The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

2003 New Car Review: Subaru’s All-New Thingamabob Utility Vehicle

Subaru Baja

SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide

Baja Aha !

by Marc J. Rauch, Exec. Vice President & Co-Publisher

There are lots of great things about Subaru, not the least of which is that they have the best and most beautiful PR person in the industry working for them in their Southern California office. The other great bits are their cars, or I should really say “vehicles” because Subaru’s products are anything but standard “passenger cars.”

Subaru’s basic line-up of excellent and affordable substance-over-style models includes Forester, Outback, Impreza and Legacy. While the line is small horizontally, it goes pretty deep vertically with several fairly distinct versions of each model. For example, the Outback is available in eight flavors, the Legacy has six, and Impreza offers four, including their devilishly delicious WRX. Until this year, the WRX would probably have been considered the flashiest Subaru of the bunch. If you can conjure up a mental image of the vehicles, then you know that calling the WRX “flashy” is almost a back-handed compliment. But remember, the Subaru line has been grounded on function, not form.

The Baja changes all that for Subaru. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, Subaru has a vehicle that can compete visually with the most interesting and exciting products from any Asian auto-maker. After a week-long test of the Baja I can easily say that it gets as many envious roadside stares and parking lot queries as any vehicle I’ve ever driven. On top of that, Baja has all the quality and capability of its Subaru siblings, along with a very attractive price tag. Baja is substance and style and affordability.

Baja is sort of a Mini-Me Chevrolet Avalanche (and if you’ve read my review of the Avalanche, then you know I'm making a very positive comparison). Taking the platform of a fully enclosed utility vehicle, Subaru performed some surgery that opens up the rear to give it pick-up truck versatility. Then, like the Avalanche, the Baja’s rear seat can fold down flat to allow access to a pass-through portal, thus extending the cargo bed to just over six feet. Subaru’s name for this feature is the “Switchback” system. The primary difference in this feature between Baja and Avalanche, other than overall size, is that Baja’s rear window is not removable (the portal is located below the permanently affixed window).

On the other hand, the primary general difference between Baja and Avalanche, other than overall size and price, is that Baja is truly good looking. Avalanche is attractive in a grotesque way, like describing a defensive lineman as “ruggedly handsome.” Baja is like a sleek, well-toned tailback.

Baja drives and handles as well as any of the other Subaru utility vehicles and wagons, as it should since it’s a derivative vehicle. The interior is ergonomically smart, roomy and comfortable, again like virtually all Subaru models. It’s a happy vehicle (I had the mustard-yellow, gray-skies-are-gonna-clear-up exterior). It makes you happy to look at it, happy to drive, and happy when other people give you a “thumbs up” as you motor by. It’s perfect for active lifestyles and has a variety of optional equipment-schlepping accessories, such as bike and kayak carriers, and ski and snowboard racks. And, of course, the Switchback portal should give you enough room to carry even a surfboard or smaller sailboard in the truck bed.

Baja is available with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. The only engine currently available is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 165 horsepower. Given the size and weight of the vehicle, the power is more than adequate. I drove it up and down the Sierras without it gasping for air (or two more cylinders). Priced at about $24,000, Baja should not only be a huge success for Subaru, it should open up a whole new design and marketing strategy for the company.

Finally, Subaru has a vehicle to equal its Southern California PR person.