In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a resurgence of interesting new car-based pickup trucks about to hit the market. The Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz are set to join the Honda Ridgeline to offer unique takes on the softer, more manageable truck formula. But history is actually full of carlike pickups, from the old Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino to the less widely remembered Dodge Rampage. Of course there have been others, but the one we’re going to hone in on in this article is the Subaru Baja.
The Baja was Subaru’s second foray into the truck market here in America, following the classic Brat (which is worth its own article for another time). Whereas the Brat had vestigial seats mounted right in the truck bed, the Baja was a much more refined design that shared most of its mechanical bits with the Legacy and Outback.
Oh, and the Baja has a very … unique appearance.
Why the Subaru Baja?
As we mentioned at the outset of this article, there’s a legitimate market for small, carlike pickup trucks. The Baja wasn’t the most successful take on the formula, having sold just around 30,000 units during its production run from 2003-2006, but it was one of the strangest. It’s basically a comfortable Subaru Legacy sedan except that it’s got a small truck bed grafted on the back. Plus, there’s a small pass-through from the bed to the cabin and a bed extender that allow owners to haul objects up to 7.5 feet in length. That’s genuinely useful.
Plus, being based on the Outback means it has standard all-wheel drive and is surprisingly capable in modest off-road settings. It also means it’s roomy inside with seating for four adult passengers and that it rides comfortably even over poor road surfaces. The Baja’s ground clearance of up to 8.4 inches is great for the type of rutty dirt roads that often lead to great camping, hiking or fishing opportunities.
Two engines were offered over the course of the Baja’s production run. A standard four-cylinder offered 165 horsepower, sent to all four wheels through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. A turbocharged option was added in 2004, and in that same year the ride height was raised. The turbo offers 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Most Bajas were sold with automatic transmissions, but a few turbocharged manuals made their way out of the factory.
The Baja scored pretty well with owners. J.D. Power survey responders named it the Most Appealing Compact Pickup in 2003 and 2004. Consumer Reports gave the Baja the highest marks for predicted reliability of all pickup trucks in 2006.
Which Subaru Baja to choose?
We’d generally suggest looking for a turbocharged model, but the base 2.5-liter boxer-four isn’t a complete dog when mated to a manual transmission. If you can find a Baja Turbo with the very rare manual transmission, we’d suggest that you strongly consider it. The engine is basically a detuned WRX STI powerplant, and with a proper clutch pedal and all-wheel drive, it’s a sprightly performer.
Unfortunately, Subaru didn’t sell very mana Bajas over its abbreviated production run. That means clean, low-mileage examples can be pretty tricky to find. You may need to cast a wider net than you’d normally consider to find the perfect Baja in your price range.
Our used vehicle listings can be helpful to find a good deal near you. Narrow the offerings down by a radius around your ZIP code, and pay attention to the deal rating on each listing to see how a vehicle compares with others in a similar area.
What else to consider?
The Baja is unique. There weren’t many car-based pickup trucks during the Subaru’s production run, but if that’s what you’re looking for you’ll find a plethora of vintage options, including the longtime segment-defining Chevrolet El Camino. More realistically, the Honda Ridgeline offers a similar experience to the Baja, but with greater capability and a lot less quirk.
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