Smugness, we’re told, is not an attractive train. But sometimes the feeling of a warm glow of satisfaction rising from your toes is unavoidable. And a shootng day offers ample opportunities to shine. Your performance on the birds is key, of course, so it’s important to arrive feeling relaxed and happy after a good journey.
But is your 4×4 of choice going to get you to the morning coffee and picking of pegs – having negotiated two motorways and a gated road that drives like a skid pan – in comfort?
Once you’ve enjoyed a strong coffee, picked your peg (four? Jolly good!) and commiserated with the poor chap who scraped his wing skid- ding through the third gate on the way in, it’s time to mount up. All those who haven’t come prepared rush to hitch a lift in the biggest look- ing of the assembled vehicles.
In a new Subaru Outback, it is impossible to avoid a self-satisfied grin. You know you can get anywhere on the shoot you need to. Meanwhile, those vehicle-less guns – with their muddy boots and hyper hounds – are probably fighting to cram into the back of the imitation tank that someone has brought up from London. Smug.
I first saw the Subaru light 20 years ago. The vehicle I drove in those heady days of
possessing hair and a waistline sprouted wheat shoots from the dash, boot, head lining, well, everywhere, really. Regardless, it got the job done. Despite spinning the clock twice, I’d been advised to try that particular Subaru by an old vet I knew. Mad as a ship’s cat, he prof- fered sound advice when I needed it most. He’d seen ownership of Subaru cars multiply among veterinary surgeons in a remote part of Australia, who travelled thousands of miles, from sheep or cattle station to station, often in the most punishing conditions and terrain. He assured me that they loved them out there. I suppose this could explain why Subaru dubbed its latest fearless warrior the Outback.
Rotation crops in the footwell is not a fea- ture of the new models, which may disappoint traditionalists, but the modern shooting man must move with the times and embrace tech- nology. If part of your pre-shoot warm-up is two rounds of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits or Ride of the Valkyries, you can now simply plug in your iPod.
The ride offered by many of the taller vehicles I’ve driven over the years, either while hosting shoot parties or towing trailers, has always felt slightly washy when traversing soft ground; a lack of traction, I suppose one might say. With the Outback, there is no such feeling. The suspension is obviously more resistant and stiffer than in similar vehicles. This traction gives the driver con- fidence in its handling instantaneously; the car feels “on the bridle” at all times. It reminded me a little of driving with snow chains in that there is no pause, no wait at all for the tyres to bite, it’s immediate, the all-wheel drive set-up delivering impressive torque whenever a question is posed.
What is needed for hosting shoot days, when I need to go off road and across the length and breath of the country, is not so much a compromise as the best of all worlds in terms of on-road and off-road performance. So the “crossover” concept Subaru pioneered in 1996, offering the ride height and capability of a 4×4 with the practicality of a modern estate car, is the perfect combination. It is essential to have plenty of room in the back for, among other things, spare ear protectors, cartridges and a full cleaning kit – or at least rods for when some poor sod slips on a bank between drives, getting a neat bung of mud up the barrels. I don’t want it to be the end of his day. In fact, I need everything the other guns need, with room for extras. I’ve recently had a passenger list including four guns with associ- ated cartridge bags and around six or seven slabs of cartridges and still had room for spare coats and, at one point, a bewildered spaniel that had become separated from her owner.
Little details like boot height and lack of any real lip make loading cartridges easy and will save many a strained back. A one-touch fold- ing split-rear-seat arrangement appeals for odd-shaped cargo, such as a feeder with badger-mangled spring that needs taking back to base. Of course, given all this space one is inclined to fill it. Then, I give thanks for a self- levelling rear suspension, standard in the Outback and a potentially expensive upgrade with competitors. There are so many inciden- tals that need to be picked up or taken care of on a shoot day.
I’d like to say that every gun has taken The Field’s advise on gundog training, and their beloved labs and spaniels sit obediently in their open boots until asked to jump out. Not so. Thankfully, assistance from a video screen in the centre of the console is an absolute boon when reversing, especially when you’ve hordesofdogsgaddingaroundbehindyou. An “easy parker” can be useful when cram- ming in among all the juggernauts in a farm- yard, too; there is bound to be a chain harrow lurking… Even old-fashioned chaps have come to appreciate such mod cons as a sleek cabin replete with cup holders and heated seats on top of the smoothness and drivability that stem from the Lineartronic CVT – that’s continu- ously variable transmission (invented by Leonardo da Vinci, so not entirely modern). The infinite gears and clutch-free transmission enhance fuel economy as the Subaru Boxer Diesel engine is constantly running at opti- mumefficiency,whichjusthappenstobegood for performance, too. When you want the con- trol of a manual mode it will give you seven pre-programmed steps on a paddle shift.
The current season may have started dry with baked-in ruts on tracks but after the October rain these mini-mountain ranges felt as though they had been covered in butter and traversing them was treacherous. In these con- ditions, as well as motorways in pouring rain or wildlife on the road, the confidence that symmetrical all-wheel drive can bring pays dividends. Stability, torque and traction com- bine to give you a safe and enjoyable drive from beginning to end on a shoot day.
And if it’s a white Christmas, rest assured you’ll get to the Boxing Day shoot in time for bullshot and bacon butties in an Outback. If that sounds smug, I won’t tell you what a joy it was collecting the Christmas tree.