2004 Subaru Baja (Natl) Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
September 3, 2002

Subaru has effectively divided itself into two separate companies in North America. First there’s Rally Subaru that sells the WRX to a generation that is as familiar with it from PlayStation as from the World Rally Championship. Then there is the Outback Subaru, which sells sedans, station wagons and the Forester small SUV to suburbanites who don’t need true off-road ability but like the look and crave the all-weather security of all-wheel drive. The Baja definitely belongs to that second aspect of Subaru’s schizoid personality; it yells off-roader in its decoration while offering a new riff on the ancient car-as-truck formula (see everything from Model T pickups to the El Camino).

Is it much of a car? Or much of a truck? Or much of anything?

Hey, let’s hack off the roof!

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It would be unfair to write off the Baja as simply an Outback wagon with the last third of its roof sliced off like a bunion. But it wouldn’t be that unfair – the basic structure and everything from the rear set of doors forward in the Baja is essentially identical to a Legacy Outback. The Outback, like all Legacys, is a structurally impressive, satisfyingly solid and poised vehicle so, no surprise, is the Baja. And like other Legacys, the Baja is built at Sube’s plant in Lafayette, Indiana.

While the Baja shares its wheelbase with the Outback, it’s about six inches longer overall. So all that extra length is in rear overhang for the 41.5-inch long pickup bed that’s grafted on just behind the rear seat. In truck terms, 41.5 inches is a puny bed length, however the tailgate can be put down (the gate-mounted license plate frame folds out to remain conspicuous) and the bed extended with an extender made with aluminum tubing to stretch that to 60.5 inches. Beyond that is Subaru’s “Switchback” gate that opens behind the rear seats, which naturally fold down. Add that length, and the total available length is 75 inches.

2004 Subaru Baja (Natl)

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2003 Subaru Baja

2003 Subaru Baja

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If all that Switchback stuff sounds an awful lot like the “Midgate” in the Chevy Avalanche, that’s because it is an awful lot like the Midgate. However, Chevy’s version includes a removable rear window that allows the accommodation of items as tall as the cab’s roof. The Subaru Switchback, on the other hand, uses a fixed rear window that means that items that can pass through had better be pretty dang thin. One suspects that a reason Subaru keeps the rear window in place is to maintain the stiffness of the unibody structure which is something Chevrolet doesn’t have to worry about on the full-frame Avalanche. Even the stainless steel bars between the bed sides and roof aid in the structure. Those, and whatever other tricks may have been employed in the unibody’s engineering, all seem to be working. The Baja’s structural strength seems at least as substantial as other Legacys.

With a 1050-pound payload rating, the Baja’s bed is a useful repository for most contemporary ski, surf and hiking toys and it’s rated to tow 2400 lb. But don’t expect it to haul any stuff very quickly. There’s only 165 horsepower available from the 2.5-liter, SOHC, 16-valve, flat-four engine and unladen the Baja weighs in at a thick 3485 lb. Hooked to the five-speed manual transmission and continuous all-wheel drive system, the Baja’s boxer engine doesn’t feel particularly strained. But when lashed to the four-speed automatic and its “active” all-wheel drive system that continuously varies the torque split, the engine feels stretched to its limit and then some. To maintain pace on a freeway, even unloaded, the automatic will often have to drop down at least a gear.

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While the truck bed is what distinguishes the Baja from other Legacy-based Subarus, it’s the passenger accommodations that it shares with them that are most impressive. The seats aren’t aggressively shaped, but very comfortable and well finished. The dash is straightforward and easy to use and the other controls are all intuitively positioned. It’s not a perfect interior, but it’s a comfortable place for four people.

It’s also a comprehensively equipped interior stuffed with everything from leather-trimmed upholstery to a power moonroof and an 80-watt sound system. It’s not the hose-it-out extreme sports machine the exterior might seem to promise, and not the sort of starkly unadorned place Gen X, Y or Zers expect inside their first cars. But it is the sort of interior that justifies the car’s nearly $24,000 estimated base price.

With its 7.3 inches of ground clearance (enough for pounding down fire roads) and P225/60R16 all-season tires, the Baja’s on-road cornering limits are modest but the all-wheel drive system keeps things manageable. The steering is well damped but still communicative, and the four-wheel disc brakes work with ABS-controlled precision. The ride is comfortable, well controlled and probably better than any other vehicle currently for sale in North America with a pickup-like bed.

As a car, the Baja succeeds in maintaining the sweet manners and composure of other Subaru Legacy products. If the driver never looks out of the rearview mirror, he might not know there’s a truck bed back there. As a truck, the Baja is adequate for the light-duty tasks most suburbanites actually need done – even if that’s more likely hauling stuff back from Home Depot and Target rather than taking a kayak to some whitewater or a surfboard to the Pipeline.

There’s a lot of off-road pretense in all the cladding and light bars and stuff the Baja wears. Does it really need it to remain compelling? Couldn’t a street-oriented, cladding-free Baja be an interesting vehicle too? It might at least make an interesting concept car at the next Detroit or L.A. show.

As it stands, the Baja is barely compromised as a car and not wholly without virtue as a truck. As sort of a scaled-down Avalanche, it makes a lot more sense for commuting than that fuel-swilling full-size truck and it’s at least as comfortable. It’s not exactly a car, not exactly a truck, but not bad at all.

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

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