- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

When it comes to making do with what you've got, nobody does it better than Subaru.
The latest example of the Japanese manufacturer's genius at squeezing additional models out of a basic vehicle is the 2003 Subaru Baja, a one-of-a-kind entry into the burgeoning specialty sector aimed at twenty-somethings.
Essentially, the Baja is yet another spinoff of the basic Legacy station wagon and sedan that were introduced back in 1995. From that vehicle, we have seen various Legacy sedans and wagons, a whole bunch of Outback models in different power and trim levels, and now the Baja.
Subaru likes to call the Baja an "open-bed sports sedan" or a "Leatherman on wheels." The latter is a reference to the popular pocket-sized multitool. The Baja was first shown as a concept car, the ST-X (for Subaru truck experimental) at the Los Angeles auto show in 2000.
It's a small, car-based pickup truck, in concept not unlike the Chevrolet El Camino of yore and Subaru's own Brat, but without the plastic seats out in the cargo bed. The big difference is that is has four doors and accommodates four riders, where the Brat and El Camino had two doors.
Moreover, the new Baja offers the flexibility of a pass-through from the cargo bed into the passenger compartment, so longer objects such as surfboards and two-by-fours can be carried easily.
The only thing similar to the Baja on the market today is the Chevrolet Avalanche and its luxurious sibling, the Cadillac Escalade EXT. But those are full-size trucks that allow the entire wall between the passenger area and the cargo bed to be removed.
On the Baja, there is only a small opening, 12 by 31 inches. The rear-window glass is fixed and cannot be removed. That limits the Baja's utility somewhat, but it is not intended to be a full-blown hauler anyway.
In ordinary trundling around, there's ample space and comfort for a driver and three passengers, with a 3-foot, 5.5-inch cargo bed out back, exposed to the elements. Drain holes in the bed keep water from collecting, and there is a built-in cargo bed liner.
If you need to carry long items, it's a simple matter to flip the rear seat bottom forward, drop the rear seat back and also fold the small pass-through door to provide the opening to the back. Then you can drop the tailgate (there's a clever folding license-plate bracket that allows the plate to be seen with the tailgate down) and you have a total bed length of about 6 feet.
The whole affair would be more useful if Subaru would split the rear seats and the pass-through door. That way, if you needed to carry three persons and only a few long pieces, you could still do it. As it is, if you extend the cargo bed into the interior, the Baja becomes a two-seater.
To keep things from falling off the back, there's an optional ($250) bed extender that also doubles as a cargo-bed divider for carrying smaller items. With that in place, the bed length is 6 feet, 3 inches.
In every other respect, however, the Baja is a refined passenger car. It uses Subaru's proven horizontally opposed, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, which delivers 165 horsepower to all four wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission. Either transmission is a good choice. The five-speed is a model of resistance-free, snick-snick shifts and the automatic moves unobtrusively through the four speeds.
The Baja's base price is $24,520 with the stick shift and the automatic adds $800. That's for a fully equipped vehicle. It includes anti-lock disc brakes on all four wheels, a power driver's seat, power windows and mirrors, air conditioning, a stereo with CD player (a six-disc in-dash changer is optional), a built-in cargo-bed liner, alloy wheels, leather upholstery, remote-control power door locks, a motorized sunroof and cruise control.
The test Baja, in look-at-me bright yellow with gray lower-body cladding, had only a couple of options: The CD changer, the cargo-bed extender, rubber floor mats and a light kit that put two bright spotlights up on the roof, presumably for late-night forays down dark wooded lanes. That brought the suggested sticker price to $26,544.
Utility aside, the Baja is a splendid passenger car. It is quiet and relaxed, and tracks cleanly on the highway. The leather-upholstered seats are supportive and comfortable all around, and the instruments and controls are ergonomically correct.
With the all-wheel drive and a taut suspension system, curves don't produce anxiety. And although the Baja is not intended for severe off-road duty, it can handle a great deal of tough terrain.
The "boxer" four-cylinder engine provides ample grunt for most circumstances, though some buyers might yearn for a bit more. Subaru has six-cylinder engines in some of its Outback models, so a bump in power could be in the Baja's future.


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