Strapped into a climbing harness and clinging like a limpet to the rock face high above a beach on the Pacific Ocean, the intrepid journalist wondered aloud as he listened to the guide who was covered in bruises: What the heck am I doing here? Far below, a surfing instructor tried to get another wobbly writer to stand up on a board, and off in the brush saddle-sore urbanites pedaled gamely on mountain bikes. There was even an opportunity to go karting. What, indeed, were we doing here? Test-driving Subaru’s new Baja, of course. We’d driven the dozen or so odd-looking yellow vehicles in a parade through Malibu to Sycamore Cove, jumped out and spent the rest of the day trying to prove how athletic we were while studying the press kits which came encased in a tiny wetsuit complete with zipper.
This was Subaru’s idea, to ensure we experience all the activities for which this new sedan/SUV/mini-pickup was specifically created. To feel like the 18-25-year- old look-at-me adrenaline junkies who are expected to buy the Baja. Not easy, considering most automotive journalists are hoary old-timers mostly over the age of 45. Scaling a 50-foot cliff is most appreciated if observed from the ground, it was decided. Surfboards could be carried only if dragged along the sand. And the three-inch wide saddles on the mountain bikes were definitely guaranteed to make sitting difficult for the next few days.
Young at heart (and knees)
In truth, Subaru got its point across. The Baja is the best buy if you are young, active, love the outdoors, camp, hunt, fish, off-roading is limited to trails, and you like standing out as a guy who prefers to drive an odd-looking chopped-off car added to a truck that surprisingly looks great. You are simply one big recreational dude.
2003 Subaru Baja (Natl)
All manner of equipment can be crammed into the bed of this semi-crew cab but when you get behind the wheel you find you are driving a very comfortable sedan. Spawned by the ST-X concept vehicle, the Baja is probably the quintessential crossover yet built, the only passenger-car based pickup bed on the market, and the first car-based pickup with full-time all-wheel drive and a four-wheel independent suspension. To confuse you further and defy definitive description, the Baja, on sale in the fall, is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a light-duty vehicle, as a multi-purpose vehicle by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and a light truck for CAFE (fuel economy) purposes. Conversely, if you hate trucks but need a place for all your gear, the passenger cab is as close to a car as you can get. Unless you looked in the rearview mirror to see the loaded bed, you’d be firmly convinced you were in a standard sedan.
The front of the Baja is borrowed from the car-like Outback/Legacy and the rear is reminiscent of the Brat although it has no chairs bolted to the short bed. Instead, there are nifty chrome structural bars, a roof rack with fog lights, a pass-through for skis or skinny kayaks, and a small but useful integrated rear bumper step pad. The bed is all of 42 inches but can stretch to 75 inches if the tailgate is down, the wide pass-through is open and an extender installed.
The exterior rear design is of the rugged, go-anywhere, carry-anything genre while the front does its best to appear non-threatening. The grille, hood and headlamps are sedate. Get to the sides, however, and the lower body takes on sturdier styling with mud-stopping chunky protective cladding from front to rear, large foldable sideview mirrors, and a fuel door big enough for the most ham-fisted among us. Chrome roll/sports bars run from the fixed rear window to the bed edges and the double-wall, all-steel bed itself has a non-slip surface, lights, and four tie-down hooks.
2003 Subaru Baja (Natl)
Subaru raises the level of standard pass-throughs by trademarking, no less, and dubbing theirs the Switchback System. It reconfigures the rear seats by folding the rear cushion up so that the reinforced metal bottom forms a front cargo wall. The seatback then folds flat, opening the pass-through door.
The comfort zone in the cabin is sky-high and may be wasted on the young. Almost luxurious, with a six-way power driver seat, leather trim, a power moonroof in case you have to stick your surfboard through the top of the Baja instead of where you’re supposed to put it, the Baja also has air conditioning, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, power windows and doors, a rear seat console box, tilt-adjustable steering column, and map lights. The dash is well laid-out, and the seats are regular buckets but with exceptionally contoured sides that provide superb support. There’s plenty of leg and head room, even in the back seats. Since Subaru’s target market loves music, the 80-watt AM/FM stereo with single-disc CD player and four speakers can easily be upgraded to triple the output if the entire bed is devoted to the equipment and covered by a metal tonneau available in the fall.
Now the good part. The 2.5-liter SOHC horizontal boxer engine pushes out 165 horsepower at 5600 rpm, and the torque is 166 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. Payload? 1050 lb. The Baja can tow 2400 lb. And here’s a truck with good mileage: 20/25 city/highway with the manual transmission; add one mile for the automatic. On the five-speed manual transmission version, the Baja uses continuous all-wheel drive with a viscous-coupling center differential. If you choose the optional four-speed electronic automatic transmission, the Baja uses active all-wheel drive, which varies front-rear power distribution through an electronically-managed continuously variable transfer clutch. Translated, this means that these systems power all four wheels all the time and can send more power to the wheels with the best grip. Both include a limited-slip differential, a heavy-duty, raised four-wheel suspension, and 7.3 inches of ground clearance, okay for off-road, marked trails but definitely not the Rubicon.
This is a vehicle more for taking owners and their toys to outdoor activities rather than toiling over large boulders or wading through thigh-high streams. Jungle transportation it definitely isn’t. Fortunately, our test-drive route included an obstacle course laid out on the Paramount Ranch where the studio filmed its Westerns and the stars spent off-hours racing on a dirt track which still traces through the hills. Here, we successfully but gently maneuvered the Baja over railroad ties, along gravel paths, and into a wet marsh but we knew all along the real duty of the Baja is to carry your baggage to more civilized sporting areas.
The ride can compete favorably with most mid-size four-door cars; stability and handling is helped along by the Baja’s low center of gravity compared to pickups, and the suspension does indeed keep all four wheels in constant contact with the road. All-around visibility is expected from vehicles these days and Subaru includes being able to see the front of the hood from the driver’s seat as part of its safety design.
What else? You have to see it to believe it. You have to test-drive it to appreciate its unique features, and you have to be young, phat (whatever that means), and certainly not an over-the-hill Paul Hogan.
2003 Subaru Baja
Base price: $23,995
Engine: 2.5-liter flat four-cylinder, 165 hp/166 lb-ft
Drivetrain:Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 193.3 x 70.1 x 64.2
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Curb weight: 3485 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/25 mpg (manual); 19/24 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock braking, all-wheel drive
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power seats with lumbar support, cruise control, fog lights with stone guards, auto-off headlights, keyless entry, leather seats and steering wheel, headrests
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles