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Remember the Subaru Brat?
If so, you are probably over 30 years old. It was a unique vehicle, some would say funky. It was a small two-passenger sedan with a pickup bed on the back that contained two crude seats facing toward the rear.
Now it has been re-incarnated in a thoroughly modern form as the 2003 Subaru Baja. This time, however, it is a much more civilized and practical vehicle with seating for four people as well as a modest pickup bed. It is currently the only car-based four-door crew cab pickup on the market. Plus its offers all-wheel drive. Subaru likes to call the Baja a Leatherman on wheels. And Subaru prefers that we forget the Brat.
The Subaru Baja offers a soft ride, like a car. It feels and drives like a compact sedan. It feels no different from the Outback, which is not surprising as the Baja is essentially an Outback with an open pickup bed.
The Baja's curb weight is within 50 pounds of the Outback and the engine is identical so acceleration performance is much the same as well. Power is a bit lacking when equipped with a manual transmission. With an automatic the Baja is clearly on the slow side. For this reason we prefer the manual transmission.
Confident handling is a trait of Subaru's thanks to all-wheel drive and a lower center of gravity due to the flat-4 engine. It's certainly true for the Baja as well. While driving on twisty mountain roads twice we came upon sharp corners covered in loose dirt. On both occasions the car did not slip in the slightest as all four wheels gripped efficiently. Around town in the dry, where one might not feel the need for all-wheel-drive, there's no disadvantage as the system is transparent in feel.
Though the suspension is soft, the Baja feels much more solid than many pickup trucks as it is built as a monocoque or unit-body rather than a body on frame. The Baja is much quieter than a truck as the bed is an integral part of the whole body structure rather than being bolted on the back as a separate unit.
Subaru did not design the Baja for rough off-road use, but it does have a 7.3-inch ground clearance, the same as the Ford Explorer Sport Trac. Coupled with the permanent all-wheel-drive system and decent angles of approach and departure, the Baja can negotiate a wide variety of off-highway situations with aplomb. It handles very well on gravel roads, much better than a truck. Based on our experience in the Subaru Outback, we expect the Baja to be superb on snow and ice.
If you want the comfort and handling of a sedan with the utility of a small open bed, then the Baja is a good choice. It should work well for gardening, weekend projects, and some outdoor activities. The rest of the time, it feels like a comfortable sedan.
The 2003 Subaru Baja wears two hats. If you normally carry passengers but have occasional need to carry cargo such as mountain bikes, surfboards or awkward goods such as a refrigerator, then the Baja could be the ideal vehicle. That assumes you don't mind something that looks different from the run of the mill car or truck.