2003 Subaru Baja First Drive

2003 Subaru Baja First Drive

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2003 Subaru Baja Pickup

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

You're the kind of person who carries a Leatherman tool in your pocket because you never know when you'll need a screwdriver, a pocket knife or both. You stash a combination generator/flashlight in your trunk because anything could come up, or break down. Subaru is bringing the all-new 2003 Baja to market for the same reason you pocket that Leatherman every day — because when you climb behind the wheel every morning, you'll always have the right kind of tool for whatever the day will bring.

The 2003 Baja is both a car and a pickup truck. Based on the Subaru Outback/Legacy wagon, the Baja shares the same 104.3-inch wheelbase, but is 6 inches longer than the Outback wagon in rear overhang. The Baja has seating accommodations for four fullsize adults, with rear seat legroom measuring just under an inch shorter than the Outback wagon's rear seating area. But instead of a conventional trunk or the glassed-in storage box of a wagon, the Baja substitutes the cargo box of a pickup truck.

Many four-door utility vehicles like this have come on the market over the last three years. Trouble is, all of them are based on pickup trucks. The Cadillac Escalade EXT, Chevrolet Avalanche, Ford Explorer SportTrac, Ford F-150 Super Crew, Nissan Frontier CrewCab and Toyota Tacoma Double Cab look like trucks, drive like trucks, and park like trucks. Only the Baja offers this combination of four-door passenger space, pickup-truck utility, and the practicality and refinement of a car platform.

During a lifestyle presentation, Subaru showed us what the Baja could do. Although the cargo box only measures 17.7 cubic feet compared to the 29.6 cubic feet cargo box of the SportTrac, it still provides a quality bed with ample cargo space. It's finished with an integrated plastic bedliner and carries two tie-down hooks on each side. There's a conventional pickup truck tailgate that's lockable. The 3,485-pound Baja can carry a maximum payload of 1,050 pounds and can easily accommodate two mountain bikes (with their front wheels dismounted), a passel of surfboards or a bunch of miscellaneous outdoor gear. The Baja also has a 2,400-pound towing capacity, so it'll easily pull a personal watercraft or a couple of motorcycles.

Should you think that the Baja is just a 2003 remake of the Chevy El Camino, Subaru has added some features that make the cargo box even more useful. First, the Baja's cargo bed can be extended by using the "Switchback" midgate feature, similar to the design found on the Cadillac Escalade EXT and Chevrolet Avalanche. A trap-door behind the rear seatbacks folds forward into the rear seating area, expanding the usable length of the bed from 41.5 to 60 inches. You just flip up the bottom cushion of the rear seat, fold the rear seatback forward and fold the trap door flat into the rear seat. It's such an easy process, you'll probably use this feature more often than you expect. If you need a longer cargo bed, Subaru provides an optional tailgate extender that increases the length of the cargo area to 75 inches. While the Baja Switchback system has a fixed glass window, and not the retractable rear window seen in the Subaru ST-X concept vehicle, it nevertheless adds a functional amount of cargo area with a minimal hassle factor.

Under the Baja's hood lies the same horizontally opposed SOHC 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine featured in the Legacy/Outback, Forester and Impreza. It delivers 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, and 166 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Although Subaru introduced a 212-hp 3.0-liter six-cylinder version of this engine for the 2001 Outback wagon (which the Outback sedan also received in 2002), it appears that Subaru has decided to limit the engine power during the initial vehicle launch. While we feel that the four-cylinder engine provides adequate power for piloting the Baja down to the shoreline or along dirt roads, we're sure company personnel will soon tire of hearing the chant of "more power" from many Subaru enthusiasts, and we expect that the Baja will soon benefit from one of Subaru's more powerful engines.

All Subaru vehicles sold in the United States come with standard all-wheel drive, and the Baja is no exception. Each available transmission is coupled with a different all-wheel-drive system — continuous all-wheel drive with a viscous coupling center differential for the five-speed manual transmission, and active all-wheel drive which uses an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch for the four-speed automatic. The boxer engine and all-wheel drive system provide a low center of gravity, and combined with the four-wheel independent suspension, makes for a good-handling vehicle, so the Baja drives like a car, not a truck. It's maneuverable in town, and small enough to navigate city garages, park at the dry cleaners or your local 7-Eleven. Although, if you're planning to take the Baja off-road, you should note that its 7.3 inches of ground clearance is less than the 7.9 inches for the Outback and 7.5 inches for the Forester.

The Baja takes most of its styling cues from the Outback. Only the grille and alloy wheels are exclusive to the Baja. There are just four color schemes: Regatta Red Pearl, Black Granite Pearl and Baja Yellow versions are all coupled with so much silver-colored body cladding that the Baja begins to resemble a down-sized Chevy Avalanche (and we don't mean that in a good way), while our choice would be the only monotone option in Silverstone Metallic, because the body cladding isn't so conspicuous.

We got to see the Switchback in action, plus notice the swing-down rear license plate bracket (one of the few ST-X features that made it to the production Baja) that keeps the license plate visible, even when the tailgate is lowered. We enjoyed its standard amenities, including air conditioning, six-way power driver seat, perforated leather-trimmed upholstery and a power moonroof. With this impressive list of equipment, few additional selections are necessary. Once you decide between the standard manual and the optional automatic transmissions, you've nearly completed your vehicle order. Currently, options are limited to sport activity lights, a bed extender, rubber floormats, six-disc in-dash changer, rear seat storage nets and a cargo net in the bed. Subaru tells us that additional accessories are still in development and will include a Subaru bike rack and a lockable hard tonneau bed cover from an aftermarket supplier.

The big advantage is that the Baja is not a fullsize truck. It has great utility and a spirit of adventure. It can be used by growing families — Saturday trips to Home Depot as you fix up the new house, Sunday adventures to the lake or the forest. But during the week, you can drive it to work without hassle. It's comfortable and easy to use. It's just what real people want from a sport-utility vehicle. Anyone who packs a Leatherman in the glovebox will understand perfectly.

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