Which Subaru Is Best For Off-Roading?

Maybe it’s the fact that over a quarter of continental America is public land that’s driving a sharp increase in the sales of crossover SUVs. Imagine that – 640 million acres of backcountry waiting to be explored by you in a vehicle that can handle rough terrain. If you’re itching to get out there into off-roading territory, you’re probably considering buying an all-wheel-drive (AWD) softroader, a Subaru perhaps. But which model?

The Subaru Forester, Outback, Ascent, and Crosstrek are all off-road capable. These Subaru off-road vehicles are geared to handle intermediate off-roading obstacles, equipped with AWD, high ground clearance, and a transmission management system delivering optimal torque and tractive force. 

Subaru on off road trail in mountains

Choosing the best Subaru for your backcountry adventures will depend on just how deep into off-road motoring you want to go. The broad spectrum of new and used Subaru AWD softroaders for sale provides ample scope to satisfy your off-roading appetite as well as your budget. Let’s narrow the field down to the Subaru for you.

The Best Subaru Off-Road Options

If you want a new Subaru to take you off-roading, your best option is the new Forester Wilderness and the Outback Wilderness. The Wilderness range is specifically tailored for off-roading, with the new Subaru Intelligent Drive dual-mode X-Mode transmission, improved ground clearance, body armor, and all-terrain tires. 

While other Subaru vehicles like the Crosstrek and Ascent also have off-roading capabilities, the Wilderness iterations have specifications that put them ahead of their AWD stablemates and rivals in the off-roading.  

Subaru Forester on offroad trail

The Forester Wilderness includes:

  • A 2.5L naturally aspirated engine delivering 182hp@5,800rpm, and 176lb-ft@4,400rpm
  • CVT with Adaptive control and 8-speed manual mode
  • Hill Descent Control
  • A wheelbase of 104,9 inches
  • The Best approach, departure, and break-over angles in the range
  • Ground clearance of 9,2 inches
  • All-terrain tires
  • Highest ride height in entire Subaru range
  • Steel skid plate
  • A price tag of $32,820

The Forester Outback Wilderness includes:

  • A 2.4L turbocharged engine delivering 260hp@5,600rpm, and 277lb-ft@2,000rpm
  • CVT with Adaptive Control and 8-speed manual mode
  • Hill Descent Control
  • A wheelbase of 108,1 inches
  • Improved approach, departure, and break-over angles 
  • Ground clearance of 9,5 inches
  • All-terrain tires
  • Good ride height  
  • Steel skid plate
  • A price tag of $36,995

The Forester Wilderness costs less and is more compact than the Outback Wilderness, with a shorter wheelbase and better approach and departure angles. It also boasts a higher driver seat, which improves the visibility of the road ahead. 

  • The Forester Wilderness is the most agile Subaru in off-roading conditions.

The Outback Wilderness has a turbocharged engine and the most ground clearance of any new softroader on the market. With its impressive torque output powering the dual-mode X-Mode crawl function, the Outback Wilderness has a clear advantage over other AWD softroaders.

  • Hefty torque delivered at low rpm gives the Outback Wilderness extra muscle to negotiate tough 4×4 off-road obstacles.

For more, check out this video on the Subaru Outback Wilderness.

If off-roading in a new Subaru isn’t for you, a used, out-of-warranty Forester is an excellent platform for off-roading modifications.

For a budget-friendly used Subaru, consider a 2011-2013 (3rd Generation) Subaru Forester with the gutsy, reliable 170hp/174lb-ft FB25B engine coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission. With 8,7 inches of ground clearance, this model is a proven off-roading trojan. 

  • Expect to pay around $15K for a clean sub-100,000 miles 2012 Forester.

Make the following modifications, and you’ve got yourself a softroader that will go where no other crossover driver will dare to tread:

  • A Torq Locker diff lock to get that true 4×4 crawl gear
  • A Suspension Lift Kit to add an inch of ground clearance
  • BFGoodrich T/A KO2 all-terrain tires
  • Off-road wheels
  • Skid plates front, mid, and rear

Watch modified Subarus handle backcountry obstacles.

What Makes A Subaru Good Off-Road?

The best Subaru models for off-roading include those derivatives with the following design characteristics:

  • Optimum torque transfer between axles  
  • A crawl gear mode
  • A short wheelbase
  • High ground clearance
  • A high ride height
  • All-terrain tires
  • Rugged underbody protection

Off-road capable Subaru derivatives have been around for over four decades, so there’s no shortage of choice when it comes to finding your ideal softroader. Older Subaru models used manual and the (automatic) Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) system matched to normally aspirated and turbocharged engines.

Although technologically advanced, the older Subaru softroaders had (relative to today’s models) rudimentary engine and transmission onboard computer management systems. 

The power and torque generated by the drivetrain were primarily optimized by Subaru’s proprietary Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system equipped with a center differential that mechanically managed available torque for optimum traction.

In recent years, new Subaru drivetrains have become increasingly sophisticated with engine management systems that automate torque transfer to the tires. For most drivers, technologies like Subaru Intelligent Drive are a welcome convenience, but for avid off-roading enthusiasts, they can hinder in certain sticky situations.

Subaru’s most recent Intelligent Drive system called X-Mode has a dual-mode with Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud settings that effectively simulate what a diff lock does, allowing the Subaru to crawl or spin over low-traction obstacles, rather than having to rely on the car’s approach momentum to assist its progress over the obstacle.

Subaru AWD vs. 4WD

Subaru softroaders are not bona fide 4x4s. They may have permanent all-wheel-drive, sophisticated torque-transfer systems, and the outward trappings of an off-road vehicle. Still, they are dual-purpose cars designed for comfortable city driving and a degree of off-road action.

The primary difference is this – a true 4×4 truck or SUV is equipped with differential locks and a low-range crawler gear, while a standard AWD softroader SUV has neither.

Subaru AWD softroaders have an intelligent transmission system that manages a drivetrain that powers all four wheels simultaneously. The AWD system (which includes the smart transmission system, drive axles, brakes, and differentials) distributes torque and brake force in varying amounts to respective wheels according to the demand for overall the tractive force required to keep the vehicle moving safely.

The AWD system in the Subaru is primarily designed to ensure that all four wheels have the necessary traction to keep the vehicle moving forward safely at speed on a paved or slippery flat surface. 

  • These systems provide better traction in the dirt than a regular two-wheel-drive car and are a reason behind the softroader phenomenon.

Subaru pioneered the AWD rally car and, with more than 40 years of hardcore off-road racing experience, has the off-roading pedigree.   


The three AWD Subaru models mentioned above will deliver class-beating traction, ground clearance, and ride height. Whether you drive a premium Wilderness model or a used Forester with modifications, you’ll be able to cross shallow rivers, plow through deep snow, float over dunes, ease your way through thick mud, and crawl over gnarly rocks. In short, you’ll have a true off-roading adventure!

James with daughter on the trails

About James...

Hi, I’m James. If I’m not working on this site, you can often find me outdoors roaming the trails. I’m an avid hiker, mountain biker, and overlander. I’m excited to share my passion for the outdoors with you.