Over the years, I have driven a car up to 17,200ft in the Andes. I’ve also driven to the North Pole, and over the spine of Africa, and tonight, in a Top Gear Nativity special, you will see me drive a two-seater sports car from Iraq to Bethlehem, across the Syrian desert.
In short, I have proved many times that cars can do things way beyond their maker’s expectations. And yet, last week, in what the rest of the world would call a light snow flurry, I could not get a four-wheel-drive Subaru from the centre of Oxford to my house, 18 miles away.
All through the winter, we’ve laughed at those images of Scottish people slithering about in their McRovers and
we’ve wondered how on earth they could make such a hash of it. Well, now it’s happened to me, and you know what? It’s not funny.
Buses, of course, are the problem. Buses don’t work in towns, or on country lanes, or anywhere, really, and they certainly don’t work when it’s snowing. One of the main reasons — in my mind — that Canada continues to function when the snow comes is that Canadians don’t make a habit of going around on public transport.
On a snowy incline, a bus will get stuck and any attempt to remedy the situation will cause it to slew sideways, blocking the road in both directions. This means that the council’s gritters and snowploughs cannot get past and that means the snow continues to build. And last Saturday, in Oxfordshire, it was building really quite fast.
I have scoffed in the past when “motoring organisations” have said that drivers should not go out unless it was “absolutely necessary”. Because what journey these days is undertaken for fun? Nobody ever says: “I’m bored. I’m going for a drive.”
I have also tutted when “experts” have said that you should not venture forth unless you have a Thermos of soup, a shovel, warm clothing and a mobile phone. Which is why, as I sat on the A44, I was wearing a thin shirt and a pair of suede loafers. To make matters worse, I had only three cigarettes left and, after an hour, I’d used most of the battery in my phone playing Flight Control.
It didn’t seem to matter. I was in Oxfordshire, on a main road, no more than five miles from my Aga and my kettle and my secret stock of cigarettes. Of course the traffic would move soon. It had to.
But it didn’t. And even if it had, the hill ahead was under 2ft of snow. And I was behind a Mercedes with big fat tyres. The chances of it getting up were nil and the chances of me using the Subaru’s four-wheel drive to get round him were nil as well because everyone going the other way had long since given up, got out and set out on foot.
The police had said, that morning, that motorists must not abandon their cars. They said that recovery charges would be imposed to punish those who did. And I’m sure this is very sensible. It’s daft to leave your car in the middle of the road, because that makes life even more difficult for the snow-clearing equipment. But what, pray, are you supposed to do instead? Sit there until you run out of fuel and then freeze to death? No. Of course, I didn’t get out and leave my car, because I didn’t want to ruin my shoes. And I didn’t have a coat. And the five miles to my house were all uphill. On a spring day, I couldn’t walk five miles up a hill. In a blizzard, at -2C, in 2ft of snow, I would have died. No question.
It was an interesting dilemma. The weathermen were saying that the cold weather would last for days. The road was blocked. I couldn’t go forwards, I couldn’t turn round. I couldn’t leave the car and I couldn’t stay with it. And so, with the little bit of battery left in my phone, I texted a chap who works for me and asked him to fire up the quad bikes.
Further texts suggested that they are not road legal, which prompted a short reply from me, explaining that I’m not really very interested in government legislation at the best of times. They wouldn’t ground Thunderbird 1 just because its airworthiness certificate was stuck in the post, would they?
Happily, however, the problem then went away, because God appeared at my window. Actually, he wasn’t God. He was a maintenance man at a nearby country house and his mate, Terry, had a Jeep Cherokee. They were offering me a lift.
So I pointed the £33,000 Subaru at the grass verge, gunned it and when I thought it was as off the road as it would get, climbed into a £200 Jeep for a cross-country ride home.
These guys were spending the day touring the area helping anyone who was stuck. Can you believe that? Instead of lighting a fire and warming up the DVD player, they were out and about being Good Samaritans. Actually, that makes them both better than God in my book.
As I write, the Subaru is still where I left it and, judging by the drifts outside my front door, it will remain there for several days yet. That’s a pity, because I was rather enjoying it.
In the olden days, there was a very simple choice to be made between the Subaru Impreza and the Mitsubishi Evo. While both were fundamentally the same, with turbocharged engines, plain bodies and four-wheel drive — road-going rally cars, in other words — the Mitsubishi was better on the track and the Subaru was better on the road.
But then Subaru went mad, and replaced its star with a grotesque hatchback that wasn’t much cop to drive anywhere. More recently, it teamed up with Cosworth to inject its ugly duckling with some pizzazz, but that didn’t really work, either. So now, we have the new WRX STI saloon.
It’s still no looker, and it has the same 2.5-litre turbocharged engine as the hatch. However, it feels much, much nicer to drive. Further investigation reveals this is because the springs and dampers have been fiddled with. Tiny things. Big improvement. This is now like the old Impreza: a car that can deliver when the red mist comes but is perfectly happy when it’s just asked to go to the shops.
Of course, this being Subaru, the manufacturer hasn’t got everything right. Even though the interior feels as cheap as a Barnsley lap dancer’s underwear, and it comes with little in the way of standard equipment — it seems all you really get is a heated rear window and a lot of computerised gubbins that allows you to fiddle about with the four-wheel-drive system — it costs £32,995. That’s too much.
Still, if you want to pay less, there’s a free one, in a hedge on the A44, just south of Enstone.