Curbside Capsule: 2003-06 Subaru Baja – The Brat Grew Up

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Car-based pickups may have enjoyed a great deal of popularity in markets like Australia and Latin America, but in North America they never really took off. Sure, GM sold the Chevrolet El Camino and GMC Sprint/Caballero for decades, as did Ford with its Ranchero, but they were always niche players. During the 1980s, Dodge had the relatively short-lived Rampage (and the one-year only Plymouth Scamp) and Volkswagen had its Rabbit Pickup, but they were one-generation wonders in North America. More recently, Honda introduced the Pilot/MDX-derived Ridgeline but despite Honda’s stubborn insistence on producing it, sales have never amounted to a hill of beans. And then there was Subaru, with its polarizing 2003 Baja.

It’s not that the Baja was an awful idea. It had all-weather capability, a car-based platform and its inherent ride and handling advantages and a compact but useful bed for hauling dirty and messy things. Overall, it was a neat package. Nothing that would sway a Silverado buyer, mind you, but it had a certain niche appeal.

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Using the front of the Outback gave the Baja a family resemblance, and the interior was typical Subaru fare: not exactly plush, but well screwed together. But Subaru decided to get a little bit quirky with the styling (this was around the time of the B9 Tribeca, after all) and gave it an abundance of plastic cladding. The stuff didn’t look good on the Chevrolet Avalanche or the Pontiac Aztek, and many agreed it didn’t look very good on this, either, nor did the odd taillights. Subaru also used this banana yellow as the Baja’s hero color. 

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There were a few clever features on Subaru’s trucklet. There was the “Switchback”, a small hatch from the bed to the rear cabin that allowed you to extend the load bay by 36 inches. As the rear seats folded flat, this was a useful extension of the bed, however the rear glass couldn’t be removed. Other features included an integrated bed liner, four bed tie-down hooks, a bed light, a fold-up license plate holder, and a storage space underneath the bed containing the spare tire. But for all its practical features, the Baja was lacking in raw practicality. Towing capacity was only 2,400 pounds. The bed was only 41.5 inches long and 49 inches wide.

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The Baja looked like an Outback with a chunk chopped off, and fortunately it drove like one too. Initially, only a 165 hp, 166 ft-lbs 2.5 four-cylinder engine was offered but for the Baja’s sophomore year, a turbocharged 210 hp, 235 ft-lbs 2.5 four was added. Ride height was increased in both 2004 and 2005, likely to make the styling more macho, and this had a detrimental effect on handling; by the end of the Baja’s run, ground clearance was 8.2 inches. Still, this was the most fun-to-drive pickup on the market and the standard transmission was indeed a standard transmission (the same 5-speed manual used in the Legacy). A four-speed automatic was optional; turbocharged Baja autos had a manual shift mode.

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Subaru’s first trucklet since the dead-after-1987 BRAT was never meant to be a serious light truck but rather, a lifestyle vehicle. You could equip your Baja to the same high level of specification as an Outback, with optional leather seats, a power driver’s seat and a sunroof.

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Perhaps the biggest threat to Baja sales wasn’t its ungainly styling, but rather its iffy value proposition. Base price was around a grand more than a similarly-specified Outback. Could you not just put a rubber mat in the load bay of an Outback? How often would potential Baja buyers be hauling tall items? Those were similar questions to the ones that had destined the GMC Envoy XUV for failure, and the Baja’s sales performance was similarly mediocre. Subaru projected sales of 24,000 per year. Over four and a half years, they mustered just 30,000.

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Subaru didn’t see the point in investing in a second-generation Baja based on the 2005 fourth-generation Legacy, and the Baja experiment ended. Since then, the Ridgeline has flown the flag for car-based pickups in North America; the planned Pontiac G8 ST, a rebadged Holden Commodore Ute, never eventuated and a rumored Ram lifestyle truck has also been a no-show. The Holden Ute and Ford Falcon ute aren’t long for this world, so only Latin America shows a continued appreciation for the car-based pickup. Can this segment ever enjoy a resurgence in North America? Can it ever achieve more than just niche appeal? Was the Baja off the mark, or is the whole car-based pickup concept simply anathema to American consumers?

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