The Pacific Coast Highway, with its ubiquitous surfers and boogie-boarders, is a perfect backdrop for the debut of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s all-new '03 Subaru Baja.

Often ahead of the pack, Subaru has done it once again with its new Baja. Based on the Legacy Outback Wagon, the Baja's spin on functionality creates — or at least revisits — another niche in the auto market.

Better yet, Baja delivers a new-age attempt at a formula the domestics once tried, but abandoned — combining the versatility of a pickup truck with the ride and handling characteristics of a passenger car. You do remember the Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino, right?

Subaru's lack of a true truck chassis plays well here, as the Baja lacks the rough-riding characteristics synonymous with most pickup truck-derived crossover vehicles. Baja retains the Legacy's proven strut-type suspension in front; the rear uses a multi-link design. The Baja handles twists and turns with ease, feeling more passenger-car than truck. That's what it's all about.

“These (potential customers) are into performance in their sports, and they can appreciate a vehicle that delivers that same level of performance,” Baja's designer Peter Tenn says.

Let's hope this need for performance doesn't extend to engine power. Subaru has limited the Baja's engine availability to the company's hallmark 2.5L horizontally opposed “boxer” 4-cyl. Producing 165 hp at 5,600 rpm, it fails to deliver the robust power you'd expect from a vehicle that tries to be a truck.

Subaru of America Inc.'s Chairman Takao Saito promises the Baja will get Subaru's 6-cyl. boxer, but that won't be for a few years.

Transmission offerings include a standard 5-speed manual or an optional 4-speed automatic with lockup torque converter. Baja's manual transmission requires acclimation due to a soft clutch and looseness throughout the shift pattern, although it's a decent enough match for the underpowered engine. The automatic, meanwhile, searches for the right gear when making its way to higher elevations, and responsiveness leaves a little to be desired.

Subaru's all-wheel-drive system is standard, as it is for all Subaru vehicles sold in the U.S., and should get most owners through light- to middle-difficulty off-roading or wintry conditions.

Baja's exterior styling takes most of its cues from its Outback sibling. Only minor changes have been made, including a broader grille and a stylized fuel-filler door.

What really sets the Baja apart is the Switchback system, which reconfigures the bed and rear seat for transporting people and cargo. The rear seat cushions fold upward, enabling the seatback to fold flat. A bed pass-through is located behind the rear seatback, which lowers for transporting skis, surfboards and other long items.

Using the Switchback system, Baja's bed extends from 41.5 ins. (105 cm) to 75 ins. (191 cm). Subaru also offers an optional tubular bed extender, which - with the tailgate lowered but not using the Switchback feature - expands the Baja's bed from 41.5 ins. to 60.5 ins. (154 cm). Engaging the pass-through is intuitive and convenient.

Unlike competing pass-through systems (most notably, the Chevrolet Avalanche and Cadillac Escalade EXT), Baja's Switchback does not allow for the full removal of the window panel dividing the cabin from the cargo bed. Subaru decided not to allow the window to be removed in order to boost structural rigidity.

The Baja doesn't skimp on interior amenities. The quasi-truck features leather seating for four, and there's also a single-disc CD player, as well as power windows, remote keyless entry, a power driver's seat and a power moonroof. That's a lot of extras for an expected price of around $25,000.

Subaru hopes to sell 24,000 Bajas annually, which shouldn't be tough for this well-mannered car that provides the occasional functionality of a truck.