Consider the platypus. Being semi-aquatic, this bizarre mammal looks like a cross between a beaver and a duck. But thanks to its quirky features, it's agile on land, is a fair swimmer and is adept at rooting for food on stream bottoms.
So what's that National Geographic sound bite got to do with the Subaru Baja? Well, the somewhat visually similar Subaru was also designed to adapt to changing needs, albeit ones dictated by its owner, not its survivability. Thanks to its unorthodox architecture, the Baja promised the nimble nature and passenger comfort of a midsize sedan along with the hauling capability of a small pickup truck.
Alas, just like many of Mother Nature's past experiments, the Subaru Baja didn't quite take. The car's odd styling turned off a lot of potential buyers, as did the fact that there just weren't that many people who desired a car-based pickup. Chevy El Camino enthusiasts excepted, of course. Production ended for the Baja after just four years on the market.
Most Recent Subaru Baja
Based on the Legacy/Outback platform, the Subaru Baja was produced from 2003-'06. In terms of its exterior design, calling the Baja "distinctive" would be the nice thing to say. We're certain that the heavy cladding along the lower body was supposed to look rugged, but instead it seemed as if a Pontiac stylist from the late '80s had infiltrated Subaru's design studio.
Rather than a sedan's trunk or a wagon's enclosed cargo area, the Baja featured a small, open cargo box like a pickup truck. To improve versatility, Subaru fitted a "Switchback," otherwise known as a midgate. The midgate allowed the front wall of the bed and the rear seatback to fold down and into the passenger area. This increased bed length from 41 to 60 inches. The rear window was fixed in place, however, which placed limitations on the size and shape of items that would fit.
The Subaru Baja was initially available in standard and Sport trims. The standard Baja came with air-conditioning, leather seating, full power accessories, a CD player, 16-inch alloy wheels and a power sunroof. The Sport was more of a base trim, as it substituted cloth upholstery for the leather and had a manual, not power, driver seat. Options included a bed extender, a bed-mounted bike rack and a premium sound system with a six-CD changer. The cabin design was essentially the same as the Legacy's, which meant high-quality materials, a user-friendly control layout and comfortable seats.
Power was provided by a 2.5-liter flat-4 that made a respectable 165 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission was standard, with a four-speed automatic optional. Although the 2.5 had decent output, there's only so much thrust it could furnish while saddled with nearly 3,700 pounds of all-wheel-drive Subie. Our testing netted a 0-60 time of 9.9 seconds (with the manual gearbox) -- about equal to a compact V6 pickup of the day.
The following year, the Baja Turbo debuted. Fitted with a turbocharged version of the 2.5, it sported 210 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque. The Baja Turbo was more than 2 seconds quicker to 60 mph and a lot more fun to drive. An Edmunds road test quote sums it up nicely: "It's not quite a performance car, but it's a lot more fun to drive than most other pickups or SUVs."
In theory, the Subaru Baja seemed to make perfect sense, offering the best attributes of a family sedan with the utility of a compact pickup. But it fell a bit short in a few areas. Passenger capacity was limited to just four rather than the regular Legacy's five. And towing capacity was rated at just 2,000 pounds with the automatic and 2,400 pounds with the manual.
Still, with its all-wheel drive, generous ground clearance and versatile cargo bed, a used Subaru Baja could be the ideal choice for outdoor sports enthusiasts involved with mountain biking, kayaking and camping. Add in Subaru's solid reputation for reliability, the Baja's easy-to-handle size and superior fuel economy (compared to a V6 pickup truck) and this odd duck of a car may make more sense than most people initially thought.
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