The 1970s Brat has grown up into a new-generation pickup truck that is ready for work or play.
By Jim Brightly
The Baja is billed by Subaru as “a new type of crossover vehicle that blends the feeling of freedom and ruggedness of a compact four-door pickup truck with the driving dynamics, safety, and comfort of a passenger car.” Motorhomers may find it to be an excellent choice for a towed vehicle. The Baja is reminiscent of Subaru’s Brat, which was introduced in 1977 and was produced for 10 years. The Brat (which stood for Bi-Drive Recreational All-Terrain Transporter), was a small four-wheel-drive pickup with two reverse-facing seats in the bed; the Baja is a small all-wheel-drive pickup with four doors.
The Baja is easily towed “” as long as it’s equipped with the sporty and fun-to-use five-speed manual transmission — and has no distance or speed restrictions. Although the Baja I tested weighed in at 3,560 pounds, it doesn’t feel that heavy when driven. By that I mean it feels quick, light on its wheels, and nimble in the corners, thanks to its peppy 2.5-liter “boxer” 4-cylinder power plant. And its weight isn’t reflected in the very respectable 27.9 miles per gallon figure that I calculated during my test session (much better mileage than the EPA estimates of 20 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway). With a 16.9-gallon fuel tank, the Baja could theoretically give its owner nearly 475 miles between fuel stops.
The Baja is similar in design concept to Chevrolet’s Avalanche, but the Baja doesn’t convert completely from a sport utility vehicle to a pickup. With the Subaru-designed Switchback system, the rear seat folds down, creating an opening in the lower portion of the rear bulkhead. Drop the tailgate, add a bed extender, and it’s possible to lengthen the 41-1/2-inch bed to nearly 7-1/2 feet. An integrated bedliner allows for easy cleaning and durability. Other useful bed features include sport bars, a light, and four tie-down hooks.
The Baja also comes standard with roof rails, cross bars, overhead driving lights, and fog lights in the front bumper. (Attachments are available for transporting bikes, skis, kayaks, and snowboards.) Even though the bed extender is an optional accessory, it’s highly recommended, and not just to extend the bed. With the tailgate closed, the extender — which rotates back into the bed “” can be used to safely stow groceries, ice chests, and other items that you don’t want sliding around the back of the pickup.
With four full-size doors and a full backseat, the Baja can comfortably carry four adults, although I wouldn’t recommend riding in the backseat for long over-the-highway jaunts. But as a towed vehicle, it is ideal to use for sight-seeing, running to the grocery store, visiting swap meets, and providing transportation to the nearest restaurant.
Despite its rugged good looks, the Baja is somewhat limited in its off-road capabilities, as it has no low range in its all-wheel-drive center-mounted rear differential (which uses a viscous coupling to apply power to all four wheels). Excursions over dirt roads, trips through the snow to the ski slopes, and pulling out of muddy parking lots are challenges within the Baja’s grasp. However, even with its 7.3 inches of ground clearance, heavy-duty raised four-wheel independent suspension, and power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes (with four-channel ABS), it’s not going to tackle substantial off-road obstacles.
I’ve seen the Baja in three of its color combinations: the yellow and silver (which was tested), silver and silver, and black and silver. A fourth combination using red also is available. Personally, I prefer the yellow, for the higher contrast between the silver cladding and the painted surfaces.
The Baja has a distinctive and attractive appearance and was quite fun to drive. Yes, sir, the Brat has grown up and it’s called the Baja.
Fast Facts: 2003 Subaru Baja
Engine: 2.5-liter SOHC horizontally opposed (“boxer”) 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 165 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 166 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm
0-60 mph: 13.25 seconds as tested
Transmission: 5-speed manual with overdrive
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Mileage: 27.9 mpg as tested; EPA average — 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gallons
Weight: 3,560 pounds as tested (fuel tank full)
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Base MSRP: $23,895
MSRP as tested: $25,995