Subaru Outback Counts as a Truck

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Earlier in the week, The New York Times broke the news that Subaru’s next-generation Outback models — to go on sale later this year — will be classified as light trucks rather than passenger cars. Reports cited environmentalists calling the move a dangerous precedent and hinting that the automaker is trying to sneak around federal fuel economy requirements.

Subaru quickly countered with a statement explaining that the reason for the Outback’s reclassification as a light truck is increased consumer demand for SUV-like features, such as tinted side rear windows, increased ground clearance, and the type of approach and departure angles needed for off-roading.

This alone makes sense. Although regulations on accessories like this vary from state to state, they are in almost all states more lenient for light trucks.

Subaru hasn’t released any fuel economy or emissions information on the new 2005 Outback yet, but it says that the new Outback is as much as 180 pounds lighter than the passenger car model it replaces. Subaru says that the base model is expected to have improved fuel economy versus the 2004 model, and that it will meet emissions standards that are just as stringent as those for passenger cars. While no other specific details of the new Outback have been revealed, it is expected to still share most of its mechanical components and many of its dimensions with the Legacy sedan and wagon line.

Niche offerings

Subaru carved a niche for itself in 1995 when it first introduced the Outback a special trim and equipment package for the Legacy. Several years later, with upgraded suspension components and more functional features to differentiate it, the Outback became a separate model.

While the EPA defines passenger cars and light trucks in its own way for other measurements and regulations, for vehicle fuel economy the EPA uses the definitions set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The Federal Highway Administration defines passenger cars as: “All sedans, coupes, and station wagons manufactured primarily for the purpose of carrying passengers and including those passenger cars pulling recreational or other light trailers.” Currently, the NHTSA follows that basic definition, too, but goes a step further in classifying light trucks according by Title 49 of the federal government’s vehicle regulation code, which calls out, in several major points, how a vehicle may be defined a light truck.

At least one of these points must be met, but a quick study of them shows why it’s not hard to classify a vehicle — one that might otherwise be viewed as a station wagon — as a light truck. For instance, at least one of five points must be met, but one of them is simply that the vehicle’s cargo-carrying capacity be larger than its passenger-carrying capacity, while another of them is that the rear seats may be easily removable to offer a flat, expanded cargo surface.

“What we’re talking about are legal distinctions,” said Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the NHTSA, hinting that actual use has nothing to do with classification. “The differences between cars and light trucks are well defined…you can go up to a new vehicle with a checklist of items and be able to say from that whether the vehicle is a car or light truck.

But being classified as a light truck has its advantages. Trucks must post a CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) of 20.7 miles per gallon (with a very modest boost to 22.2 mpg by 2007), while that figure is 27.5 mpg for passenger cars; and until now light trucks have been given breaks on tighter new air pollution regulations, although they will soon be held to the same emissions standards as cars.

Subaru’s Baja pickup and Forester SUV/wagon are already qualified as light trucks. With the Outback qualifying as a light truck, it may serve a function in the automaker’s CAFE, even though SUV-like features are the main motivation for the change.

What’s an SUV, anyway?

This is certainly not the first time a vehicle that’s more recognizable as a car has been classified as a light truck. The sad fact is that the CAFE is currently set up in a way that invites this sort of juggling, where automakers may be tempted to better define fringe passenger cars as trucks in order to pass regulations and sell more full-size SUVs. Ask a few people on the street if the Audi allroad or even the PT Cruiser is a car or a truck, and we’ll wager almost all will say it’s a passenger car. But those wagons are both termed trucks by the federal government. So is the Scion xB, a vehicle that shares the same set of mechanical components with the Scion xA and Toyota Echo, which are passenger cars.

Curiously, the EPA classifies the PT Cruiser as a car, citing its passenger-car derivation, while it remains a light truck to the NHTSA. Hurd said that the PT Cruiser clearly has more cargo-carrying capacity than passenger capacity, and that you can remove the seats and/or create a level surface for that cargo behind the front seats. That alone clearly defines it to the NHTSA as a light truck.

The automakers aren’t trying to pull tricks, he insisted, rather they are simply trying to sell the cars that consumers want while following the current federal framework. In the interest of selling more cars with the (SUV-like) features people want, automakers will of course position their vehicles toward the consumer demand. Since the CAFE system invites a two-tiered approach, automakers have to figure out how they can best work around the old set of rules.

“Back when these regulations were written, no one thought of a minivan. There were no SUVs. And it wouldn’t have been fair to tell a Jeep driver that they had to conform to the same standards (of a passenger car),” said Hurd. “Who would have thought that there would be Cadillac pickups and SUVs?”

Some groups want to see a new fuel economy system based on vehicle weight, but several regulators pointed out that a weight-based system alone won’t work. Farmers, ranchers, and business owners still drive large SUVs and pickups classified as light trucks, and the laws need to leave room for these people, even if others use the same models for the commute. If the classification ran on a case-by-case basis, it could prove a mess.

If the growing controversy around this issue says anything, it’s that the NHTSA and the EPA need to get together and agree on a new way to reclassify vehicles. So-called crossovers — or “sport-utility wagons” — aren’t going to go away.

John Millett, of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (NVFEL) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said, “It’s going to make less and less of a difference,” citing the phase-in of new regulations that will bring all light trucks up to tighter federal Tier Two passenger-car emissions standards in 2007. Meanwhile, fuel economy will remain one of many subjects of car-truck disharmony.

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