Subaru isn't known for body-on-frame trucks, but a crossover-based pickup could be another thing altogether.
Everybody loves the Subaru Brat, and we'd probably all be lying if we said we hadn't browsed the List of Craigs for a Subaru Baja, which got us thinking now could be the right time for a new Subaru pickup truck. Subaru isn't likely to be in the top five brands you think of when you think of trucks, but it once had two pickup models in its lineup. Both were smaller than average, more versatile in daily use, and fed into the brand's adventure-centric identity, but the last time we saw a Subaru truck was in 2006 when the Subaru Baja - an Outback-based pickup - was canned.
But a lot has changed since 2006, and the US now has two compact, crossover-based pickups in the Hyundai Santa Cruz and the Ford Maverick, with more automakers poised to join the fray. Ram has the Rampage in South America, Chevrolet is reportedly mulling the idea of a small truck, and rumors abound that Toyota may revive the Stout nameplate for a Corolla Cross-based pickup.
Subaru would be wise to jump on this bandwagon sooner rather than later.
The Subaru BRAT truck, which was an acronym for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter, was famous more for its genius way of getting around America's Chicken Tax legislation than it was for being a good truck. Truthfully, it was more of a single-cab ute based on the Subaru Leone (a predecessor to the Impreza) than a truck, in the same vein as the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero.
The BRAT was sold from 1978-1994 across two generations. While Subarus are considered traditionally AWD, the BRAT was available in FWD form, too. It was popular the world over but was never produced in America. Because of this, the Japanese automaker thought up a brilliant way to avoid the Chicken Tax - which was implemented to force the production of commercial vehicles like trucks and vans locally - by installing two rear-facing jump seats and removable carpeting in the bed, turning it into a four-seater, and thus, a passenger vehicle.
The BRAT was last imported into the US in 1987, although production continued elsewhere until 1994.
The Baja technically succeeded the BRAT but was a larger vehicle based on the Subaru Outback. It was AWD only and had four seats inside the cabin, making it much closer to modern equivalents like the Ford Maverick. This time around, Subaru did produce the pickup in the US, with production commencing in July 2002 at the automaker's Lafayette, Indiana plant that currently manufactures the Legacy, Outback, Ascent, and Crosstrek.
Named after the iconic Baja 100 rally trucks, it derived power from the iconic EJ25 flat-four, both in naturally aspirated and turbocharged guises.
Sadly, the Baja wasn't as successful as anticipated, and while Subaru projected 24,000 sales a year, the reality was that only 30,000 were sold over four and a half years on the market. At the end of July 2007, the Baja disappeared from Subaru USA's website, and the Indiana factory started manufacturing Toyota Camrys in its place.
While we love the BRAT, the concept of a new Subaru BRAT just doesn't fit with modern life in America, where single-cab utes and pickups simply don't have a place anymore. But the concept of the Baja has plenty of merit as we're seeing the rise of crossover-based pickups once more, and Subaru executives have said if the demand is there, the product will follow. Rising fuel and living costs make it increasingly difficult to own a large or midsize truck for many of the working class, and when you don't need to tow on a regular basis, the comfort of a unibody pickup makes it vastly better to drive. Factor in compact dimensions more suited to urban living with a side of weekend adventure, and it's easy to see why this segment is booming.
Subaru has a strong affinity as an adventure brand, especially in the USA, and with its expertise in building all-wheel-drive crossovers that can go well off the beaten path, this could easily translate into a new Subaru Baja. But, some evolution may be necessary, and the recipe of the original Baja won't be a perfect fit for today's automotive landscape.
The old Baja was Outback-based, but while there's still an Outback around today, it's grown substantially to the point that it would be too large for the segment. However, Subaru has other options. The Forester and Crosstrek are smaller and lend themselves to such a model, and with the introduction of more off-road-related trims, a Subaru Wilderness truck based on the Forester or Crosstrek platform could be just the tonic for adventurous buyers.
But Subaru would need to introduce new powertrains for these models, as the current lackluster motors are far behind what Ford and Hyundai offer in their small pickup trucks. This would be a key element, but it's also something Subaru may be unwilling to commit to for a relatively niche model.
However, another opportunity exists in Subaru's connection with Toyota.
Subaru and Toyota's partnership at the former's Indiana factory might be a fortuitous one. That wasn't the last time the two Japanese automakers worked together, and over the last decade, a partnership has brought about two generations of sports car in the BRZ/GR86. The collaboration looks set to continue, as Toyota wants to support Subaru in returning to the WRC.
If Toyota is working on a new compact Stout pickup truck, then a Subaru small truck on the same platform could work well to help share development costs. Moreover, while Toyota has expertise in trucks, Subaru's symmetrical AWD system and expertise therein is perfect for this segment.
We're not saying this is a certainty, but it's definitely a possibility if Subaru wants to accelerate its truck to the market. And in the current climate, Subaru would be remiss not to consider it.