2003 Subaru Baja Review


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SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    Subarus have always been a little different from other cars. While 
the company has an enviable reputation for making sturdy, practical 
cars, it has also made machinery that, while undeniably functional, 
have been a little offbeat, to say the least - cars to make people 
smile. The most shining example was the Brat, made between 1978 
and 1987.
    ``Brat'' was an acronym for ``Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain 
Transportation'', and the Brat was a small-size cross between a 
pickup and a car. The idea was not new with Subaru, as the 
Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero had pioneered that niche, 
albeit on a larger scale, twenty years earlier and there were several 
other similar vehicles contemporary with the Brat. But the Brat 
took the concept to new heights, with available four-wheel drive 
and adjustable ground clearance (courtesy of a wrench and manual 
labor, no fancy electronics in those days!) Later versions also 
achieved notoriety from their passenger accommodations - two 
plastic chairs facing backwards in the bed.
    Perhaps the Brat was ahead of its time. Subaru tested the waters 
again a couple of years ago with the STX concept vehicle. An 
Outback-based cross between a car and mini-pickup, the STX 
differed from anything previous in that it was a full four-seater, with 
four doors. The cargo bed was short, but a movable partition in the 
rear bulkhead allowed longer items to be stored partially inside of 
the vehicle. As concept vehicles are wont to do these days, the STX 
has reached production as the Baja, a decidedly different variation 
on the Outback theme.
    I've been driving a Baja for the past week, and have been the 
center of attention wherever I've gone. It's not just the signature 
bright yellow color that attracts attention and smiles (other colors 
are available). Its look and shape are unique. Unlike a monster-size 
SUV, it's not threatening. It's also comfortable and practical, and a 
functional vehicle for bicycling, camping, hiking, fishing, climbing, 
surfing, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The ``Switchback'' panel in 
the rear bulkhead allows long items to be carried, and a 2400-lb 
towing ability means that motorcycles or personal watercraft or 
whatever that don't fit in the cargo area can go on a trailer. 

APPEARANCE: There will be no mistaking a Baja for anything 
else, even if there was any other vehicle remotely like it. It's 
definitely a Subaru, with the pug-nosed look, upside-down 
trapezoidal grille, faired-in headlamps, and lower cladding with 
inset foglamps from an Outback. But the body shape is unique. In 
proportion, it's closer to the crew-cab compact pickups or truck-
bed SUVs of today than the El Caminos, Rancheros, or, yes, Brats 
of the past with its large four-door cabin and relatively short rear 
bed. The tubular flying buttresses and roof rack-mounted lights help 
with the off-road look, as does the bed extender.

COMFORT: The proportions don't lie. The Baja has good room for 
four people - inside. This is not a Brat. Interior appointment is first 
class. The driver and front passenger get supportive and 
comfortable perforated leather buckets with the ``Baja'' logo 
embossed into the headrests, with a similar contoured bench in the 
rear. Driving is one of the sports supported by the Baja, and the 
driver is treated to a good instrument panel layout and good 
relationship between the steering wheel and shift lever. There is no 
center rear position, that space is taken by a useful console. The 
rear cushion flips up and the back folds forward for extra interior 
cargo space, or to allow long items to fit through the 30 x 12-inch 
``Switchback'' door. Trunk space is...think of the Baja as a wagon 
with really good cargo area headroom. And more. The cargo area is 
39 inches between the wheel housings, or 49 on the floor. In normal 
configuration, with the tailgate up, it's 41 inches long. Put the 
tailgate down, carefully extending the rear license plate for visibility 
and legality, and it's about 60 inches from the rear bulkhead to the 
inside of the bed extender. Open the Switchback, and items up to 
77 inches long can fit. Bicycles work with the front wheel removed, 
and snowboards or short surfboards should be no problem. 
Remember, though, that with the Switchback open, the interior is 
open to the air. That can be nice at the beach in summer, but maybe 
not so great on the ski slopes in winter (although the heater works 
very well.) For large and heavy things, use the trailer hitch. The 
lined cargo area is the perfect place to keep wet and/or dirty 
clothing and equipment that could make the trip home unpleasant if 
stored inside.

SAFETY: ``Active Driving / Active Safety'' is Subaru's philosophy 
on the subject, and so the Baja's design incorporates good visibility, 
handling, and braking for active safety and a strong passenger cabin 
with front, side, and rear protection, three-point safety belts for all 
occupants, and optimized air bags.

ROADABILITY: On the road, the Baja feels like a Subaru, not a 
pickup. There is no hint of rear-end lightness, and it takes corners 
with a tenacious, flat, stable attitude that makes it much more 
enjoyable than any truck.  Subaru's rigid chassis, low center of 
gravity thanks in part to the boxer engine, and four wheel 
independent suspension do their job, and do it well. And, as with all 
Subarus, all-wheel drive ensures optimum traction at all times, in all 
conditions. Seven inches of clearance gives some protection against 
road debris, and semi-improved forest service roads and fire trails 
should pose no major problems. 

PERFORMANCE: With a 3500-lb curb weight and the Subaru 2.5-
liter boxer four making 165 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 166 lb-ft 
of torque at 4000 rpm, the Baja won't be challenging WRXes to 
drag races. But it's quick enough to be fun, and easy to drive thanks 
to the engine's broad torque curve. The standard five-speed 
gearbox has smooth shift linkage and is the best choice for optimum 
performance; the wider ratios of the four-speed automatic do affect 
acceleration. Towing capacity is rated at 2,400 lbs, so don't worry 
about motorcycles or personal watercraft not fitting in the back, 
trailers are much easier on your back.

CONCLUSIONS: An interesting concept brought to life, the 
Subaru Baja can provide fun and transportation for many different 
activities. 

SPECIFICATIONS
2003 Subaru Baja

Base Price			$ 23,995
Price As Tested		        $ 24,915
Engine Type			horizontally-opposed single overhead 
                                 cam 4-cylinder
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 150 cu. in.
Horsepower			165 @ 5600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			166 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		104.3 in. / 193.3 in.
Curb Weight			3485 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        21.1
Fuel Capacity			16.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P225/60 HR16 Bridgestone Potenza RE92
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
                                  antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent multilink
Ground Clearance		7.3 inches
Drivetrain			front engine, all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		20 / 25 / 22
0 to 60 mph				est. 10 sec
Towing Capacity			        2,400 lbs
Coefficient of Drag (cd)		0.36

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Premium sound package 3 - includes:
  speaker upgrade, tweeter kit, subwoofer
  and amplifier, regularly $ 573, special	$ 395
Destination charge				$ 525

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