The first few hours spent around the 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road and the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness required some sensory acclimation. Seeing those anodyne, extremely familiar profiles bedazzled with aggressive wheels, knobby all-terrain tires, and functional bash plates tickled the brain about the same way as watching our CPA stroll into our 401(k) meeting wearing khaki fatigues and a pith helmet: It’s an incongruous look.

Although both the Outback Wilderness and the RAV4 TRD Off-Road are indeed more prepared for when the way turns rocky and rutted, all this trail-hungry kit and kaboodle really is cosplay to some degree. Think of this over(most)land duo not as roughshod, purpose-built, trail-busting alter-egos, but instead as modestly upfitted off-road trims. These models are for buyers whose online bookmark bars bristle with pages of beefy aftermarket parts, even if their “build” really only calls for a set of Sparco wheels and a powder-coated roof-rack.

Aftermarket Goodies Straight Out of the Box

These two fire-road phenoms are surprisingly close in both ethos and outfit, despite both the Subaru’s gutsy turbocharged powertrain and half-segment up in size over the smaller, naturally aspirated 2021 Toyota RAV4. The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is the first of a few forthcoming editions under the Wilderness sub-brand, a new trim that starts with the Outback Onyx XT as a base and slathers on extra plastic cladding, new black six-spoke off-road wheels, a 0.8-inch suspension lift, Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires, skidplates, tow hooks, upgraded roof rails, and enough bespoke colored trim and badging to brim a hiking daypack.

All this for just $1,850 over the Onyx XT. Considering just a set of wheels and those Geolander tires alone would set you back around $1,500, it’s a screaming good deal. Quick trailside math on the back of our Clif bar wrapper reveals a homebrew Wilderness would cost you around $3,000 in parts, not including installation.

You can copy-paste this dirty calculation onto the 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, as well. As the Outback Wilderness is to the Onyx XT, the TRD Off-Road is to the RAV4 Adventure. For an extra $2,625, a set of TRD-branded wheels, Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires, and a TRD-specific suspension are all yours, not to mention Toyota scrapes off the Adventure badging with a river rock and glues prominent “TRD” script to the decklid. Not quite the Subaru’s deal, but still a good value. 

Hardcore Off-Roading? You’re Missing the Point

So, if these two aren’t trying to go tire-to-tire with the sky-jacked, 6×6 rock-crawling war machines that bounce around Moab, what’s the rub? Think less Rubicon trail and more campground trailhead. These are for weekend adventurers and nigh-mythical active-lifestyle types who camp, hike, kayak, bike, swim, paddleboard, rock climb, and backpack, usually all in one weekend and with a few dogs in tow.

Considering the Outback and the RAV4 would likely serve as the primary vehicle of these “doing” superfans, both automakers worked diligently to balance on-road manners against the pitfalls of semi-aggressive tires and lifted suspensions. The end result? Meh. Both are compromised—neither egregiously so—but the Subaru is significantly nicer to buzz around town in and for motoring down desert highways than the smaller RAV4. The Outback’s ride quality is great, perhaps a touch more prone to secondary body motions than lesser Outbacks but still unquestionably good. You can call it comfortable and cushy, with an almost luxury ride.

Aside from some numbed-down steering, the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness was just as pleasant to zone out in on a long drive as our long-term Outback Onyx XT. The spacious cabin and surprisingly thick, plush seats were enough to distract us from the slightly elevated road noise and sappy CVT. The car handles better than necessary, too: The rather tidy Subaru Global Platform bones manage to outpace the soft Yokohamas’ tread squish with minimal squat, dive, and squeal, all things considered.

Powertrain Push

Careful with your right foot, however. The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness arrives solely with the FA24F 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four engine, good for a healthy 260 hp and 277 lb-ft through the aforementioned CVT. It’s not as snappy as a WRX, but it’s potent enough to smack 0-60 mph in 6.1 seconds on our test track on its way to a comparably hot quarter-mile time of 14.7 seconds. So go ahead, pack the third Yeti cooler and bring the gas generator, because you have power to spare.

Even the usually detestable presence of a CVT wasn’t enough to sour the Outback’s stout powertrain on-road. This transmission displayed zero problems and provided smooth, shift-free acceleration and quick response when we goosed the throttle. Indeed, this is one of the best-tuned CVTs we’ve driven in some time.

We can’t say the same for the Toyota’s heart, as we unilaterally found the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder underpowered, peaky, and unduly harsh. Between the engine’s weak-ish output for the 2021 Toyota RAV4’s weight and its transmission gearing/programming (the transmission is focused primarily on fuel economy), you’re not going anywhere quickly, especially if there’s a hill involved. It’s good enough for most driving scenarios but not for situations that demand you put your foot down for strong power.

And you’re going to pin that throttle flat often, as the four-banger’s 203 hp doesn’t peak until 6,600 rpm, and the 184 lb-ft doesn’t come into full effect until 5,000 rpm. With 3,660 pounds to lug around, our lead-footed test crew managed a best 0-60-mph run of 8.5 seconds, with the quarter mile completed in 16.5 seconds at 86.4 mph. Nothing dangerous for daily use—the performance is fairly fleet by 2010 standards—but it’s just an inch on the wrong side of noticeably slow for modern traffic.

Toyota Troubles

Thanks to the Toyota New Global Architecture framework underneath all the 2021 RAV4 TRD Off-Road’s angular bodywork, the RAV4 remains one of the better-handling compact crossovers on the market. Even the squidgy Falken A/T rubber doesn’t douse that fire, though there is a price to pay for all this lateral boogie. Far and away the RAV4’s biggest sticking point was the flinty ride quality that jostled and jounced even over moderate terrain.

“I don’t know what shock absorbers they put in this thing, but the ride is nearly as busy as a Jeep Wrangler,” features editor Scott Evans said. “You’re just constantly battered as you drive down the road.” It’s harsh and choppy, as if Toyota tried to make it feel like a rough-and-ready SUV. We much preferred the Subaru’s ride quality.

This might sound overly doomy and gloomy, but outside of that concrete ride and asthmatic powertrain, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road is still very much the Corolla of crossovers, only with mud streaked down the side. It’s imminently approachable, outrageously reliable, easy to operate, and decent to look at. Hey, don’t just take our word for it: The RAV4 was 2020’s best-selling non-truck vehicle in the U.S at just more than 430,000 units moved.

End of the Road, Bub

Things weren’t so hunky-dory for either crossover when the pavement ended and the off-road park began. Both handled the wavy, pockmarked, rock-strewn dirt access road without any issue—to be fair, a beaten Lexus GS passed us going the other way—but the going ground to a careful crawl when faced with the park’s small practice area, where a lumpy incline of moderate grade offered a cluster of different paths for ascent and descent.

The RAV4 TRD went down the easiest path first, immediately marking its territory with a sequence of hair-whitening chassis scrapes and drags that permanently etched crow’s feet at the corners of our dust-stung eyes. Only 0.2 inch of clearance separates the TRD Off-Road from the rest of the RAV4 lineup, casting doubt onto the idea this might be a serious member of the TRD family. Ground clearance is among the RAV4’s biggest problems. Surprisingly, the nose wasn’t as big an issue as its breakover angle, as the car’s belly scraped the surface and made us thankful for the skidplates; you need ’em, and they seem pretty beefy.

Power—or lack thereof—continued to be a problem. Tackling the steeper stuff with momentum necessitated more throttle than we’d like, and starting on the hill from a dead stop was frustrating. Regardless of terrain mode, the TRD struggled to effectively transfer what little power it had down to its four wheels, and if it did eventually figure itself out, a gut-wrenching scrape awaited us a few feet up the hill.

2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road: A Real TRD?

It took just a few runs to drain our confidence in the Toyota. A real TRD? We’re not so sure. This vehicle is mostly compromises with few, if any, obvious benefits.

Things are smoother in the Subaru—but only just. The Outback Wilderness’ 9.5 inches of ground clearance was enough to keep the skidplates mostly free of mars, but its big nose presented a different challenge. Where the Toyota liked to drag its belly, the Subaru displayed a penchant for sniffing the ground on the ruttier stuff, graunching the front bumper over moderate whoops on more than one occasion.

The Subie Scramble

The Subaru’s uphill traction was noticeably better than the Toyota’s, but again, not by a large margin. Subaru’s signature all-wheel-drive system was impressive in its careful thoughtfulness—that is, on low-traction surfaces where any throttle input was met with measured consideration from the myriad onboard systems: “Let’s bleed a little power to the front left—slip the right! The right! OK, back to the left. Maybe some in the right-rear? Yes! A little more, a little more—a lot more—and up you go.”

Still, the CVT is a bit of an albatross here. Not so shabby on smooth tarmac, but it lacks the robustness to handle immediate on-demand low-down torque for low-traction starts. Even if you futz with the settings, the Outback’s X-Mode terrain-management systems can only do so much when the transmission itself refuses to play ball with the boosty engine.

And the Winner Is …

Are the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness and 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road ready to tackle a Namibian expedition? Probably not. How about reaching that seldom-used alpine cabin or tricky trailhead off the beaten path? You betcha. Next time we need a campground superstar, we’ll take the Outback on our way up and back again; if we do get stuck, at least we’ll be comfy.

2nd Place: 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road

Pros

  • Handsome, aggressive design
  • Great handling for segment
  • Well-equipped package

Cons

  • Stiff, unyielding suspension
  • Wheezy, peaky powertrain
  • Not much of an off-road improvement over a standard RAV4

Verdict

A mild lift, rock-hard suspension, harsh engine, and lack of power mean we’re not sure the RAV4 TRD Off-Road deserves its tri-letter designation.

1st Place: 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

Pros

  • Exceptional value for money
  • Great power and torque
  • Cushy rude
  • Neat exterior touches

Cons

  • Somewhat disjointed styling
  • CVT struggles off-road
  • Slightly numb steering

Verdict

A gutsy engine, excellent value-for-money, and cushy on-road comfort counteract goofy styling and so-so off-road capability.

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