Subaru's Little Pickup Serves Lifestyle Warriors
by Jim Bray
Subaru thinks it has the answer for people with lifestyle toys to haul but
who dont want to own an honest-to-goodness pickup truck to haul them.
Its the Baja, a version of the companys Outback from which Subarus
engineers have sliced the rear end, replacing the station wagon's bum with
a small pickup bed. The result is an odd kind of hybrid vehicle not
in the gas/electric power plant hybrid vein but in its blend of comfortable
car and utility hauler.
Subaru has the courage to march to its own drum, and you cant fault
a company for showing gumption. That said, the Bajas unique appearance
led me to muse that the AWD badge on its rear was a new kind of
phonetic spelling for odd.
Putting the fun back in function, is how Subaru describes the
Bajas mission in its brochure, and that may not be too far from the truth.
Alas, that fun and function is lost on this confirmed couch potato, but judging
from the compliments and stares the Baja got when I drove it over the Christmas,
2002, season (perhaps qualifying me to have said
Baja humbug! with a reasonably straight face) there are plenty
of people upon whom the Bajas charm is not lost. The Baja was almost
as big a crowd pleaser as the Hummer H2 brute
ute and more so than the Honda Insight hybrid
I had driven earlier, both of which are also rather unique.
So maybe its just me. Which goes to show that we in the media do not
have a monopoly on truth and understanding, despite how most of us try to come
The popularity of the Baja and Hummer over the Insight could also indicate
that political correctness only goes so far with people who dont live
in ivory towers: its the outdoorsy vehicles, especially the most blatantly
consumptive one, that got the raves not the otherwise impractical gas
sipper. But I digress
Anyway, the front of the Baja is a four seat car (passenger car safety,
truck utility) featuring just about all the creature features one could
need and, while the truck bed is rather short, it can be extended to the end
of the lowered tailgate thanks to a folding (and optional) metal grate or made
to stretch right into the cars interior thanks to a fold down rear seat
(that doesnt split) and "Chevy Avalanche-style folding
panel pass-through. The result can be long enough to carry a couple of mountain
bikes, or boards of the surf or snow variety.
Because that rear bed extender is made of metal tubes and therefore doesnt
form a solid rear wall the truck bed isnt really suitable for truck stuff
like hauling full length 2x4s (methinks that if you didnt somehow
ensure they couldnt move theyd slide right out the back the first
time you accelerate), but Subaru is clearly not aiming the Baja at contractors
or home do-it-yourselfers. That said, you could easily use the Baja to haul
bags of cement or the like, though that same bed extender really gets in the
way of the hauling capability when its folded into the bed.
As with its brother Outback, the fully independent, heavy duty raised suspensioned
Baja is powered by Subarus classic 16 valve, 2.5 liter single
overhead cam boxer four cylinder engine. The engine is rated at
an adequate 165 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 166 lb.-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Alas, my test unit was connected to a four speed automatic transmission that
transmitted an apparent aversion to zip. I imagine the five speed manual transmission
that comes standard on the Baja would have brought a lot more fun to drive
quotient to the equation.
The boxer name, incidentally, comes from the engines
horizontally opposed cylinder configuration that, unlike the more
common inline of "V" engine, sees each bank of two cylinders moving
back and forth toward and away from each other, almost as if they were slugging
it out in the boxing ring.
Power is sent to all four wheels via the companys famous full time four
wheel drive system that, in this case, also includes a viscous-type limited
slip rear differential. Under normal driving conditions you dont really
feel the AWD too much, but we were lucky enough to have a decent snowfall while
I had the Baja and it came in really handy then: the Baja felt serene on the
Helping bring the Baja to a stop, even in less than optimum conditions, are
large four wheel disc brakes equipped with four channel, four sensor ABS. The
16 inch Baja design aluminum alloy wheels wear a nice set of P225/60
The Baja handles well; as one would expect, its much more carlike than
trucklike to drive, and since its basically a car that had a butt transplant
its also easy to park in normal stalls. Dont expect the high seating
position of a truck or SUV, but do expect a pleasant and comfortable cabin
that, while not in 2003 Honda Accord territory
as far as coddling is concerned, is well thought out and works very well.
Our tester came with just about every option available, including leather
seats with bun warmers up front, and 6 way power adjustment for the driver
(though it reclines manually). A leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel is standard,
as are tinted power windows and door locks with keyless entry.
The stereo is quite good, with adequate power to fill the relatively small
interior. It features an AM/FM radio and single disc CD player and the system
offers good ergonomics that include buttons large enough to use even while
youre wearing gloves.
You also get CFC free air conditioning, cruise control and full instrumentation
with a dual trip odometer. Also on the instrument panel is a digital clock
that, thanks to its placement, is illegible to anyone but the driver, and an
outside temperature readout. An unexpected but handy touch is a little label
on the instrument cluster pointing to which side of the vehicle the fuel filler
door is mounted.
Theres also a small but eminently adequate power sliding moonroof.
My tester also had the optional auto dimming interior rear view mirror with
compass and if you dont like the auto dimming or compass you can turn
them off (or just save the money by not ordering them
). The outside mirrors
The rear seats are comfortable, though there isnt a lot of toe room
under the front seats and our rather short legged family felt that anyone much
taller than us might find things a tad tight back there. And you cant
seat a fifth person because between the rear buckets is a little glove
compartment with twin cupholders.
Safety equipment includes dual front airbags, child protection rear door locks
and safety rear seat anchors, height adjustable front seatbelts with pretensioners
and force limiters and the structure itself features side impact door beams
and front/rear crumple zones.
Driving the car is straightforward, the greenhouse is very good, and the Baja
is pleasant and comfortable for reasonably long day trips. Steering is light
and accurate and braking is accomplished with a nice lack of fuss. The ABS
isnt omnipresent, either, so you can still perform decent threshold braking
without having the built in droid muscling you out of the way.
One thing that takes a bit of getting used to is backing the Baja. Since the
rear window is right behind the back seat, its tempting to think thats
where the car ends but if you fall into that trap youre bound to bang
into something as the reality of an invisible bed sinks in for those who only
rely on the inside rear view mirror as a guide.
I didnt find any real unpleasantness with the Baja, though as mentioned
I was less then thrilled with its acceleration performance. To be fair, however,
it has no trouble keeping up with the traffic around it. But, not surprisingly
for a utilty-type vehicle, it definitely has no sports car aspirations (Subaru
makes the Impreza WRX for people with lead feet). It's agile, howver, and will
undoubtedly please those in its target market.
The exterior is afflicted with the type of ugly plastic cladding that GM seems
to find so necessary, though my testers gray exterior color matched the
cladding and that helped somewhat. It sticks out like a sore thumb on other
colors however, though on the other hand it could be argued that its
better to scratch plastic than metal when youre out in active lifestyle
Okay, the Subaru Baja is unlikely to win a beauty contest, though beauty is
in the eye of the beholder, but it does what its designed to do very
well, and thats what the bottom line should always be about.
The Baja starts at $23,995 US ($35,595 Cdn).