Baja sport-ute kicks up horsepower When Subaru reincarnated its car-based pickup last year and rechristened it the Baja, longtime fans of the Japanese all-wheel-drive specialist fondly recalled the old Brat from the Seventies. We didn't. But we appreciated the fact that the new Baja, which is derived from the previous-generation Legacy, had grown in size, comfort and capability over its spiritual antecedent. For 2004, Subaru is offering this mid-size "sport utility truck" with a zippy turbocharged engine, which greatly enhances the vehicle's personality. But there are still some problems. We tested a prototype Baja Turbo with a price tag of $26,845. HE: Even though there is nothing else on the market quite like the Baja, I'm still not convinced that Subaru hasn't answered a question that nobody was asking. When I first drove the Baja a year ago, my two biggest complaints were the ugly body-side cladding and the lack of engine power. Fortunately, Subaru has answered one of those issues with this new Baja Turbo, which makes 215 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque. Boy, does that make this sport ute lively! Unfortunately, it's still pretty homely. SHE: Isn't that just so typical of you to jump right into horsepower stats and never even say, "Happy Anniversary." This column marks the 10th anniversary of our automotive partnership. I'm going to have to go and look up what you're supposed to be giving me -- I know it's not diamonds. HE: Probably fiberglass. In which case, I would argue for a Corvette to mark the occasion. But no cladding, please. SHE: I would even take a Baja Turbo. I was surprised by how much I liked this spunky little truck and by how high my individual marks were when it came time to quantify performance, comfort and features. Oddly enough, color seems to be critical with this vehicle. The very first Baja we tested was yellow, which looks ridiculous. But it looks serious in black. The exterior was sharp, with the hood scoop and wraparound headlights. The interior had solid workmanship and some nice convenience features, including heated seats, grab handles, lighted vanity mirrors and storage nets on the backs of the front seats. HE: As disparaging of the Baja as I've been in the past, I found the new Baja Turbo to be both entertaining and easy to operate. Our test vehicle came with the optional four-speed automatic, which includes a manual-shift function. Once you get past some initial turbo lag, which is more pronounced with the automatic than it is with the standard five-speed manual gearbox, the turbocharger kicks in and you get that great rush of acceleration. I think I'd probably prefer a normally aspirated V-6 engine to Subaru's turbo four-cylinder -- especially for the extra low-end torque. But I also have to say that the turbo seems much better suited to the personality of the Baja than it does to the Forester. SHE: I applaud the Baja's car-like handling, but that stumpy bed is not really designed to haul cargo, even though it has that integrated bedliner and tie-down hooks. It's far too tiny and impractical, unless you're only hauling mountain bikes or flats of flowers. I also found the tailgate to be a bit heavy for such a small pickup, but I did think the built-in tailgate cup holders were cute. I had some trouble with road noise at highway speeds and some visibility issues -- the larger rear pillars and oversize metal struts in the bed blocked my view. You'll also notice limited rear headroom with the sunroof if you're one of the two passengers who can fit in the back seat. HE: Some other automakers offer small four-door pickups, but they're still trucks. What sets the Baja apart is the fact that it's car-based, and that really shows in terms of ride comfort and ease of handling. It also has a lot more personality than truck-based models like the Ford Explorer Sport rac, the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab and the Toyota Tacoma Double Cab. The Baja Turbo also comes with loads of standard equipment, including air conditioning, keyless entry and a leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel. SHE: Don't forget the 6-disc in-dash CD changer and power moonroof. I like the fact that you get 24-hour roadside assistance, standard antilock brakes, all-wheel-drive and even height-adjustable seat belts. But you can't get side air bags or air curtains. HE: I still wouldn't mind having one in the driveway -- in case you were wondering what to get for our anniversary.
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