by Greg Wilson
photos by Laurance Yap
The comfort of a car and the utility of a small pickup
In the tradition of the Subaru Brat, Chevrolet El Camino, Ford Ranchero, Dodge Omni, and VW Rabbit, the new Subaru Baja is a cross between a car and a pickup truck. But unlike its two-door predecessors, the Baja has four doors and four seats (OK, the Brat had two rear facing seats in the cargo box, but that doesn’t really count) – and a unique folding partition from the cargo area to the passenger compartment that extends the length of the cargo bed.
Based on the Subaru Legacy/Outback platform, the Baja has the same wheelbase, but is about six inches longer, mostly at the rear. Its appearance is similar to the Outback, but there’s much more body cladding all around the lower half of the car, and the cargo box features two chromed support bars running from the roof to the box. Baja’s are offered in four colours – Baja Yellow, Regatta Red Pearl, Silver Stone Metallic (monochromatic) and Black Granite Pearl � all come with silver coloured lower body and tailgate cladding.
Starting at $35,595, the Baja, is well-equipped: standard features include alloy wheels, 16 inch tires, leather upholstery, air conditioning, moonroof, and power conveniences – as well as all-wheel-drive and a 165 horsepower 2.5 litre four cylinder ‘boxer’ engine.
In theory, the Baja offers the best of all worlds: the utility of a small pickup truck, the luxury, roominess and comfortable ride and handling of a four-door sedan, and the traction of a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
But upon closer examination, you’ll see that the Baja does have it faults – let’s take a closer look:
The cargo box
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The advantage of the Baja’s open cargo box, when compared to the enclosed cargo area of a Legacy station wagon, is that wet, muddy, or snow-covered items like snowboards, skis and boots, can be transported without messing up the interior. As well, the Baja’s open cargo box can carry tall, bulky items like furniture and lumber that wouldn’t fit in a station wagon.
However, the Baja’s cargo box is relatively small: 1066 mm (42 inches) long and 1143 mm (45 inches) wide. Flipping down the tailgate and using an optional bed extender will extend the length of the cargo box to 1524 mm (60 inches), but that’s still about a foot shorter than a traditional six foot short box found on most small pickups.
The Baja’s trump card is a folding partition behind the rear seat that allows longer objects to extend into the passenger cabin when the rear seatback is folded down. With the ‘switchback’ folded down, the cargo box length extends to 1955 mm (77 inches). As well, by flipping down the tailgate and flipping over the aluminum ‘bed extender’, the bed length increases to 2413 mm (95 inches).
However, as the cargo bed is only 1143 mm (45 inches) wide, and the opening to the passenger compartment is only 762 mm (30 inches) wide and 304 mm (12 inches) tall, you’re not going to fit a 4X8 sheet of plywood through there.
The other thing to consider is that if the partition is folded down, only two people can fit in the car.
Still, for carrying wet or dirty sports equipment and smaller loads, the Baja’s cargo box is useful. The box includes a black bed liner with built-in inserts for 2X4 bed dividers, and four tie-down hooks. My car included floor netting to hold down smaller objects, and a tonneau cover to cover the top of the box. Two bright cargo lights above the rear window effectively illuminate the entire cargo box at night.
Subaru offers optional attachments that hold skis, kayaks and snowboards. As well, there are optional bicycle attachments for the standard roof rails.
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While the Subaru Legacy and Outback models seat five people, the Baja seats four – the centre rear seat is replaced with a covered storage bin and two cupholders.
The interior is quite luxurious and well-equipped: standard features include leather upholstery, air conditioning, 6-way power driver’s seat, 4-speaker, 80-watt AM/FM/CD sound system, cruise control, power glass moonroof with sunshade, power windows, mirrors and door locks.
I found the front bucket seats to be comfortable and supportive, although the driver’s seat cushion could use a bit more padding. The driver’s seat includes power height and manual lumbar adjustment, and both front seats have seat heaters with two temperature settings. Attractive ‘Baja’ lettering is embossed in the upper seatbacks.
The interior design is similar to the Outback, and the fit and finish is equally good. The Baja has unique two-tone black and grey leather seats, a two-tone leather-wrapped steering wheel, two-tone leather wrapped shift knob, and real-looking metallic plastic trim on the console, dash and armrests. The big round gauges, including a tachometer, have a unique dark blue background and yellow pointers, and a digital clock and outside temperature gauge are built into the tachometer. The whole interior, with the possible exception of the heater dials, has a first-class look to it.
All Baja’s include standard air conditioning and an AM/FM/CD player, but for $36,000, I would have expected automatic climate control and a 6-disc CD changer. The stereo offers good base and mid-range sound quality but I thought the upper ranges were a bit tinny.
I liked the position of the power window and door lock buttons and power mirror buttons which face the driver on the forward armrest; and for our cold winters, both outside mirrors and wipers are heated.
The Baja has a variety of interior storage spaces: a small glovebox, two storage slots in the control panel (one covered), a flip-down coin tray near the driver’s door, door pockets, and a medium-sized bin between the front seats. Rear passengers have a large covered storage bin between the two rear seats and net pockets on the back of the front seats. Cupholders? Two in front behind the shift lever, and two between the rear seats. There’s an ashtray and cigarette lighter at the bottom of the centre console – the lighter can also be used as a charger.
The rear seats are not poor imitations of the front seats – they offer the same classy two-tone leather with perforated seat inserts, and have a high hip point for a more comfortable seating position, easier entry, and good visibility. The seatbacks don’t recline, however. Rear legroom and headroom is adequate for six-footers, but I noticed the rear windows roll down only about half-way.
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The folding ‘switchback’ panel is located behind the rear seatback. To fold it down, the rear seat cushion must first be pulled up against the front seatbacks and the rear seatback folded down flat onto the floor. Then, the panel is folded down on top of the seatback. One person can do it in about ten seconds.
The rear head restraints don’t have to be removed before folding down the rear seatback because they are attached to the wall behind the seat – they just stay where they are! Also, the rear seat buckles can be fitted into customized holes in the seatback so that they don’t get hidden under the seat when the seat cushion is folded down again.
It’s worth noting that the Baja is not like the Chevrolet Avalanche pickup truck which has a folding panel AND a removeable rear window which create a much larger opening.
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Though it looks truck-like, the Baja exhibits the comfortable, balanced ride and handling characteristics of the Legacy/Outback upon which it is based. The Legacy’s unit body platform includes a four-wheel independent MacPherson strut/multi-link suspension, a fairly low centre of gravity, and a longitudinally-positioned drivetrain. Though it has 185 mm (7.3 inches) of ground clearance, the Baja doesn’t feel tippy or top-heavy in the corners – and there’s no undue brake dive or pitch when accelerating. The standard Bridgestone Potenza 225/55R-16 inch M+S tires are surprisingly quiet on the highway, yet offer good traction on poor, slippery surfaces. The Baja’s turning circle of 11.2 metres (36.7 ft.) is better than average, and good for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
Outward visibility is very good, although sometimes the flat vertical rear window will catch reflections at night.
Though smooth and quiet, the Baja’s 160 horsepower 2.5 litre horizontally-opposed four cylinder engine feels underpowered when accelerating quickly, say when you need to go from 60 to 100 km/h in a hurry on a short freeway entrance. Still, from stoplight to stoplight and general urban and highway use, the Baja’s engine is powerful enough, and as I said, uncommonly quiet and smooth.
Cruising on the freeway at a steady 100 km/h, the engine does just 2,400 rpm in fourth gear; at 120 km/h, it does 2900 rpm.
Fuel consumption is about the same as a Legacy Wagon: 11.4 l/100 km (25 mpg) in the city and 8.3 l/100 km (34 mpg) on the highway. That’s significantly better than you’ll get in a compact four-door pickup truck.
I found the optional 4 speed automatic transmission to be very smooth – even when I floored the gas pedal and forced the transmission to drop down two gears, it didn’t jerk. I didn’t have a chance to try the standard five-speed manual transmission.
Baja models with the 5-speed manual transmission have an all-wheel-drive system with a viscous coupling centre differential that apportions engine power 50/50 front/rear. Bajas with the four-speed automatic transmission feature a different system: an electronically managed, continuously variable transfer clutch which sends 60% of the power to the front wheels and 40% to the rear, sometimes rising to 50/50 in slippery conditions.
My experience with Subaru’s all-wheel-drive systems is that they provide significantly better traction and stability on snowy, icy or wet roads than front-wheel-drive (or rear-wheel-drive) layouts. This is most noticeable when climbing a hill or turning a corner. AWD is perhaps the most under-rated safety feature when it comes to winter driving.
Subaru says the Baja is capable of towing trailers up to 1088 kg (2400 lb.), but with its limited power, I would expect performance and acceleration to be mediocre with a trailer in tow.
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Since there aren’t any other car-based four-door pickups on the market, it’s difficult to compare the Baja to anything else. However, for buyers considering a Baja, it would make sense to look at compact, four-door pickups like the Toyota Tacoma DoubleCab, Nissan Frontier Crew Cab, Chevy S-10 Crew Cab, GMC Sonoma Crew Cab, and Dodge Dakota Quad Cab. These pickups aren’t as refined, and their fuel consumption is worse, but they offer more utility and better towing capacities for a similar price.
The concept of a four-door, four-passenger car-based pickup is good, but the Baja’s high price, limited utility, and excessive body cladding may deter some buyers.
Technical Data: 2003 Subaru Baja
|Price as tested||$36,695|
|Type||4-door, 4 passenger mid-size SUV/pickup|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.5 litre horizontally opposed 4 cylinder, SOHC, 16 valves|
|Horsepower||165 @ 5600 rpm|
|Torque||166 lb.ft. @ 4000 rpm|
|Tires||225/60R16 97 M+S all-season radials|
|Curb weight||1610 kg (3350 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2649 mm (104.3 in.)|
|Length||4910 mm (193.3 in.)|
|Width||1780 mm (70.1 in.)|
|Height||1554 mm (61.2 in.)|
|Ground clearance||7.3 in.|
|Cargo volume||501 litres (17.7 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City 11.4 l/100 km (25 mpg)|
|Hwy 8.3 l/100 km (34 mpg)|
|Fuel Type:||Regular unleaded|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|