus used to have both of those things. The way it's going, they might once more.