You don't have to be the prettiest one at the party to get all the attention.
Subaru, the Japanese automaker that's famously a favorite of lesbian car buyers, has carved a marketing niche for itself by creating cars that exude the practical and eschew the pretty. Even the road-scorching Impreza WRX STi hotrod comes in fairly non-descript packaging, an unassuming small sedan with a chunky spoiler on the back and a little monster under the hood.
The 2004 Baja Turbo carries on the same iconoclastic design approach, with a nostalgic nod for those of us who fondly remember the old Subaru Brat that in the late seventies gave a unique Japanese twist to the hybrid car/truck design established by the Chevy El Camino.
But where the Brat was a scrappy little scrambler that left its passengers literally out in the cold -- the back seats faced rearward from the truck bed -- the Baja is a refined approach to the hybrid formula. Essentially, the Baja is an Outback with the back roof chopped off to transform the cargo area into a mini-truck bed.
Aesthetically, it works better than you would expect, and the black-clad Turbo model in particular benefits from an odd butch-femme dynamic as your eye travels from the sedan front to the truck back. The Baja will turn many a head, although many of those in turn will be promptly scratched.
The 2004 Turbo ups the Baja ante from its debut 2003 model by squeezing in a detuned version of the four-cylinder boxer engine from the WRX STi. The resulting 210 horsepower makes the Baja drive even sportier than it looks. A bit of turbo lag takes some adjustment, but more often than not you'll be surprised by how quickly you go from cautiously merging into traffic to worrying about speed traps.
The version we tested came with the four-speed automatic with a Sportshift for those who like a bit more control over the gearbox. But the Sportshift left us unfulfilled, and we would much prefer to try our hand on the standard five-speed manual transmission to exercise more control on downshifts.
The Baja easily handled some of D.C.'s roughest streets -- even the moonscape they call blacktop at Connecticut and K -- with a ride somewhere between mid-sized sedan and small SUV. One thing it's not is nimble, and maneuvering through a parking garage or narrow traffic lanes can take some practice -- the rear seat headrests and windows interfere too much with visibility.
Then there's the standard Subaru all-wheel drive, which presumably would come in handy during the city's rougher weather seasons. Alas, no deluge appeared to challenge us, leaving us high and dry.
No matter, as the Baja's interior had us riding in a higher than expected level of comfort. The leather trim package adds a welcome veneer of luxury to a nice, no-nonsense cabin with accessible controls and readable gauges. We had a soft spot as well for the optional in-dash six-CD changer. Less appealing are the cup holders, which accommodate different beverage sizes by employing rubber flaps that were already in the early stages of deterioration.
You won't be hauling huge groups of friends as the Baja caps seating at four, but your two backseat pals will appreciate their own center console and capacious room to keep them comfortable.
The big question is, what is the Baja for? It's not a car or SUV, so if trunk space or secure storage is important to you, this isn't the direction to go. Conversely, if you're looking for something that can handle major hauls of equipment, furniture or other bulky items, you need a full-size truck-bed, not the Baja's miniaturized one. With this odd little hybrid, Subaru may be trying to create a niche where none existed.
But the Baja has its shining moments of utility. A fully assembled gas grill from Home Depot fits easily with room to spare. An optional bed-extender gives you room for bikes. It's just about the perfect size for the avid suburban gardener's mulch and bush runs.
And it's exactly the right height for some serious post-softball tailgating action. So, you see, there's a niche after all.