2003 Subaru Baja Road Test

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2003 Subaru Baja Pickup

(2.5L 4-cyl. AWD 5-speed Manual 3.5 ft. Bed)

Lounging around in my second-story apartment on the corner of a pleasantly shaded, if densely populated, area allows me access to the conversations of passersby (yes, as a matter of fact, people do walk in Los Angeles). Sometimes it's more inadvertent than others, but whenever I drive home a car with a unique appearance, I'm sure to hear one comment or another. Having chosen a genteel part of town in which to reside ("genteel" being a euphemism for "somewhat shabby"), new cars tend to stand out like the bump on a navel orange.

Thus it was with great anticipation that I proudly parked the Subaru Baja, exuberantly cloaked in Baja Yellow paint, right below my window. As was expected, it got a lot of attention, but the most succinct phrase that stuck in my mind was: "It isn't pretty, is it?"

Well, no. It isn't. Subaru has apparently discovered the ancient Pontiac body cladding burial grounds, and after taking its spoils, glued it all onto the already homely, ducklike body of the Outback wagon, only with its rear hacksawed to provide an open cargo area. With its jarring lines and interrupted flow, there should be a good reason why Subaru would take such a styling leap.

It must be something in the air. As of late, car manufacturers have been salivating over niche markets, imagining a large populace searching for that one perfect vehicle that will address its singular needs with a uniquely configurable cargo area. Some iterations include the Honda Element, the Pontiac Vibe, the Toyota Matrix and the 2004 release of the Scion bbX, all of which seek the buyer who wants the hauling capacity of a pickup truck or an SUV without giving up the ride, handling, passenger-friendly and gas-sipping qualities of a car.

Subaru's offering to the group is the Baja. It's certainly not the first time a manufacturer has offered a car-based pickup; heck, it's not even the first time for Subaru, having had released the Brat upon the unsuspecting world from 1977 to 1987. But the Baja is the first such hybrid with seating for four, all-wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension and its configurable Switchback system.

What's the Switchback system, you ask with a curious cock of the head? Well, it's the Baja's big selling point. The most notable aspect of the Baja, as previously mentioned, is its open cargo space. In the box measuring 41.5 inches long by 49 inches wide (or 39 between the wheel wells) by 17 inches high, complete with its own bed liner, it allows for a wide array of tall merchandise to be carried that couldn't be accommodated by a station wagon.

Lowering the tailgate allows for a length of 60.5 inches, and one can order a tubular bed extender to help keep items secure. Be careful opening up that tailgate, though, because it's very heavy and you can get your hand pinched between it and the rear bumper. Considerately, Subaru provided a swing-down license plate bracket that'll keep your digits visible when the tailgate is lowered. Opening up the Switchback door, a hole measuring 30 inches wide by 12 inches high, folding up the rear bench seat and placing the seatback flat against the floor will allow transportation of objects up to 77 inches in length. When the Switchback door is open (a light will illuminate on the dashboard), it gives you a nice breeze in the cabin. We'd prefer a seatback that's split 60/40 so that you could carry one passenger back there while the Switchback door was in use, but this is not to be. Also, the rear glass window is fixed, unlike the midgate system of the Chevrolet Avalanche. Once loaded down, you can secure your cargo using the four cargo bed tie-down hooks. The Subie also comes with a standard roof rack.

One of the aspects that wards off some people from the prospect of a traditional pickup truck is its inhospitable interior. This is not so with the Baja. Inside, we found comfortable digs, with supple leather that featured specific Baja embroidered tags on the power driver seat and manual passenger seat, both of which provide adjustable lumbar support. The seats provided decent thigh support and side bolstering, but the center console armrest was deemed too low.

We liked the deeply grooved optional floor mats that can contain some spectacular spills. Silver and black are the prevailing themes throughout the interior, dressing up the usual dowdy Subaru dashboard with chrome rings around the straightforward gauges and plastics around the transmission shifter and doors. A power moonroof is standard, as are power door locks and windows, with one-touch-down operation for the driver window. Most of the materials around the cabin are soft-touch plastics, and we only found fault with some of the glossier plastics on the stalks and the cheap-feeling roof liner. Nice attention to detail — like a compass in the mirror and an illuminated ignition switch ring — aids in giving the Baja a premium feeling, which is lacking in most pickups. A three-knob climate control system was deemed sufficiently simple, but we felt the knobs could be bigger. Our tester was equipped with the optional in-dash six-disc CD changer, and you can read our review of the audio system.

To further distance the Baja from most compact crew cab pickups, Subaru designed the rear seats to have enough room for two adults to settle in. Between them are a center console storage area and two cupholders. True headroom was on the low side; there was no fold-down armrest and the seatback was slightly upright, but the two adjustable headrests made it more of a pleasant place for a ride-along journey than not. Try making that claim riding in the rear seats in a small crew cab; the only equal we can think of is in the generous rear digs of the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab.

Rendering the Baja mobile is Subaru's 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that provides 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 166 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Equipped with a manual transmission (as our test car was), the Baja capably accelerates in the midrange; although, it's marginally slow upon takeoff and runs out of breath in the higher ranges. This pugilistic mill is able to motivate the 3,485-pound vehicle from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.9 seconds, which is on par with most compact crew cab pickup trucks moved by six-cylinder power plants. Certainly, the Baja's added weight over a lighter Legacy was felt; Subaru's H6 power plant would make a perfect fit for the Baja's engine bay.

As previously mentioned, thankfully, our vehicle was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Aside from a clutch that engages way low in its pedal travel, and somewhat notchy engagement of the shifter, we found the manual easy to use with its short throws, and much better suited to this type of vehicle. We averaged 20 miles to the gallon in both highway and city driving, which is very good compared to most pickup trucks. The Baja allows for a 2,400-pound towing capacity, foregoing any serious ambition of hauling cargo, but enough for weekend jaunts with your sparkling new water toy in tow.

The Baja rides on the Outback's 104.3-inch wheelbase, but adds six inches in the rear overhang area to accommodate the bed. Accordingly, the Baja rides much more like a car than a truck, lacking a high center of gravity and feeling more rigid over bumps. Credit its four-wheel independent suspension, with struts up front and a multilink design in the rear. Indeed, the body was kept planted and well-balanced, without the jounce usually associated with pickup trucks. While there was some body roll, it was mostly controlled and predictable enough to allow the Baja to thread through our 600-foot slalom at 58.9 mph. Moreover, although the steering was slower than we usually find in Subarus, it was still very direct and precise, with little on-center dead spot and accurate point-and-shoot performance.

Safety is addressed by four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and they worked well to haul down the Baja from 60 mph to a standstill in 126 feet. Subaru's most advertised aspect is all-wheel-drive capability, and the Baja's got it; the Subie's all-wheel-drive system utilizes a viscous center coupling to vary power distribution fore and aft as needed to maintain maximum traction when it's not distributing power evenly to the front and rear wheels. It not only provides a surefootedness to vehicle handling, it allows for more confidence on ice-slicked roads.

Our test car was equipped with the dealer-installed optional sport lights, dual bulbs that stick out from the roof like the eyes of a toad. They cast a bright spot on the road in front of us, and although they're technically not supposed to be used when driving (they only work when the handbrake is engaged), we found that raising the handle up a notch allowed them to work. Not that we would engage in such rabble-ish behavior, but we can imagine the glee in coming down a dark freeway behind an unsuspecting car and then switching on the light.

Ultimately, the Baja is more of an exercise in style and a statement about your lifestyle than a conveyance rooted in function. It's for those who frequent Home Depot as a hobby, to pick up a new ficus and a trellis rather than those who need to carry blocks of cement or furniture. It's perfect for those transporting long sporting items, such as a surfboard or skis, but not necessarily great for a primary caregiver in Seattle picking up the kids and the groceries — they'd be exposed to the elements; they would be better served by a station wagon. The Baja will have limited appeal (Subaru wants to reach about 24,000 of you), but for those who need about half the open-bed cargo utility of a truck as well as a vehicle that rides like a car, the Baja will serve your needs well.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 7.0

Components: Similar to another system we evaluated recently, this one is high on sound and low on features. The head unit is a single-DIN affair mated to a built-in six-disc CD changer below. The head unit, positioned in the center of the dash, boasts a circular, detented knob for volume but a rocker panel for radio tuning. Smallish buttons fight for space on the front panel of the head unit, with undersized controls, such as the dinky preset buttons, being the rule of the day. While the controls have good spacing between, the buttons are so small as to suggest they were designed for children and not full-size adults.

It gets better in the speaker department. The rear doors contain a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers. The front doors have a combo of 6.5-inch midbass below coupled to a pair of one-inch dome tweeters above. The tweets, in particular, are exceptionally well-aimed.

Performance: For a car in this segment, this is a very good-sounding system. First off, it plays plenty loud with virtually no distortion. Second, the tweeters render a pinpoint-accurate soundstage, creating liveliness and verisimilitude inside the cabin. On top of this, we found bass response impressive and accurate, mids intricate and detailed and a good sound overall. We noted, however, that high frequencies had the tendency to bite and snap a little, with an unnatural brightness for the upper register. As a result, female vocals tended to hiss and snarl (and who likes a woman who hisses and snarls?). Percussion sounded really good on this system, with horns less so, tending to exhibit stridency and reediness. On balance, though, this is a good system for this segment.

Best Feature: Great-sounding tweeters.

Worst Feature: Clunky, crowded heat unit.

Conclusion: This is another one of those systems with an underfeatured, unimpressive head unit coupled to a great amp and speakers. We had no choice but to dink the system for the funky radio, but if you can get past that, you'll enjoy the sound of this one. The system is branded "Subaru," and this is one manufacturer that might be helped by inviting in an outside supplier such as Infinity or Bose to beef up its stereo offerings. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
The Baja would be a good choice for an art student, and this statement comes from someone who, in earlier years, spilled white gesso on the floor of her Camry (which, fortunately, was pretty beat-up to begin with). Had I owned a Baja, I could have carried my paint stuff in the plastic-lined bed, and when it was time to haul my cumbersome finished works to galleries, I wouldn't have had to track down the handful of pickup owners I knew at the time. All the while, I wouldn't have had to put up with the slow reflexes and lousy fuel economy of a pickup.

But then or now, it would never come to be. What art student (or automotive writer) can afford a vehicle that starts at $24,520? And even if you can comfortably afford the price of admission, isn't it hard to overlook the fact that more versatile, V6-powered crew cab versions of the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier start a couple thousand below that? Or what of the less expensive Honda Element, Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe, whose rear seats go completely flat in an instant to reveal huge enclosed load areas? Meanwhile, the Baja asks you to pull up its rear seat bottom before executing the folding maneuver and then wedge items through the hole between the cabin and the bed.

I am fond of most Subarus, and this one retains the smooth ride, somewhat fun handling and off-road ability of the Outback. And I don't mind the styling as much as other editors on our staff. But I know the Baja will feel sluggish when equipped with the automatic transmission that most buyers will want. And I wasn't enamored with its cramped rear seat — even though it only attempts to accommodate two, it's still best suited for kids under 12. I don't doubt the Baja will prove satisfying for Subaru lovers with pickup needs, but I would encourage anyone thinking about it to test drive at least a couple of the vehicles above before making a purchase.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
I wonder if, at any point in the Baja's creation, Subaru's marketing team thought about naming this vehicle the Brat? (If this was General Motors we were talking about, there'd be no question that we'd be looking at the 2003 El Camino.) It'd be a nice tie-in to the past, don't you think? Subaru could even offer optional rear-facing jump seats for the bed.

The Brat was last sold in 1987. Is the world ready for a car-based pickup? To be honest, I see this vehicle appealing to a very small audience. The rear seat isn't particularly comfortable, and the open-air bed limits what can be carried during wet weather. From a functional standpoint, something truck-based, such as a 4WD Toyota Tacoma Double Cab, would be a better choice. The Baja's Switchback midgate is interesting, but it's not nearly as useful as the one on the Chevy Avalanche because its rear glass can't be removed. In reality, the Switchback is little more than an oversize rear-seat pass-through.

Carrying surfboards and other long, skinny items (Kobe Bryant) are the Baja's forte. If surfing is your lifestyle, the Baja could very well be for you.

Consumer Commentary

Bought mine September 13th, and just took it last week on its first long trip, from L.A. up to the Eastern Sierra for kayak fishing. I didn't expect the storm, and it sure was cold in that kayak, but the Baja handled great in the snow and ice. Really comfortable on the long cruise, too. I had a huge kayak mounted on the roof rack, which caused noticeable movement in crosswinds, but otherwise things went nicely. I had the bed extender out and you can really cram an incredible amount of gear into them. — fishingyak, Oct. 07, 2002.

What more can I say? I love it. It's not even worth comparing to my old Tacoma, but it is a much better ride than even our '98 Outback. Same engine, same hp, torque, max rpm, etc. but the Baja feels like it has a 30-40 hp advantage. Maybe that's just the difference between the AT and the five-speed manual. The suspension is a huge improvement, no body roll at all, and bumps you feel in the Outback barely register in the Baja. The steering is excellent, probably due to the larger wheels and low-profile tires, but I read somewhere about the Baja having some kind of "speed tuned" steering. Anyway, I am very happy with it. I have not had that many looks but so far all I've been doing is commuting and running around a bit on weekends. Since lots of people here drive Suburbans, F250 Super Duty trucks, etc. as commuter/mall shopping vehicles I am probably beneath their notice. I'm still on my first tank of gas and having a great ride. I hope Subaru comes out with more monotone color options for the Baja, the two-tone colors really overemphasize all the plastic cladding. — paulmcg, Sept. 14, 2002.

OK, so a bunch of the guys drove up to Boulder to test drive a Baja today at lunch. Called ahead, Flatirons Subaru has five or six of them, most with AT, but one with stick. We drove the stick.

Impressions:
Interior fit and finish is nice, but a tight squeeze. This is not a vehicle for big people. The four of us range from 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet 1 inch tall and 170 to 210 pounds.

Felt much tighter than my Forester. Backseat has barely adequate headroom, and surprisingly tight legroom. This is a vehicle for two, with room for four when necessary.

Ride and handling is nice, feels much tauter than my Forester with almost no body roll, but the tires let go sooner. Back end will walk out under power in the dirt pretty quickly.

Power is uhmmm, well at 5,500 feet above sea level, not exactly inspiring. We were asking if the Eaton Supercharger on the show vehicle is an option (it's not, of course). Even with the stick, 0-to-60 times will be high (didn't bother to time it, 11 seconds?), almost no sense of acceleration, even where the 2.5 normally pulls hard. One of the guys rallied, and tried to drive it hard, no ability to throttle steer. It's 40-50 hp short of where it needs to be to go hard. We didn't get it out on the highway, so we didn't see the rpm at speed.

Exterior looks better in person than in photos. Saw the silver, black and red. Silver is best if you like that (I don't, seems like everyone's driving a silver car around here nowadays), but the black and red are tolerable. It looks like it goes faster than it does.

The bed extender takes up almost half of the bed with the tailgate closed. If you put that on, leave the tailgate down. The pass-through is large, but I wouldn't call it generous.

Still unclear who this is aimed at. Styling screams young and restless, power doesn't deliver, interior pushes price beyond their reach. College students with deep pockets? — bsvoller, Sept. 5, 2002.

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