Remember the Subaru Brat?
If so, you are probably over 30 years old. It was a unique vehicle, some would say funky. It was a small two-passenger sedan with a pickup bed on the back that contained two crude seats facing toward the rear.
Now it has been re-incarnated in a thoroughly modern form as the 2003 Subaru Baja. This time, however, it is a much more civilized and practical vehicle with seating for four people as well as a modest pickup bed. It is currently the only car-based four-door crew cab pickup on the market. Plus its offers all-wheel drive. Subaru likes to call the Baja a Leatherman on wheels. And Subaru prefers that we forget the Brat.
The 2003 Subaru Baja is based on the Outback wagon, which is based on the Legacy wagon. Baja and Outback are essentially the same vehicle from the front seats forward. The wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) of the two is identical, but the Baja is 6 inches longer due to the bed tacked on the back.
It's the rear of Baja that's most interesting so we'll start our walkaround there. The bed is quite short, 41.5 inches. That's less than three and half feet and compares to 72 inches or six feet on a typical compact pickup truck, though the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and other hybrid truck/SUVs come with short beds.
The key to the Baja's flexibility is the Switchback system as Subaru likes to call it. To gain the maximum amount of cargo space, fold the rear seat cushion so that its metal reinforced base forms a front cargo wall. Next, fold the seatback flat; its back surface becomes the forward cargo floor and is made from the same slip resistant material as the integrated bed liner.
The bed pass-through door can be lowered so that it rests flush with the back of the lowered seat back. The full length available is now about 56 inches (4.6 feet). If the rear tailgate is lowered and the optional bed extender used there is a grand total of 78 inches or 6.5 feet in length. The actual opening through the front of the bed is 30 inches by 12 inches, which means there is a limit to the size of long objects that can be carried.
The Baja is more functional than it first appears. Hefty looking stainless steel sport bars sprouting from the trailing edge of the cab like flying buttresses look like an imitation from off-road race trucks but they are an integral part of the vehicle's structure, not just for show. Even the polypropylene cladding integrated splashguards are not only for show, according to Subaru, but provide protection from rocks and debris. Individual pieces of the cladding can be replaced as necessary.
The bed is made from double walled steel and has an integrated bed liner made from a non-slip material that can be easily washed. Drain holes ensure that water does not get trapped. Four tie-down hooks are convenient for securing loads. The bed features notches for 2x4s for creating cargo compartments.
The Baja offers a slightly more aggressive look than the Outback. The open bed and the Silver Stone gray cladding that covers the bumpers, lower body, and fenders attract attention to the Baja, especially when ordered in bright yellow. The cladding dips down along the sides of the doors before rising up over the rear wheel arches, continuing in a straight line to cover half of the rear tailgate. Tough looking brush guards protect integrated fog lights up front. The rear bumper has a large flat rubber covered integrated step pad. The license plate is located on the tailgate and can be folded out so it is still visible when the tailgate is lowered. As befitting a vehicle such as the Baja the trim around the windows and along the roof rack is finished in matt black plastic. Lights are available for mounting onto the roof rack, but are illegal to operate on public roads. The only chrome is the trim surround on the front grill.
The Subaru Baja seats four people. Its rear seat is smaller than in an Outback wagon, which seats five. The rear seat of the Baja is short on comfortable as the seat back is relatively upright and the rear window is right behind the headrests. Rear headroom seems less generous than in the Outback even though the specifications say it is the same. We took a couple of octogenarians out to dinner in the Baja and they fared well but reported a lack of space in the back seats when the front-seat passenger had his seat back and reclined. The rear seat includes a center console with cup holders. When the rear seat is folded out of the way the rear passenger compartment becomes a useful storage area.
The dashboard layout is nice with an instrument panel that sweeps around in front of the driver and blends in nicely with the center console. The large gauges are easy to read and the climate and sound system controls fall to hand nicely. Anyone familiar with the Subaru Outback or Legacy will find they are all but identical.
Seats are finished in perforated leather with a neatly embroidered Baja logo in each seat back. The two-tone black and gray finish of the interior gives the car a classy look and feel. It is accentuated by silver metallic trim on the dashboard, doors and center console.
The Subaru Baja offers a soft ride, like a car. It feels and drives like a compact sedan. It feels no different from the Outback, which is not surprising as the Baja is essentially an Outback with an open pickup bed.
The Baja's curb weight is within 50 pounds of the Outback and the engine is identical so acceleration performance is much the same as well. Power is a bit lacking when equipped with a manual transmission. With an automatic the Baja is clearly on the slow side. For this reason we prefer the manual transmission.
Confident handling is a trait of Subaru's thanks to all-wheel drive and a lower center of gravity due to the flat-4 engine. It's certainly true for the Baja as well. While driving on twisty mountain roads twice we came upon sharp corners covered in loose dirt. On both occasions the car did not slip in the slightest as all four wheels gripped efficiently. Around town in the dry, where one might not feel the need for all-wheel-drive, there's no disadvantage as the system is transparent in feel.
Though the suspension is soft, the Baja feels much more solid than many pickup trucks as it is built as a monocoque or unit-body rather than a body on frame. The Baja is much quieter than a truck as the bed is an integral part of the whole body structure rather than being bolted on the back as a separate unit.
Subaru did not design the Baja for rough off-road use, but it does have a 7.3-inch ground clearance, the same as the Ford Explorer Sport Trac. Coupled with the permanent all-wheel-drive system and decent angles of approach and departure, the Baja can negotiate a wide variety of off-highway situations with aplomb. It handles very well on gravel roads, much better than a truck. Based on our experience in the Subaru Outback, we expect the Baja to be superb on snow and ice.
If you want the comfort and handling of a sedan with the utility of a small open bed, then the Baja is a good choice. It should work well for gardening, weekend projects, and some outdoor activities. The rest of the time, it feels like a comfortable sedan.
The 2003 Subaru Baja wears two hats. If you normally carry passengers but have occasional need to carry cargo such as mountain bikes, surfboards or awkward goods such as a refrigerator, then the Baja could be the ideal vehicle. That assumes you don't mind something that looks different from the run of the mill car or truck.