BUCKEYE, Ariz. — When I was getting ready to get my driver’s license in the late 1990s, I was obsessed with the first-generation Subaru Outback. I already had a thing for wagons, it appeared, and an all-wheel-drive wagon only seemed cooler. I ended up with my sister’s S-10 Blazer, and later an XJ Cherokee, but my heart would still skip a beat when I saw those big windows perched on top of a layer cake of sheet metal and plastic cladding. It was in love.
I finally got my Subaru fix in the form of a 2004 WRX, which I purchased new in 2003. I owned it for about a decade and a half before I reluctantly sold it. I freaking loved that car, and even though I was tempted to update my garage with subsequent WRX models, this one had everything I needed. But I grew up, and my family increased in population from me and a few cats to add a wife, a kid and a constantly fluctuating number of pets (the former of which now includes a large dog who might actually be part horse). Meanwhile, Subaru’s product lineup had evolved, hitting a crescendo for my brand infatuation with the launch of the superbly fun BRZ. A few years after our first child arrived, I decided to part ways with Sarah Michelle Gellar (yes, the WRX had a name, and that was it). At the end, that car was mostly sitting unused, as the fun but increasingly aged and impractical-to-me compact sports sedan took a back seat to the cars I needed to review for work.
Other Subarus I had driven in the interim hadn’t provided me with that same spark. I liked them just fine, and there were moments when I felt an inkling of what I’d felt before — an exceptionally exciting corner at Thermal in the STI Type RA, catching an enormous drift on a frozen lake in a BRZ with studded tires, the first quarter mile after the pavement ended in the 2020 Outback. I’d get flickers of that sensation I used to feel all the time when driving my WRX or walking a Subaru lot as a younger adult. The lineup for the past 10 years just hadn’t tickled my fancy the way it did back then.
Then, this spring, I drove the 2023 Subaru Solterra, and really felt, despite the amount of Toyota baked into it, that it fit into my previous vision of what the Subaru brand was. The electric motor’s instant torque was the cure for any sadness I’d felt from the disappearance of turbochargers from the Forester lineup, and its all-wheel drive and mild off-roading capacity was still what I’d expect from anything but the BRZ. That drive stuck with me, and brought back memories I’d had test-driving older Subarus and of doing silly, happy things in my WRX.
A week and a half later, I landed back in Arizona with a Forester Wilderness for a week, and it was like that second date after a really good first date. I didn’t want it to end. I was excited from the moment I saw it. The color was great, for one (Subarus look good in blue), but its knobby tires, extra ground clearance, anti-glare hood, prominent badging and tasty accents looked just like something I would have done had I bought a Forester or Outback instead of a WRX sedan back in 2003. Those interesting looks carried over inside, and the yellow accents and stitching, as well as the Wilderness logos looked considerably more exciting and cohesive than the odd mashups of colors and textures I’d seen in the likes of the Forester Sport.
The extra ground clearance was a treat, too. While Subaru used to call the Outback “The world’s first sport utility wagon,” this Forester Wilderness seems spiritually closer to the AMC Eagle than that original outback ever did (and, yes, I’m still hoping I get to try the Outback Wilderness soon). While I was with my family most of the time I had the Forester Wilderness in Arizona, I did steal some alone time to explore some of the rural highways and their offshoots around Buckeye. This Wilderness felt right at home as the pavement turned to gravel, then to rocks, then to pure, flat desert trails leading to clandestine target shooting spots and who knows what else. I didn’t take the Forester so far that I'd need use of the skid plate, but the all-terrain tires made adventuring just a little further possible, stretching out what time with the car I could before I’d get the “Where the heck are you?” phone call.
The Forester Wilderness is quite noisy, though. Back on the highway, the roar from the tires — and the tires of the cars around you — make their way into the cabin. In a car where character is a big part of why you love it, a fault like that is just more character. My WRX — and every other car I’ve loved — have had flaws that I haven’t just overlooked, but have conceptualized as part of the car’s individuality. If it were mine, I’d already have plans for when it retired from daily driving duty and entered the project car phase of its life. Maybe a suspension lift and bigger tires? Heck, maybe even pop the doors off of it and do something really stupid.
Since driving the Solterra and the Forester Wilderness practically back to back, I’ve been thinking about them and other Subarus considerably more than I had been in a long while, and with a fondness I hadn’t felt in ages. That ache in my heart where I used to hold a place for Sarah Michelle has grown sharper, and I find my gaze following even the more modest Subarus as they pass by on the road. All it took was a couple drives in some of the brand’s newer, quirkier cars … ones that seem to point to where Subaru is going, and it feels a lot like where it came from. It’s only going to get worse (for me) when the Solterra starts making its inevitable way into Ann Arbor driveways.
If Subaru decides to make a Solterra Wilderness, I’ll be in trouble.
As an aside, I ask you, dear reader: Have you had a similar relationship with a brand, or even a model? Is there a car or a carmaker you loved that fell off your radar, only to boomerang its way back into your heart. If so, I’d love to hear about it, if just to know I’m not alone.