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Review: 2003 Subaru Baja

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SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide



MODEL: Subaru Baja
ENGINE: 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 4
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 165 hp @ 5,600 rpm/166 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic
WHEELBASE: 104.3 in. LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 193.3 x 70.1 x 64.2 in.

Four years ago, at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Subaru of all companies introduced the ST-X concept vehicle. This was something nobody had ever seen before, a combination sport utility and truck. It had panels that could be removed and a rear seat that could be folded flat to convert the SUV into a pickup truck. When you wanted to convert it back, you had a four-door, four-seat SUV with typical Subaru All-Wheel Drive performance. What many journalists found inspiring was that the design incorporated ideas from the public relations office.

Well, while the ST-X languished at Subaru for a while (so we thought), Chevrolet introduced the Avalanche and its variations and grabbed the entire chunk of the changeable SUV market. This year, the ST-X resurfaced as the Subaru Baja, which can be looked at as a scaled-down Avalanche or more rightly as Subaru's unique interpretation of the genre. Baja will probably not impact Avalanche sales that much, since both manufacturers have their own loyal customers, but it will establish its own niche within Subaru.

One thing the Baja is not is another Brat, Subaru's pickup truck of many years back. That vehicle was a real pickup that had two bucket seats in the bed for passengers who liked to ride in the elements.

Baja is based on Subaru's successful Legacy/Outback platform, giving it a strong base. The engine is a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder that is rated at 165 horsepower. It's attached to a four-speed automatic transmission, as in our tester, or a five-speed manual. For the uses we put the Baja through, the automatic was sufficient, but I can see where some people would like the manual.

Styling is unique, as is the case with the Avalanche. I'm still not accustomed to looking at very short bed pickups, so there's a difference. And, the Baja has gray lower body cladding for protection that clashed with the bright yellow paint. In addition, there was a roof rack with fold-down lights that added to the off-road image. Still, nobody stared at us when we drove up to church or parked in a parking garage. And, it was easy to find.

One addition to the pickup bed that I don't remember seeing in the concept car is a bed extended. The bed itself is 41.5 inches long, but with the extender it grows to 60.5 inches. With the rear seat folded, the bed becomes 75 inches long, great for (according to Subaru), mountain bikes, surf boards, scuba gear or a go-kart. We used the bed extender with the tailgate up as a grocery bag holder. And with the weather we had the week we had the Baja, the frozen foods stayed frozen. Despite its unique exterior appearance, the Baja is all Subaru at heart. So driving it was not a challenge. In fact, it was a pleasure. We knew exactly what the vehicle was going to do all the time and felt comfortable with it. On one shopping spree, we used its all-wheel drive capability to "find" parking spaces where there were none on top of plowed snow banks.

Baja also comes with a host of convenience features, including air conditioning (we didn't check), six-way power driver's seat, 80-watt AM/FM stereo with single-disc CD player, cruise control, digital outside temperature gauge (that never went above 32 degrees), keyless entry system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and perforated leather seats, power moonroof, and power windows, mirrors and door locks.

The rear seats are sort of buckets, but certainly aren't designed for more than two passengers. There's a console box in the seat bottom that integrates dual cupholders.

Unlike the Avalanche, which for my uses is too big, the Subaru Baja is a nice size. It's great for finding smaller parking spaces, for driving in poor weather or on snow, sand or mud, and it's reasonably economical. We averaged more than 20 mpg in a mix of city and Interstate driving. The $25,320 price includes the automatic transmission and a delivery charge of $525.

© 2003 The Auto Page Syndicate