The 2003 Subaru Baja is based on the Outback wagon, which is based on the Legacy wagon. Baja and Outback are essentially the same vehicle from the front seats forward. The wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) of the two is identical, but the Baja is 6 inches longer due to the bed tacked on the back.
It's the rear of Baja that's most interesting so we'll start our walkaround there. The bed is quite short, 41.5 inches. That's less than three and half feet and compares to 72 inches or six feet on a typical compact pickup truck, though the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and other hybrid truck/SUVs come with short beds.
The key to the Baja's flexibility is the Switchback system as Subaru likes to call it. To gain the maximum amount of cargo space, fold the rear seat cushion so that its metal reinforced base forms a front cargo wall. Next, fold the seatback flat; its back surface becomes the forward cargo floor and is made from the same slip resistant material as the integrated bed liner.
The bed pass-through door can be lowered so that it rests flush with the back of the lowered seat back. The full length available is now about 56 inches (4.6 feet). If the rear tailgate is lowered and the optional bed extender used there is a grand total of 78 inches or 6.5 feet in length. The actual opening through the front of the bed is 30 inches by 12 inches, which means there is a limit to the size of long objects that can be carried.
The Baja is more functional than it first appears. Hefty looking stainless steel sport bars sprouting from the trailing edge of the cab like flying buttresses look like an imitation from off-road race trucks but they are an integral part of the vehicle's structure, not just for show. Even the polypropylene cladding integrated splashguards are not only for show, according to Subaru, but provide protection from rocks and debris. Individual pieces of the cladding can be replaced as necessary.
The bed is made from double walled steel and has an integrated bed liner made from a non-slip material that can be easily washed. Drain holes ensure that water does not get trapped. Four tie-down hooks are convenient for securing loads. The bed features notches for 2x4s for creating cargo compartments.
The Baja offers a slightly more aggressive look than the Outback. The open bed and the Silver Stone gray cladding that covers the bumpers, lower body, and fenders attract attention to the Baja, especially when ordered in bright yellow. The cladding dips down along the sides of the doors before rising up over the rear wheel arches, continuing in a straight line to cover half of the rear tailgate. Tough looking brush guards protect integrated fog lights up front. The rear bumper has a large flat rubber covered integrated step pad. The license plate is located on the tailgate and can be folded out so it is still visible when the tailgate is lowered. As befitting a vehicle such as the Baja the trim around the windows and along the roof rack is finished in matt black plastic. Lights are available for mounting onto the roof rack, but are illegal to operate on public roads. The only chrome is the trim surround on the front grill.
The Subaru Baja seats four people. Its rear seat is smaller than in an Outback wagon, which seats five. The rear seat of the Baja is short on comfortable as the seat back is relatively upright and the rear window is right behind the headrests. Rear headroom seems less generous than in the Outback even though the specifications say it is the same. We took a couple of octogenarians out to dinner in the Baja and they fared well but reported a lack of space in the back seats when the front-seat passenger had his seat back and reclined. The rear seat includes a center console with cup holders. When the rear seat is folded out of the way the rear passenger compartment becomes a useful storage area.
The dashboard layout is nice with an instrument panel that sweeps around in front of the driver and blends in nicely with the center console. The large gauges are easy to read and the climate and sound system controls fall to hand nicely. Anyone familiar with the Subaru Outback or Legacy will find they are all but identical.
Seats are finished in perforated leather with a neatly embroidered Baja logo in each seat back. The two-tone black and gray finish of the interior gives the car a classy look and feel. It is accentuated by silver metallic trim on the dashboard, doors and center console.