What other turbocharged utes can you buy in the US?
There are currently no new compact vehicles with a truck bed on the market. Full-size trucks like the Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150, and Ram 1500 are massive and even the Colorado, Ranger, and Jeep Gladiator aren't exactly small. Small cars with truck beds such as El Camino, Ranchero, and Rampage are long dead and even the Australians have given up on utes like the Ford Falcon and Holden Maloo.
Realistically, the only way to buy an affordable truck that isn't enormous is to get something like a Toyota Tacoma. While an old Tacoma will likely get the job done, it isn't what we'd call sporty and used prices are abnormally high compared to other vehicles. Luckily, there is one forgotten ute out there we think you could buy if you are in the market for a small, sporty vehicle with a bed - the Subaru Baja.
If you've never seen a Subaru Baja before, you're probably wondering what the hell it is. The Baja was a small, unibody vehicle built with the bed of a pickup truck. It was sold in the US for just for four model years, 2003 to 2006, before it was discontinued due to slow sales. All Baja models were built at Subaru's US plant in Lafayette, Indiana, and shared a platform and bodywork with the Legacy Outback.
Subaru marketed the Baja as a "multiple-choice vehicle," though limited advertising and controversial styling hindered sales. Only 30,000 were built during the four-year production run despite Subaru planning to sell 24,000 per year. Even so, the Baja won numerous awards, including the Consumer Reports 2006 highest score for reliability in the pickup truck category, and has since earned a cult-like status on the used market.
When it was new, the Baja was offered between $23,000 and $28,000 depending on year, engine, and options. Despite being over 15 years old in some cases, the Baja has managed to hold its value relatively well - not unlike other Subaru models. We were able to find used examples ranging from around $5,000 to $15,000, making the Baja an interesting choice for a first car. Not all Baja models were created equally and there are two very specific features you should be looking for - a manual transmission and a turbocharged engine.
When the Baja was first introduced in 2003, the only engine option was a 2.5-liter boxer-four producing 173 horsepower mated to either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. In 2004, Subaru introduced a more powerful turbocharged motor, which bumped output up to 210 hp. By 2006, the turbocharged EJ255 motor produced 230 hp, which is not too shabby for a roughly 3,500-pound vehicle.
By no means is the Baja a rival for a full-size truck, given its measly 885 to 1,070-pound payload/towing capacity. However, if you only need the bed to haul smaller items and are willing to sacrifice payload for performance, the Baja is an ideal motor.
Even with the automatic, the Baja will hit 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and complete the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds. Since this is a turbocharged Subaru, there are tuners out there who will be happy to extract more power from the EJ engine.
In terms of cargo capacity, the Baja offers 42-inches of bed space, which trails Chevy's failed sporty pickup, the SSR. Subaru knew the bed capacity was a bit small, so it cleverly designed an opening into the cabin for larger items. With the rear seats folded down, the Baja allows for nearly 7.5-feet of space. There was also an optional bed extender, allowing for even more space.
The tradeoff for the small amount of bed space is improved fuel economy. The most efficient Baja, an automatic non-turbo model, was rated at 21/28 mpg city/highway. Opting for the turbocharged manual model lowers these figures to 18 and 23 respectively. Some modern pickup trucks can match these figures, though trucks from the same period weren't nearly as efficient.
Clearly, the Subaru Baja isn't for everyone - if it was, it would have sold better when it was new. Still, we think the Baja offers a unique experience for people who want a small, sporty car with the usability of a pickup truck. With a bit of tuning, the Baja has the potential to be an enthusiast's turbocharged dream truck at an affordable price.