Deja vu all over again.
The Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero appeared in the '50s, later joined by the Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp as well as a pickup version of the VW Rabbit in the '80s.
All were cars minus rear seats and trunks to make room for pickup beds.
Cars roaming the streets posing as trucks--or trucks posing as cars, depending on how you looked at it.
Great two-in-one, multipurpose vehicles.
So, if nostalgia can prompt Volkswagen to bring back the Beetle and Ford the Thunderbird, why can't memories of the car/truck genre prompt a new edition for the new millennium? Subaru has come up with just that by introducing the 2003 Baja.
Fitting for the car/truck to reappear, considering the popularity of dual-function or multipurpose vehicles called crossovers. Come to think of it, the car/truck may have been the original crossover.
Baja offers features missing from its early car/truck predecessors, items that may have kept them around longer--four doors, two rows of seats and full-time all-wheel-drive.
Baja is based on the Legacy sedan/Outback sport-utility/wagon platform. Upfront it's a compact Outback; in back it's a pickup with the addition of an abbreviated 41.5-inch bed.
Baja is for those who sometimes need a truck--at least one with a 41.5-inch cargo bed--without the ride, handling, mileage or size of a big pickup because it is based on a car platform.
While Baja's primary attribute, the mini bed, limits what you can haul, Subaru minimized the problem with a design concept similar to what the Chevy Avalanche uses to help expand cargo capacity.
With Avalanche, the rear window comes out and the rear cabin wall, which General Motors calls a midgate, folds flat to expand the bed into the cabin so you can haul longer items.
With Baja, you can lower the tailgate, flip the optional ($255) aluminum extender onto the tailgate and the 41.5 inches expands to 60.5 inches.
If more room is needed, flip and fold the rear seats, fold down the bulkhead wall (which Subaru calls a Switchback rather than a midgate) below the stationary rear window and you extend the bed to 75 inches for longer items, such as skis or surfboards. (Without the extender, Switchback lengthens the bed to 56 inches.)
Though Subaru is an alliance partner of GM, Baja's Switchback wasn't influenced by Avalanche's midgate, said Subaru spokesman Mike Whelan.
Nor was Baja brought out before the rumored return of the El Camino, perhaps in '06, to test public reaction to a car/truck before a Chevy commitment, Whelan said.
The first results of the Subaru/GM alliance will be a joint-venture AWD sports coupe reportedly influenced by Subaru's high-performance WRX, perhaps as early as '05, though maybe not until '06. Subaru and GM will get a version. GM's may be carrying a Chevy nameplate.
The first joint-venture vehicle was to have been a seven-pas senger AWD crossover due in the 2005 calendar year, with GM and Subaru each getting a version. Those plans were shelved (Transportation, May 5), and only Subaru will get the seven-passenger crossover.
But we digress.
Baja is an idea whose time has come--again.
But a word of warning. Baja's upper body comes in yellow, red, black or silver finish. Regardless of color chosen, the bumpers, wheel-lip extensions and lower-body panels are covered with thick protective plastic cladding that comes only in silver.
Don't, repeat, don't get Baja in yellow.
When resting in the driveway, a swarm of bees became confused and chose to serve guard over the yellow Baja below. They mistook it as a really large member of their family. Attempting to open a door ticked off the winged sentries.
Once under way, little kids on bikes who passed quickly offered thumbs-up, but bigger kids in cars shook their heads--sideways, not up and down.
It's not the veh le; it's the choice of color.
Better in red and have cardinals circle overhead than in yellow and fight off the bees.
One other warning: thanks to the bed, you'll have to license it as a truck and obey truck speed limits.
Though carrying a truck plate, Baja rides and handles like an AWD Outback. It's much more user friendly than a truck-based SUV. Comfortable ride with car-like handling. Very easy to maneuver.
The four-wheel independent suspension helps cushion up-and-down movements, and rebound springs in the struts reduce body roll in corners. Baja is shod with 16-inch, all-season radial tires.
The full-time AWD system transfers power to the wheels with the most traction and grip when traveling on slippery surfaces. At acceleration, the system directs more power to the rear wheels to compensate for weight transfer.
Baja can tow up to 2,400 pounds and has 7.3 inches of ground clearance for off-road capability, though you'll probably want to limit off-road travels to unpaved roads rather than steep, uncharted mountain paths.
Baja prompts some to recall the Subaru Brat, a subcompact truck with a pair of plastic seats in the cargo bed that allowed Subaru to claim it was a passenger vehicle and escape the 25 percent duty on imported trucks when it was sold between 1977 and 1987.
Brat was silly; Baja is sophisticated.
About 20,000 to 25,000 Bajas will be built annually at Subaru's joint-venture plant with Isuzu in Lafayette, Ind., where Legacy/Outback are produced.
Baja, along with an all-new Legacy/Outback in '05 and the joint-venture sport coupe, is being counted on to help Subaru realize its goal of selling 250,000 vehicles annually in the U.S. in '05, up from an expected record of 195,000 in '02 and the previous record of 186,000 in '01.
Base price is $23,995. Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, depowered front air bags, dual-stage front passenger bag that bases deployment speed on impact severity, power moonroof, power windows/locks/mirrors/driver's seat (six-way), air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with CD player, cruise control, keyless entry, leather-trimmed upholstery, tinted glass, fog lights with stone guards, slip-resistant and washable plastic bed liner on the floor as well as walls, and rubber floor mats.
Options on the test vehicle included 4-speed automatic transmission at $800, cargo-bed extender at $255 and wheel locks at $39. Roof attachments to carry bikes are a dealer-installed option.
Baja would be more practical if Subaru adopted a cargo bed cover to hide the contents, such as Avalanche now offers. Subaru said it is evaluating a choice of hard and soft bed tops as a future option.
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