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Snow, rain, wind and hail, Subaru owners still smile

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So this is the time of year when you see the 'Subaru smile': that contented look of the car owner who knows they're ready for whatever the weather throws at us.

It's the essence of Subaru, a range of cars with strong 'boxer' engines, symmetrical four wheel drive and a range of electronic traction aids to ensure you get where you're meant to be.

All its models are so equipped (except the BRZ sports car) and range from the big new Forester sports utility vehicle - and its closely related compact SUV stablemate the XV - to the Outback, one of the biggest and most competent estate cars which comes at a price seriously undercutting some of its major German rivals.

The company's UK importers chose to relaunch the brand - and hint at new models - on a country estate in Lincolnshire with an extensive off-road course. If 4x4 had an unexpected helper in demonstrating the car's abilities - Storm Angus which added considerably more water to the splashes and tracks, to say nothing of the extra helping of deep, slippery mud.

Surprisingly the SUVs and Outback estates were given the same route to tackle - and on standard road tyres, too, which is a somewhat bold and an unusual display of confidence in my experience of test driving 4x4s.

The Subaru range starts at £17,500 for the road-going Impreza which proved its all-surface abilities in the World Rally Championship up to nearly £33,000 for the flagship Outback model, a favourite of country vets. That's some £12,000 less than its principal German rival, Audi's A6 all road.

All are powered by the same Boxer (or flat four) range of engines and share an almost identical chassis and suspension system.

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The Boxer is 50 years old this year - and Subaru has stuck with it because it can be mounted lower in the chassis, offering a low centre of gravity and therefore more stability, straight line power delivery to all four wheels and less mechanical complexity (for example no balancer shafts needed) for smooth running, lighter weight and lower power losses.

The Forester is the original crossover: the first incarnation was a not very pretty but very practical estate-bodied car on a 4WD platform. It was petrol only (with the turbo version in particular rather thirsty) but now most are equipped with Subaru's impressive Boxer turbo diesel, which means big savings on tax and fuel. Now in its fourth generation, the Forester has undergone a major facelift this year - it's bigger, better equipped and the interior has gone upmarket, with a more luxurious feel.

It's performance through the deep mud, ruts and water hazards didn't surprise but it was far more severe than expected in the wake of Storm Angus. The surprise was the quality of the ride in such conditions.

There are many competent 4x4s out there - some of the better big pick-up trucks spring to mind - but the beefed up suspension tends to create a lumpy ride even on the road. The Forester was remarkably cosseting even on the rutted tracks.

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The test car was powered by a 2.0-litre, 147Ps turbo diesel - slightly less than the non-turbocharged petrol unit - but with considerably more torque. Fuel considerations aside, its 350Nm of pulling power from low revs makes it the best prospect for those tackling loose or slippery surfaces.

Diesel buyers can choose either a six-speed manual transmission or Subaru's Lineartronic continuously variable system, a smooth and efficient, stepless automatic. Performance figures are the same - 0 to 62mph in 9.9 seconds - but the manual wins on economy and emissions.

The vital statistics are 47.9mpg and 148g/km of CO2 for the manual and 40.3mpg and 155g/km for the Lineartronic.

While the standard, fulltime all wheel drive endows the Forester with extra traction and stability on the road, when it's time to tackle something more severe you just hit the 'X Mode' button on the centre console.

The system (only available on Lineartronic mode) firstly switches on hill descent control, which allows you to creep down steep, slippery slopes with automatic pulses of braking. It also alters the engine, gearbox, four wheel drive and brakes for optimum traction of slipper surfaces.

The Forester's latest make-over has given it a stronger, more modern appearance with updates to the front grille, bumpers and lights. But it's the interior which as benefitted most, with higher grade materials, new features such as rear (as well as front) seat heaters and a heated steering wheel.

Perhaps the biggest improvement, though, is the considerable upgrade to the soundproofing. Together with the smooth ride, it gives the Forester a premium feel with room for five adults and their luggage.

The generous 505 litres of boot space increases to a whopping 1,592 with the rear seats folded, with access via a power-operated tailgate.

Soon to be available with the Forester is Subaru's 'Eyesight' safety system. Using a pair of small cameras in the front of the rear view mirror, it's a second pair of eyes monitoring the road ahead for cars, pedestrians or cyclists.

It gives audio and visual warnings of a potential collision, and if the driver doesn't react it will stop the car.

Added to that, there is a stability system (with trailer stability), adaptive cruise control, lane departure alaert and sway warning which have contributed to the Forester's five star safety rating.

Eyesight is already fitted to the Outback, which shares the drive train and much of its safety and other systems with the Forester. That's what makes what is essentially a big luxury estate car as competent off-road as most dedicated SUVs.

And it is big: for rear seat accommodation in particular, there are few cars apart from the Skoda Superb to match it. The luggage space is in proportion, too – even bigger than the Forester at 559 litres riding to 1,845 litres with the rear seats folded.

Priced from £27,995, the lower, sleeker shape helps to get a bit more economy from the two-litre boxer diesel (50.4mpg and 154g.km of CO2 with the manual version), while being a little quicker too – 0 to 62mph in 9.7 seconds.

It comes with an upmarket interior, including satnav and full connectivity via a central colour touchscreen, a full range of safety technology.

As well as making the latest Outback more comfortable, the engineers set out to make it more dynamic, too, with stiffer front struts to reduce roll, combined with revised spring and damper rates.

The steering rate has also been increased, to make in more accurate and linear

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