The 4×4 market has changed enormously in recent years.  Compact SUVs fill the sector, with each iteration becoming softer, more family-oriented and less focused on making it through the rough stuff.  Indeed, many aren’t even four-wheel drive.

So what are your options if you still need transport for the depths of the countryside?

Luckily, there is one manufacturer that knows more about four-wheel drive than almost any other – Subaru – and one of their more practically-minded options is the Forester.

Now in its fourth generation, the Subaru Forester occupies a niche all of its own.  Something of a cross between a large estate car and a full-blown off-roader, the new Forester is taller, wider and longer than the model it replaces.

Echoing other models in the Subaru range, the new Forester now wears a hexagonal front grille, with a pair of aggressively-styled ‘hawk-eye’ headlights, while XT models feature a deeper front bumper with large side vents.

The shape has been refined, most notably by moving the A-pillar forwards and curving the roof-line as it flows towards the rear, and these changes contribute to the improvement in its aerodynamic performance (for the statisticians, the Forester’s drag coefficient drops from 0.37 to 0.33).

All models are fitted with roof rails – black on the entry-level X model, silver on all others – with 17-inch alloy wheels also standard, increasing to 18-inches on the range-topping XT.

The interior has been tidied up, and although some of the materials are still a little behind the softer competition, there’s everything you could need in here, with all models benefiting from goodies such as climate control and heated front seats.  The Pioneer satnav fitted to some models looks a little down-market by comparison, although the top-spec XT model gets a better factory-fitted unit.

There’s plenty of room for five adults, and even with the commanding driving position, there’s sufficient headroom for a car full of Abraham Lincoln impersonators.  Climbing aboard is made easy by the wide opening doors and the sills are covered by the lower door panel to help prevent dirt build-up getting on your best tweed.

Rear seat passengers are well accommodated, with the lowered transmission tunnel offering plenty of foot-room, and there are three full seat-belts (the middle one descending from the ceiling).

Practicality has always been a Forester strong-point, and the new model offers 505 litres of cargo space with the seats in place, rising to 1,592 litres with the seats folded.  The seats don’t fold completely flat, however, leaving a small step in the load floor, and while the retractable load cover has a convenient storage space in the underfloor compartment for when it’s not in use, in operation it’s rather fiddly.  Tall drivers will need to watch their heads, too, as the tailgate doesn’t open quite far enough.

Those niggles aside, there are some clever touches in here, such as the fold-out hooks and power socket in the load bay sides, as well as hooks in the tailgate that allow you to hang your wet Barbour to dry, for instance.

The Subaru Forester is available with a choice of three engines, all using Subaru’s trademark ‘boxer’ horizontally-opposed layout.  The first, the 2.0-litre petrol, develops 150PS at 6,200rpm and 198Nm of torque at 4,200rpm.  Recent tweaks bring its fuel economy figure up to 43.5mpg with CO2 emissions of 150g/km placing it in VED Band F (£140 pa).

The range-topping XT model uses a version of the 2.0-litre engine found in the Subaru BRZ, but the addition of a turbo slung underneath bumps power output to an enticing 240PS at 5,600rpm and a diesel-rivalling 350Nm of torque from 2,400rpm.

Before the petrol-heads get too excited, the XT is available only with Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT gearbox, although despite that it can still sprint to 62mph in 7.5 seconds.  With fuel economy of 33.2mpg and emissions of 197g/km placing it in VED Band J (£475 for the first year, £260 thereafter), it’s likely to be something of a niche-within-a-niche.

The most popular choice will be the 2.0-litre diesel.  Carried over from rest of the Subaru range, it thumps out 147PS at 3,600rpm and a chunky 350Nm of torque between 1,600 and 2,400rpm.

Its unusual layout offers up an appealing off-beat thrum, while its willing throttle response and surging torque reserves make it feel more urgent than its 10.2 second 0-62mph time would suggest.  Its official fuel economy figure of 49.6mpg seemed rather conservative to us during our testing, with our average of 42.6mpg achieved despite several enthusiastic on-road and low-speed off-road test runs.  Add in CO2 emissions of 150g/km, and running the diesel Forester is unlikely to place any undue stress on your piggy bank.

The Boxer diesel is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox that shifts efficiently, if somewhat mechanically, through its well-chosen ratios, the only real fly in the transmission ointment being slightly insufficient clearance between the clutch pedal and transmission tunnel to allow you to take advantage of the clutch-foot rest.

The new electric power steering is wonderfully light at parking speeds, and the Forester boasts a fabulously tight turning circle.  Couple those qualities with a rear-view camera, and manoeuvring the Forester into tight spaces or backing up to hitch a trailer becomes a doddle.

At speed, the helm weights up and offers surprising feedback on what’s going on up front.  While there’s a touch more body-roll on offer than you’d experience in a typical estate car, there’s a sense that the important twisty-turny bits under the floor are all still very much in contact with the ground.

That’s largely thanks to the Forester’s long-travel suspension, whose party trick is its ability to soak-up and dismiss even the most craterous pot-holes our road network has to offer.

What’s unique about the Forester, and much of the rest of the Subaru range for that matter, is the ability to maintain that level of road-holding even when conditions deteriorate.  On rain-soaked, mud-strewn, or even snow-covered roads, the Forester’s four-wheel drive starts to pay real dividends.

All Forester models feature Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive system which, on manual models, uses a 50/50 front/rear torque distribution, while Lineartronic versions feature an electronically-controlled clutch to vary the front/rear distribution from the default 60/40 if conditions dictate.

Subaru’s X-Mode system, again for Lineartronic models only, adds a further layer of electronic integration between the drive distribution, transmission and vehicle dynamics systems, plus a Hill Descent Control system to regulate vehicle speed on steep downward slopes.

Throw in the Forester’s ground clearance of 220mm, beating that even of a Land Rover Freelander, and the Subaru becomes the perfect tool for navigating farm tracks, traversing a muddy field at your local point-to-point, or rescuing stricken festival goers.

The new Subaru Forester range is available in five grades – X, XE, XC, XE/XC Premium, and XT.  Even the base X model includes 17-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, heated seats and mirrors, climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and a range of electro-safety gubbins.

Petrol XE and diesel XC models go on to add automatic headlights and wipers, reversing camera, cruise control, HID headlights, a vast electric sunroof, electric seats and dual-zone climate control.

Premium models add Pioneer satnav and leather seats, while the range-topping XT model gains 18-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, factory-fit satnav, keyless entry and start, powered tailgate,  and aluminium pedals.

Prices kick off at £24,995 for the 2.0D X, rising to £30,995 for the 2.0i XT.  All models are covered by a five-year, 100,000 mile warranty and the Subaru dealer network, in our experience, is friendly and enthusiastic.

It’s around this time of year that local TV news programmes fill with reports of flooded roads, sheep swallowed by snow drifts, and the plight of a motorist who turned their Metro into an impromptu submarine.

With the Subaru Forester, none of that matters.  Wade past submerged motorists, rescue Dolly from a hilltop.  Or, just take the kids to school safe in the knowledge that no matter what Michael Fish tells you, as far as you’re concerned, the road is clear.

Base Price £24,995 Price as tested £26,995
Engine 4-cylinder ‘boxer’ diesel, 1998cc Transmission Six-speed manual
Power 147ps @ 3,600rpm Torque 350Nm @ 1,600rpm
0-62mph 10.2 secs Top speed 118 mph
Economy 49.6 mpg CO2 150 g/km
Dimensions 4595 x 1795 x 1735 (LWH) Kerb Weight 1540 kg