SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- A fat sea lion is lolling in the surf just below Point Mugu, the naval air station that guards the southern California coast.

The creature on which ancient sailors based their fanciful legends of mermaids and mermen, this particular specimen seems oblivious to the humans on shore and the brace of Navy F-16 fighters overhead.

Up on the beach not 20 yards away, a gaggle of motoring writers has gathered to consider the merits of the all-new 2003 Subaru Baja -- half-car, half-truck -- on its maiden voyage here in the Land of Active Lifestyles The conscientious Subaru PR department has organized a full afternoon of activities -- rock climbing, surfing, karting and the like -- that dovetail with the vehicle's launch theme, "Go outside and play."

Being a lifelong Midwesterner with a mild aversion to sun and sea lions, I choose instead to go inside and write. But not before piloting the Baja over a twisty and challenging route through the Santa Monica Mountains, from the dusty Paramount Ranch of Hollywood horse-opera fame and down winding Mulholland Avenue to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway.

The '03 Baja, a new addition to Subaru of America's formidable lineup of all-wheel-drive vehicles, is impressive. Built on the same chassis as the mid-size Legacy/Outback series, the Baja began life as the ST-X concept at the 2000 Los Angeles Auto Show.

The production model hews close to the concept, right down to the heavy-handed application of gray plastic cladding on the body sides. The overabundance of cladding that looked so right when the Outback model was first launched back in 1996 now gives the Baja an anachronistic appearance that may be passe before the first vehicles reach customers' hands in early September.

Still, one can truthfully say there is nothing else quite like it on the market.

In one sense, the Baja is a four-door sedan that just happens to have a small pickup bed grafted to the rear. Think of it as a latter-day successor to the former Chevrolet El Camino "sedan delivery vehicle," updated with all-wheel drive and an extra pair of doors for greater utility. Any resemblance to the old Subaru Brat from the Seventies is purely intentional.

The Baja's mini-bed is only 41.5 inches long, so its functionality is limited to toting surfboards and mountain bikes (if you live on the West Coast), or peat moss and flea-market artifacts. An optional tubular-aluminum bed extender helps accommodate larger items, while a small pass-through door behind the fold-flat rear seats permits the user to slide a pair of skis part way into the cabin.

Nevertheless, the exterior design is eye-catching and, except for the cladding, quite appealing. Hopefully, Subaru will see fit to offer a bare-metal variant in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the Baja looks considerably more car-like than so-called sport-utility trucks like the Ford Explorer SportTrac that actually are built on truck chassis. Needless to say, ride comfort is much better in the Baja and, thanks to its passenger-car underpinnings, handling is more precise and controlled.

If there is a criticism on the mechanical side, it's that the twin-cam 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, rated at 165 horsepower, tends to run out of steam when toting three adults up a steep incline. That's not a problem in table-flat Michigan, but residents of hilly terrain may find this to be an issue. Thankfully, Subaru is planning to offer its fine 3.0-liter six-cylinder as an option, but not until the 2004 model year.

Besides the powertrain, which includes a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions, the Baja shares most major chassis components with the Legacy and Outback. Standard features include four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and 16-inch Bridgestone Potenza tires.

Current Subaru owners will recognize the Baja's cabin as familiar territory. The vehicle is trimmed in attractive silver-metallic plastic and leather, with perforated-leather seats. Power windows, locks and mirrors are standard, as are a power driver's seat, power moonroof, air conditioning and an AM-FM stereo with CD player. The Baja will start at just under $24,000, or several thousand dollars more than an Outback sedan.

Competitors? Tough to say, although customers shopping in the $24,000-$26,000 price range have an awful lot of alternatives from which to choose these days, including a wide selection of full-size four-door domestic pickups with all-wheel drive and loads of equipment.

Still, the company's sales goals are modest enough: 2,000 units a month, or 24,000 a year, once production is ramped up in the fourth quarter.

Fortunately, Subaru isn't likely to face any direct challengers, in terms of car-based sport-utility trucks, until after 2005, when similar models are rumored from Honda and Saturn, among others.

Until then, Subaru has an opportunity to stake out the territory and consolidate its position -- but only if it peels away some of that garish plastic, provides at least two more cylinders for those who want more power and keeps the sticker price affordable enough to attract younger buyers who think El Camino is a street in southern California and the Brat is a sea lion gone bad.

2003 Subaru Baja

inside and out

Wheelbase: 104.3 in.

Length: 193.3 in.

Width: 70.1 in.

Height: 64.2 in.

Curb Weight: 3,485 lbs.

Engine: 2.5L H-4

Output: 165 hp

Where Built: Lafayette, Ind.

Base Price: $25,000