Drive: 2003 Subaru Baja
Not since the Brat, which was produced from 1977 to 1987, has Subaru offered a vehicle with an open bed. The Brat was a mini-pickup with seating for two in the cab, and for two facing rearward, in the open bed. That scenario is revisited with the all-new Baja hybrid or 4-door crossover vehicle which closely adheres to the design image of the 2000 ST-X concept vehicle that made its debut at the L.A. International Auto Show.
The Baja is based on the same platform as Subaru's Legacy/Outback -- a car platform rather than a truck chassis, rendering it as more of a sport sedan with an open pickup bed than as a traditional SUV. Baja is unique in that it has no direct competitors and fills a specialized niche, with a sporty, playful look about it that should appeal to non-truck folks, while providing truck-like versatility and functionality.
Baja will be offered in two fully equipped configurations: a five-speed manual transmission model, or a four-speed electronic automatic transmission version. Both models will feature an All-Wheel Drive system -- the manual gearbox model features a Continuous AWD system with a viscous-coupling, locking center differential, while the automatic transmission model comes with an Active AWD system with an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch.
Power for both models is derived from the same 2.5 liter, SOHC horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine found in the Subaru Forester that produces 165 horsepower and generates 166 pound feet of torque. The Baja rides on 16-inch Bridgestone Potenza tires, mounted on attractive 5-spoke alloy wheels. The suspension is heavy duty, raised and independent at all four corners, with braking chores handled by power-assisted four-wheel discs (vented up front), featuring a 4-channel, 4-sensor ABS system.
The Baja is 6-inches longer than its Legacy/Outback sibling, while other specs are shared. The cargo floor measures 41.5 inches or 60.5 inches with the standard bed extender out and tailgate down. The real key to the Baja's versatility is the Subaru-designed Switchback system, which provides the ability to reconfigure both the rear seating area and cargo bed accommodating up to a maximum of 77.7 inches of load space. The rear seat cushion folds upward to form a front cargo wall, with the seatback folding forward for a flat load surface. The seatback features the same slip-resistant, protective covering material as the integrated bed liner. Carrying longer items is allowed by folding down the bed pass-through door which rests flush within the lowered seatback. The rear window is fixed for added rear bulkhead rigidity and does not lower as some other "mid-gate" systems do. The cargo bed is fitted with screened forward drain holes with aft channeled rails and four tie down hooks, not to mention slotted recesses for 2x4 separation sorting. The Baja's payload is 1,050 pounds.