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A blue 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is shown driving on a rocky mountain path.

Off-Road Ready or Appearance Package? AT4 vs Wilderness vs Timberline vs Trailsport

If you haven’t been paying attention, off-roading is getting big, and every major manufacturer seems to be cashing in. While beasts like the 2022 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392, the 2022 Chevy Silverado ZR2, the 2021 Ford Bronco Wildtrak, and the 2021 Ram 1500 TRX rightfully lay claim to most of the fame and glory, what if you don’t have the better part of six figures to blow on a dedicated off-road toy? Well, manufacturers like GMC, Subaru, Ford, and Honda have helpfully introduced a slew of new off-road trims for their popular midsize SUVs. But out of these new models, which ones actually live up to the hype and which ones are thinly veiled cash grabs that do nothing to improve your performance on the trail? Let’s find out.

What Makes an Off-Road Machine?

Before we can decide which off-road trims are as adventurous as their advertising indicates, we need to look into what you actually need to head off-road and minimize your risk of getting stuck in the wilderness. The big feature that most drivers will immediately focus on is ground clearance – but while good clearance is definitely important, it is just one of many features that a good off-roader needs. Perhaps the most important upgrades are the most subtle – tires. A set of all-terrain tires will transform a vehicle’s handling on the trail and be more durable to boot. It’s also critical that any off-road model comes with a full-size spare since no one wants to try extracting themselves from a messy situation while driving on a donut.

A good all-wheel drive system that can be counted on to keep all four wheels turning on slippery terrain is an obvious must-have, but it isn’t always so obvious which all-wheel drive setups have real advantages over others. While raw power is often less useful than driving skills when it comes to negotiating obstacles, there is no doubt that a solid engine makes things easier. However, low-end torque is generally more important for handling off-road situations than top-end horsepower.

Also high on the list of vital features are skid plates and tow hooks. While these are often considered stylistic elements, they do serve a vital purpose on the trail. A set of durable bash plates will keep you from wrecking delicate components, and easy-to-use tow hooks will save you trouble if you or a friend gets stuck and needs to be pulled to safety. While not strictly necessary, a weather-resistant interior can make for a much more pleasant experience when it comes time to clean out your SUV after a day of adventure.

A close up show the 'AT4' badge and black wheel on a white 2022 GMC Acadia AT4.

The GMC Acadia AT4

We’ll start our evaluation by looking at GMC’s three-row SUV. The Acadia AT4 is not only one of the larger models we will be looking at today; it is also the oldest. GMC was a little ahead of the curve when it brought the Acadia AT4 to market back in 2020, inspired by the success of the 2019 GMC Sierra AT4 off-road pickup truck. But does this family-friendly off-roader really have the chops to live up to its reputation?

  • 7.2 inches of ground clearance
  • Continental TerrainContact P255/65R17 all-terrain tires
  • Compact spare tire
  • Active Torque Control All-Wheel Drive
  • 3.6L V6 with 271 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm
  • No skid plates or tow hooks
  • Cloth seats (perforated leather available)
  • Carpeted floor mats (all-weather available)

While the relatively limited ground clearance and the lack of skid plates and tow hooks means that you probably won’t want to take the Acadia AT4 on anything more treacherous than mildly rutted dirt roads, GMC did make this model capable of handling dirt and mud with its beefy all-terrain tires. The twin-clutch Active Torque Control all-wheel drive system is another great feature that puts the AT4 a step ahead of most competitors, allowing it to shift torque laterally between the two rear wheels. However, the compact spare tire and the cloth interior mean this is certainly not a vehicle intended for hard-core adventurers.

Our Verdict: a good choice for getting the family to a campground or going on a ski trip, but not a serious off-road contender.

A blue 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is shown splashing through a mud puddle in the woods.

The Subaru Outback Wilderness

Subaru has always been known as an outdoorsy brand, and it was the first manufacturer to reveal a new off-road trim for 2022. The new Outback Wilderness looks more rugged at first glance, and Subaru put in a lot more effort behind the scenes than you might expect in making this model trail-ready. However, was that effort enough to transform an overgrown station wagon into a real off-road adventure vehicle?

  • 9.5 inches of ground clearance
  • Yokohama Geolandar 225/65R17 all-terrain tires
  • Full-size spare tire
  • Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive
  • 2.4L turbocharged Boxer-4 with 277 lb-ft of torque at 2000 rpm
  • Front skid plate, no tow hooks
  • StarTex water-repellent seats
  • All-weather floor mats

While the Outback is never going to match a Jeep Wrangler or a Ford Bronco, looking at the spec sheet makes it pretty clear that Subaru wasn’t pulling any punches when it designed the Wilderness version. The 9.5 inches of ground clearance is exceptional, and the Wilderness is the only one of these four models to include a full-size spare tire – a life-saver if you ever get a flat on the trail. The lack of tow hooks is just about the only missing feature, but Subaru did add quick-detach covers for the eyebolt attach points, which is a nice compromise.

Our Verdict: a top pick for anyone who needs a family adventurer vehicle that leans more towards “family” than “adventure.”

A dark green 2022 Ford Expedition Timberline is shown with luggage on the roof driving on a dirt path.

The Ford Explorer Timberline

Not content to be outdone by GM, Ford has released the new 2022 Ford Explorer Timberline to compete with the GMC Acadia AT4. This midsize model stands out from the other off-road trims for having a rear-wheel biased drivetrain in addition to its turbocharged engine – but power alone is not enough to make a capable off-roader. Does the Explorer Timberline offer performance that lives up to its distinctive styling?

  • 8.66 inches of ground clearance
  • Bridgestone Dueler P265/65R18 all-terrain tires
  • Compact spare tire
  • Intelligent 4WD with torsen limited-slip rear differential
  • 2.3L turbocharged EcoBoost I-4 with 310 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm
  • Multiple skid plates and front tow hooks
  • ActiveX seats with cloth inserts
  • Rubber floor mats

While Subaru and GMC both used all-wheel drive systems that are a cut above for the Outback Wilderness and Acadia AT4, the all-wheel drive setup in the Ford Explorer Timberline is the best of the bunch. Not only is it rear-wheel biased, but it includes a limited slip differential for incredible traction (although, despite the name, it is still an all-wheel drive system). Combined with the get-up and go from the powerful EcoBoost engine, this is the drivetrain of choice. However, the slightly limited ground clearance, compact spare tire, and cloth seats keep the Timberline from being the hands-down winner of this competition.

Our Verdict: an impressive offering all-around and a top pick for any adventurous family that needs to tackle treacherous terrain.

A grey 2022 Honda Passport TrailSport is shown from behind driving up a steep rocky trail.

The Honda Passport TrailSport

Rounding out the competition, we have the Honda Passport TrailSport, Honda’s entry into the off-roading arena. The Passport occupies an interesting niche, being roughly the size of the Acadia but offering only two rows of seats. This provides plenty of room for all your camping or hiking gear without having to deal with a third row. However, Honda isn’t exactly known for its off-road credentials, so can the TrailSport live up to its promise?

  • 8.1 inches of ground clearance
  • 245/60R18 all-season tires
  • Compact spare tire
  • i-VTM4 torque-vectoring all-wheel drive
  • 3.5L V6 with 262 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm
  • No skid plates or tow hooks
  • Perforated leather seats
  • Rubber floor mats

Looking at that list of features, the answer is, sadly, no. The TrailSport fails to live up to the promise of its rugged looks. Honda’s i-VTM4 all-wheel drive system is fairly impressive for the average crossover, but it isn’t in the same league as the enhanced systems from the competition. Add in the all-season tires, limited ground clearance, and relatively impressive engine, and the TrailSport is likely to disappoint if any serious off-road activity is attempted. And when you do get stuck, the lack of tow hooks and the compact spare means you might not be going anywhere for a while.

Our Verdict: a disappointing cash grab from Honda that may look impressive to the uninformed but is best kept far away from any trails or sporty activities.