Subaru Baja fills yet another niche that no one knew existed: a compact four-door pickup that drives like a car.Here's the modern equivalent of the iconoclastic Subaru Brat from 1977, back in the days when the Japanese automaker was struggling for identity. The Brat was quirky and unique and cute as a koala.Today, Subaru has made major inroads with its all-wheel-drive line of small and midsize sedans, wagons and the truck-like Forester. They all drive well with a reputation for bulletproof reliability.And the Baja is, well, a lot more practical than the Brat. It has four doors and a usable front and back seat, plus a pickup bed that extends to a bit more than 5 feet with a "Switchback" passage into the cab that extends another 30 inches or so.But the Baja falls flat on appearance.A genuinely nice-driving car, it's saddled with one of the dorkiest looks ever, a yellow and silver nerdmobile set off by a pair of ridiculous driving lights on the roof rack that, from the rear, look like Mickey Mouse ears.Where Brat was cute, Baja is goofy. It's long and loopy, neither car nor truck, with absurd silver plastic lower body cladding, the kind of stuff jettisoned by most other automakers as hopelessly tacky.It's too bad, too, because other than its styling, the Baja is such a nice vehicle. Similar in execution to the bigger Ford Sport Trac and much bigger Chevrolet Avalanche, Baja takes the basis of a sport utility and adds a small pickup bed for those times when you just have to have a truck. With its tubular bed extender that goes out on the pickup bed (a familiar feature in today's small pickups) the Baja was able to carry three mountain bikes. And it looked pretty sporty doing so.The removable panel in the back of the cabin allows long objects to jut through, similar to the Avalanche but not nearly as versatile.The pickup bed has much appeal, but don't expect to carry too much cargo. With the extender and passageway closed, the bed is just 3 1/2 feet long, too small for much more than a week's worth of groceries. Smartly, it's lined with plastic to prevent damage from such things as a (small) load of rocks.One of the oddest features is the pair of large driving lights on the roof, such as a hard-core Jeep driver might install for nighttime forays into the backcountry.Problem is, the Baja is not a tough four-wheel drive but a car-like all-wheel drive, great on snow and dirt roads, not so great on boulder-strewn Jeep trails. In other words, the lights are kind of pretentious.Even more oddly, the lights can be lit only by pulling up on the parking brake. What sense does that make?Incongruously, the interior of the test Baja was fairly conservative in muted grays and blacks, with none of the fun-time excesses of the exterior. Driving the Baja, it's easy to picture oneself in a conservative sedan rather than an extroverted runabout. The inconsistency is weird and disconcerting.Powered by Subaru's usual "flat" four, delivering a smooth 165 horsepower, the Baja feels lively and quick, although it would be nice if Subaru offered its strong, 3-liter six as an option. The tester came with automatic; a five-speed is standard.The Baja comes just one way: fully loaded, including sunroof, leather seating, 16-inch alloy wheels, stereo with CD, power driver's seat, cruise control, keyless entry and bed liner, at its base price of $23,995 for stickshift, $24,795 for automatic. Shipping tacks on $525.Baja is a versatile little critter at a moderate price. Too bad it looks so strange.Subaru BajaVehicle type: Four-passenger, four-door pickup, all-wheel drive.Base price: $24,795.Price as tested: $25,320.Engine: 2.5-liter flat six, 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 166 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.Transmission: Four-speed automatic.Wheelbase: 104.3 inches.Curb weight: 3 pounds.EPA mileage: 21 city, 26 highway.Highs:-Compact versatility.-Overall driveability.-All features standard.Lows:-Awkward styling.-Subdued interior.-Those roof-mounted lights.
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