Story and photos by Paul Williams
It’s not a truck. It’s not a typical car. But it rides and drives like a car, and offers some of the utility you’d expect from a truck.
It’s the new Subaru Baja, designed in the U.S. and available only in North America. Think Subaru Outback with a pickup bed instead of an enclosed rear compartment, and you’ve got the idea. Now imagine a removable panel behind the folding rear seat, and a bed extender to add cargo capacity, and the Baja concept comes into focus.
Add a couple of rear-facing seats in the pickup bed and you’d have a descendent of the groovy 1970s Subaru Brat, a pickup based on the Subaru sedan of the day. Ironically, seats in pickup beds would be too extreme even for today’s X-treme world.
The Baja design is very close to the Subaru ST-X (Subaru Truck Experimental) first shown at the 2000 Los Angeles Auto Show. Not surprisingly, California Dreamin’ was the theme of that show, and the bright yellow Baja (among others) shown to journalists at a recent press introduction certainly invoked images of beach parties, palm trees, surfer dudes and dudettes.
Brian Murphy, Subaru Manager of Product Planning says the Baja continues Subaru’s move toward specialized products that people feel good about, like the WRX.
“It’s a fun vehicle that you can adapt to a range of outdoor sports or home activities. Its main competitors would be the Nissan Frontier and Ford Explorer Sport Trac 4×4, but those aren’t car based.”
Baja is built on the Subaru Legacy/Outback platform, but is longer than those models by 152 mm (six inches). The wheelbase is the same at 2650 mm (104.3″) with the added length of the Baja found in the cargo bed.
The Baja is certainly distinctive, but first impressions are mixed. Silver coloured lower body and tailgate cladding surrounds the car, effectively dividing it in half, top to bottom. The cladding is functional, protecting the car from rocks and other debris, but if the effect isn’t your cup of tea, you can order the Silver Stone Metallic paint for a monochrome look.
The 1055 mm (41.5″) cargo bed is designed to withstand rugged use. It’s a double-wall, all steel unit with an integrated moulded-plastic liner. You can throw muddy gear into the bed, then hose it out after use. It’s not very big, though.
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For added capacity, you can fold down the tailgate and flip over an aluminum bed-extender. That lengthens the bed to 1535 mm (60.5″), and when you drop the tailgate, the license plate cleverly pivots to retain visibility. The bed extender is an extra-cost accessory, however, as is a tonneau cover.
In addition, you can flip over the rear seats, drop the access panel (Subaru calls this the “Switchback” system) and extend load length to 1974 mm (77.7″). When configured in this manner, the maximum load width is significantly narrowed.
The interior compares with the “Limited” version from the Outback. Many desirable features are standard, including heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, keyless remote entry, CD player, power group, air conditioning and tinted windows.
Seats are comfortable and trimmed in perforated leather. The driver’s seat has six-way power but could use additional downward travel. I found my head brushing against the roof, even with the seat lowered as far as possible.
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Gauges are big, easy-to-read and feature a pleasant silver surround. Brushed aluminum trim gives the dashboard and door panels a rich feel, especially when combined with the leather and high-quality plastics.
The two rear seats are separated by a console. The seats are big enough for adults, but not for three people of any size. In case you need further convincing, only two rear seatbelts are provided.
The engine is the familiar 2.5-litre, 165 horsepower horizontally opposed four-cylinder, now a with single overhead camshaft. For a “boxer” design this engine is very quiet. At one point on the highway I neglected to shift from fourth to fifth, and was alerted to this by the position of the shifter, rather than any noise from the engine.
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Speaking of highway driving, the car is a delight on the road. You sit a bit higher, in the Outback style, and the handling and suspension is smooth and refined. I really enjoyed the driving dynamics, which were much sportier than I expected.
Although the Baja is not an off-road vehicle, there was an opportunity to run it through an off-road slalom, where it performed with the same composure experienced on the highway. Clearance under the car is 185 mm (7.2″).
Should you wish to tow a trailer, the maximum towing capacity is 1049 kg (2400 lbs).
The benefits of creating truck-style utility on the Legacy/Outback platform are many. Full-time all wheel drive, the superior safety features that are built into cars, fuel economy, easy to drive and control, and a comfortable ride all come to mind. Attachments designed to carry skis, kayaks, snowboards and bikes are available.
Brian Murphy says Subaru expects to sell 1000-1200 2003 Bajas in Canada, which approaches 5% of their projected sales overall for the coming model year.
Car makers are scrambling to identify specific markets and build niche vehicles that respond to them. The Subaru Baja may work for enough people to make it success, but a full road test will more effectively determine whether this compromise between a wagon and a truck is a winner or an automotive footnote.
At a glance: Subaru Baja
|Price||$35,595 (5-speed manual); $36,695 (4-speed automatic)|
|Type||Four-seat crossover utility vehicle|
|Notable||Truck-style cargo bed; AWD; ABS; four-wheel independent suspension; four seats; “switchback” rear seat design; a variety of Baja accessories; fully appointed; 5 year/100,000 km major component warranty|