(first posted 9/4/2015) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Trailhead Classic: 1978 Subaru BRAT
Curbside Classic: 1982 Chevrolet El Camino
Curbside Classic: 1969 Ford Ranchero
Sometimes I see these on the road with a little mini camper on the back, which makes me wonder why they didn’t just buy a wagon
I have dogs, and I would love a Baja with a cap to transport the two of them after they’ve gotten muddy or wet. It’s amazing how much crap they can get all over the mouse fur carpet in the back of my Outback. Same idea as any pickup with a camper, hauling dirty stuff you want to keep safe, but without the bed that’s too high for dogs.
The deal breaker for me, and a lot of other buyers though, was the non-removable back glass. If the Baja had had a full Avalanche mid-gate style opening, it would be able to still transport full sized appliances and other over sized loads like an Outback. As it was made, it was just too much of a compromise for the limited gain in practicality.
Agreed. Although it would have cost some in development, hot sales of the Avalanche (at least initially) showed that a similar folding mid-gate on the Baja would have paid off handsomely for Subaru. The Avalanche is a huge, gas-guzzling beast and a smaller, nimbler, more fuel efficient version in the Baja could have been a winner.
Having a plastic-lined cargo bay separated from the inside offers plenty of advantages. Try toting leaky gas cans or a filthy lawnmower inside a wagon, and you’ll wish you had that dinky cargo bed.
The complaint is that the bed on these is small. Sure, but as a homeowner and casual user of a pickup, about 4 foot worth of my truck’s bed is what I use about 85% of the time. For when I need more, that flip out bed extender cage would do just fine. As was touched upon, these are ‘lifestyle vehicles’ and fit the personal use category just fine most of the time. They aren’t meant for contractors.
I just could never warm up to these. Saying I find the regular Outback wagon of any generation interesting or appealing is stretch, so these were just like the Outback’s ugly step-sister. I prefer to call that all-too common shade of yellow “Mustard Yellow”, which isn’t attractive at all. I will say though that the interior, while plain, does look quite nicely laid out, and materials actually look to be better than the 2013 Legacy we rented out in California two years ago.
At least in the post-1970s US, car-based pickups have never seemed to be practical enough to justify sustained sales. Either you have a usable cargo box and two-seater passenger capacity (as in the Brat and Rampage), or you have decent passenger capacity and a useless, four-foot cargo box that’s basically an open-top trunk. The Baja was a neat concept that filled a niche, but the niche was so small that after everyone who wanted one bought one, the need to build the vehicle faded away.
Now Hyundai is on the verge of offering one. The Santa Cruz concept looks fantastic, and I wish its maker the best (and no doubt they’ll snap up a few sales from people looking to replace their worn-out Bajas with something stylish)…but I’d be surprised if that lasted for more than a single generation, too.
One small but thoughtful feature on the Baja is that the rear license plate bracket is hinged so that the plate is visible with the tailgate either up or down. This must have been a last-minute addition to the design, since the lowermost publicity shot doesn’t have it.
I remember when these came out, they were advertised as getting 17 mpg city. I don’t remember the highway number but with crappy mileage like that why not just get a real truck that will get 13mpg and actually be useful. The brat was a much better idea.
If a fuel-efficient Baja is what you seek, there’s a guy in southern Indiana (Scottsburg) who has a bizarre fetish to build Frankenstein creations combining the front end of rear-ended Priuses and the back half of front end collision Bajas.
He also build Prius limousines, too.
It is amazing how much body cladding was slathered on to these. Stepping out of this yellow example in front of this handsome older building, might give all but the most self assured, the feeling of being a clown. With wagons being an ever smaller niche, Subaru had to come up with something to try to get the buyer to notice the outdoorsy capabilities. I bet they thought a pickup would add that tough image. It didn’t and future Outbacks got more CUV and less wagon. Inevitable and successful, but not for me.
I absolutely LOVE these things! Basically they have all the ‘just right’ features that drive people toward a regular sedan but none of the stodgy, mind numbing boredom. True, they were never huge sellers but do a little research and see what used ones bring. I know, this is Subaru country (Portland metro) but Id have paid the same for a Baja than I did for my Ram. I just dont see it. Since specimens do exist with the turbo and manual trans, I wouldn’t consider settling for less. These remind me a LOT of the Jeep Scrambler, in that it was a short lived, unbelievably cool niche vehicle that was also much more practical than youd think. Those lucky enough to have owned one tend to be fiercely loyal fans. Ive had a Scrambler…still want a Baja turbo manual in either shade of blue….
Turbo Baja’s with sticks still command quite a premium. There was one for sale locally a couple months ago (OK, not exactly a state that put’s a premium on Subaru’s like VT or CO), with only 40k miles, in very nice shape, and they wanted $16k for it.
Even a plain old 2.5NA/4EAT Baja commands a premium. I’ve seen some with over 150K on the clock selling for $10K. It’s not uncommon for Subaru dealers to put a high mileage Baja trade-in on their used car lot rather than sending it to auction because they know it will sell quickly.
The down side to owning one is the availability of body and trim parts. SOA has discontinued a lot of the Baja-specific pieces and since most of them are still running, junkyard Bajas are hard to come by even in the usual Subie strongholds.
Agreed. Really, ANY Baja commands an insanely high price, for what it is. Ive seen them with over 200K on the clock, and in that same $10K range. For better or worse, I have more sense than money…
Good observations and questions. I think you summed up well why these were not in any way superior to or even different enough from an Outback to get a buyer’s attention. It’s too bad, because I’ve always been attracted to the early brats, and even though Subaru missed the mark on the Baja, it still has a quirky, underdog appeal.
An Asstek with a tonsure.
What I’ve never understood was why car based utilities never sold as well as truck based utilities here in North America. They seem to have some great ideas it their favour. A truck like bed, to put anything in the back behind the cab that’ll fit.
I remember when Subaru Baja. While I was impressed with the idea of a utility bed based on the Subaru, and I liked the idea of a 4 door truck, I’ve never liked this truck, probably because the bed looks too small for anything other than a few bags of groceries. Not very practical for those who use the truck for work, carrying bags of cement, etc.
The majority of the car based pickup trucks in Latin America are not “Full 4 doors”, that makes them less practical as “family cars” but I believe it gives a better “adventurous” looking.
When we were in Costa Rica we saw a great many four-door pickups, to the point where I think they outnumbered the extra-cab-type two-door variety.
Good piece. Never heard of these.
The Ridgeline was really in a different class, as it’s based on the Pilot/MDX SUVs and not on a “car” platform. Its load and towing capacities may not have been Ford F350-competitive, but they’re closer to traditional trucks. It did bridge the two categories reasonably well, even if it wasn’t a sales success.
The Ridgeline went out of production over a year ago, so that was the end of that experiment.
Based on the Pilot/MDX, yes, but those are derived from the Accord platform aren’t they? So yes, another degree of separation, but still not very truck-like.
And you schooled me on that one! I forgot the Ridgeline was out of production. However, they are planning a second generation.
Frankly, I wish they’d kept the interior updates in line with the Accord. And also that they didn’t make it look like that disability taxi you shared recently.
I think the Ridgeline could have been better received if it looked more like a Pilot. You can see that’s where Chevy is taking Colorado marketing: pitch it at people who wouldn’t ordinarily buy a truck but might appreciate the extra practicality. The Ridgeline is nice in theory… Moderate truck ability, car-like ride and handling, but it is just so damned ugly.
No; not as far as everything I’ve seen (based on Accord). I’m quite certain the Pilot/MDX is a specific platform and a fair amount bigger than the Accord, and they have a unique IRS. IIRC, the Odyssey might also share some aspects of this platform, perhaps at the front end. These vehicles get up close to 5000lbs. I can’t imagine any familial sharing with the Accord except for some aspects of the drive train.
I think William is onto something. Sure, the Pilot/MDX/Odyssey may be a little beefed up from Accord components, but they aren’t THAT far removed. Its still a fwd based layout, and minivan/family car use is about the practical limit for that layout. Even with a decent AWD setup (and Honda’s is about the most piss poor one out there from everything Ive read) I wouldn’t attempt to tow much with one. If youre selling this thing as a truck, then its expected to do truck stuff. The Baja is pitched more as an SUT or a car with a bed. If either were to try and yank any sized boat out of the water on a steep ramp, I cant see it going too well. As cars with added utilty…then theyre fine.
Every resource available online says the Pilot/MDX rides on the same platform as the Odyssey/Accord. The Pilot/MDX has some strengthened bits to help its increased tow rating, but it’s still basically a lifted Accord wagon.
Define “platform”. Or should I say, there are many differing definitions of “platform”. The way I define it, looking at the underside of two vehicles sharing the same platform would/should reveal a lot of similarities. For instance, the undersides of a VW Golf and Audi A3 would be hard to tell apart at a quick glance. They literally share the same “platform” (floor structure,as well as many of the body “hard points”.
Undoubtedly, the Accord contributed some aspects, but not its “platform” as I define it. The floor structure is essentially unique to the Pilot/MDX/Odyssey/Ridgeline, with a substantially reinforced structure including frame-like rails integrated into the floor structure. The rear suspension is essentially totally different.
The body “hard points” are also obviously totally different.
The front suspension looks similar, but may well be beefed up for the CUV/vans.
Obviously, the drive trains are shared, to an extent. But that hardly defines “platform”.
Yes, these Honda CUV/vans are “car based”, in the very loose sense of the word, as are all CUVs, by definition. What that really means is that they aren’t “truck based” (BOF). But the actual amount of parts sharing between the Pilot/MDX/Odyssey?Ridgeline and the Accord, in terms of their body structure, is probably actually nil.
So it’s certainly more appropriate to say “car based”, or developed from the Accord as a starting point”, but to say that the Accord and Pilot or Odyssey “sit on the same platform” is simply not true, unless someone can prove it technically otherwise. I could accept “loosely based originally on the Accord” or something like that.
‘ve long learned to not take newspapers, magazines and even wikipedia as the gospel truth, as they often just parrot some other source. My analysis of the these two vehicle platforms tells me that there are likely no shared body/rear suspension parts. When it comes to other systems (HVAC, electronics, etc), that’s a different story.
I literally can’t find a single reference that says anything other than the Pilot/MDX are Accord-platform based, same as with the Odyssey.
Sure, don’t take wikipedia for the truth without reading their sources, but when there’s dozens of pages of results (tech journals, magazine articles, newspaper reviews, etc) that say that they share platforms, even you have to admit that obviously your definition is not the industry or journalistic standard.
I gave you all the reasons why I said they don’t “share a platform”. There are no common parts in the “platform” of the Accord and Pilot/MDX/Odyssey/Ridgeline, except perhaps parts of the front suspension and steering.
The Accord’s platform may have been the jumping off point in the development of the Odyssey, the first of these larger NA Honda’s, but that doesn’t make it true that they “share the same platform”.
If you want me to change my mind, you’re going to have to do more to prove your point other than parroting press clippings, which are notoriously non-technical. Just what basic body structure and suspension parts do the Accord and the van/SUV vehicles share?
You don’t realize how the press works: a press release (often written by a non-technical PR person) might say that the Odyssey or Pilot are based on the Accord platform, (“based” is quite different than “sharing”) and then every journalist parrots that back, saying that they two vehicles share the same platform. I’ve seen this way too often….
My real point in all this was: the Baja is truly a car-based trucklet; they just cut off the back of the Outback to make it. But the Ridgeline is a larger, stronger, heavier vehicle capable of carrying heavier loads and towing substantial amounts because it’s not just a “car-based” trucklet. It has a platform and suspension that were specifically designed for heavier loads by substantial modifications including “frame rails” welded into the underfloor structure (the “platform”). The two vehicles are not directly comparable in their construction and capabilities.
I briefly flirted with the idea of one of these for my first car after seeing one at a local dealer’s lot (and it was yellow, of course). I balked when I saw it had 300,000+ miles on it.
If you can’t fit a snowmobile in the back it’s not a truck! That being said it’s a real tight fit for some of the monstrous new crew cab trucks with 5 ft beds to fit a mountain sled out here in the BC Interior. Most seem to add a sled deck that will fit two sleds which just adds to the complexity of riding a sled up and down an even longer ramp.
I’ve always liked car-based trucks, but could never see myself using something with a bed that small. I love Jeep Scramblers, but even their beds are pretty tiny. A Brat, Rampage or VW truck would be cool but I’d probably overload them. Something about a Brat with firewood loaded past the bed sides doesn’t seem right. Guess I’ll have to stick to my little old Toyota truck.
We bought our 2003 Outback wagon right at the ’03 to ’04 model changeover and got a good deal on it (it was an odd mix of H6 engine, which at that point almost always came along with the L.L. Bean trim level, and lower-level cloth seats, etc.), and there were several ’03 Bajas still on the lot at that point. When we came back to the dealer for some kind of service appointment, well into the ’04 model year (I think it may have been summer 2004), there were *still* a few ’03 Bajas sitting around, and the dealer really wanted to offer us a great deal on one, by this time needing to clear out the space and be done. We looked but ultimately passed–I liked its utility but its ugliness outweighed the utility. Had it been offered with the 3.0L H6, I might have picked one up.
Those thin B-pillars certainly look intriguing. Imagine a four-door hardtop Baja with a large sunroof, Avalanche-style folding mid-gate, and the 3.0 six-cylinder.
Could have been a contender…
Right now car based pickups and the US market don’t mix but the rising popularity of small vans like the Transit Connect, and the stupidly high load beds of modern pickups may push demand for a small pickup based on a car chassis like the Brazilian utes.
Personally my idea of a proper Subaru truck is a Sambar with a dropside dump body.
Four doors big mistake, its utility factor is almost zero, my boss could put 50 chipping hoes in the back of his 83 Baru wagon and beat it up and down channel banks all day this might last half an hour, less ground clearance than a EH Holden sedan, it really is only a marketing toy.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Expecting the neanderthals who buy pickups for reasons other than work to purchase a practical variation is nuts. Expecting rational people to want something with an open cargo box when you can buy a minivan and strip out the carpeting is equally nuts.
It might be interesting to see what a ‘Legacy’ version would look like (remove all of the cladding)…
Wow. A Legacy with the trunklid ripped off. Can’t even haul a bicycle without it hanging out of the bed.
Given the number of huge American double-cab pickups with 5.5′ beds, and Tacomas with just 5′ beds, the proportionally smaller Baja with even a partial midgate always seemed like it would be useful enough for certain applications. Unfortunately, to me both the Baja, even more than the Ridgeline, was past an aesthetic tipping point where I just couldn’t imagine owning one. To me, the Ridgeline profile is unattractive and the high bedsides also limit bed access and viability. The Baja, however, just screams bad taste, with the nearly ubiquitous two-tone, the cladding, the chrome roll around, hood scoop, etc. A Baja minus those features, and based on the next version of the Legacy (2005+), could have been a contender to end up as one of my COALs. The new Ridgeline and Hyundai Santa Cruz are on my radar.
You do know that hood scoop isn’t for looks, right? Bajas with the WRX engine in them are rare and worth serious money. or at least as serious as can be for a 10-year old car that likely sat on its original selling dealer’s lot for a year or more.
I do agree that a Baja based on the ’05-’09 Legacy wagon might have been quite the looker. Especially a Spec B version!
As case in point of of vehicles with near uselessly small beds selling, consider the Explorer Sport Trac. So this is basically a right-sized one of those.
If they had offered it without the cladding…maybe…or if they’d gotten *really* serious and given it a wheelbase stretch and a 6 foot bed. Would have ended up rather longish, but it also would have had a lot more utility.
I own a 2003 Subaru Baja and it is a real head-turner it is yellow lava version everywhere I go people’s heads turn it is so unique a little bit does come in handy for a lawn mower weed wacker anything like that that you need gas cans that you can’t do with a Forester or any wagons fuel gas you out also they run fantastic in the snow go through snow at full size pickup trucks cannot go through I have been in snowstorms to wear full size f-150s and Dodge Rams expending in burning and I roll right over the snow and passed them with a smile on my face great little truck I wish they would bring it back I think that it’s about time Subaru bring back the Baja maybe with a little bit bigger of a bed but overall it’s a great vehicle before people in it comfortably if you want a dog that won’t jump off the bed it is a great thing to have once again I think that it’s probably one of the smartest thing Subaru has ever done unfortunately it did not sell like they wanted to I think that if they would rethink the bed design and make it maybe five and a half foot long it would sell like hotcakes but overall I’ll give it a 5 out of 5 on the practicality of what it’s been used for camping it’s a must you can throw all your camping gear sleeping bags tent everything in the back and still take four people camping great little truck the value of these trucks are increasing every single year and a dolly will be a collector’s item they are projected to bring triple the value of what they were new they already hold an insanely insanely amount of value even ones with high miles mine on the other hand only has 22,000 miles on it I had an offer from a Subaru dealer which one to put it on your showroom floor just to show they offered me $25,000 or to trade me for any vehicle on their lot $25,000 same value I’m still thinking on it I have a feeling that this vehicles will be worth a lot more money in the next 10 to 15 years Subaru is intending or has thought about bringing up the Subaru Baja with a longer bed I think this will only increase 2003 to 2006 Subaru Baja’s value even more
Perhaps Subaru was 20 years ahead of its time? The new Ford Maverick seems like the spiritual successor to the Baja, and it seems to be generating a good deal of interest.
Ford is smart in styling and marketing the new Maverick as a truck. It resembles a crew-cab F-150 more than the mid-size Ranger does. It’s not apparent to the casual shoppers that Maverick has a unitized body and shares its front-end structure with the Escape/Bronco Sport, which are related to the Focus (Escape has the same dash as the latest Focus).
Maverick seems likely to do better than the more obviously “crossover-derived” Hyundai Santa Cruz and Honda Ridgeline.
One evening in Denver, I wanted to hail a taxicab. I saw one with unmistakable yellow paint and hailed feverishly only to realise it was yellow Baja, not taxicab.
I bet the yellow Baja drivers get this a lot of time…