A car's a car unless it's a truck

Trucks. Before long, they will represent more than half of all new-vehicle sales in the United States. Right now, they're just a shade below half, and consumer demand keeps rising.

Interestingly, most of these vehicles are unique to North America. You simply don't see pickup trucks in Europe or much of Asia. American minivans are way too big for overseas streets. And sport-utilities (except for some Jeeps) are such monsters to the rest of the world that they're a novelty.

So here we have half the U.S. market made up of vehicles that have little demand elsewhere. So much for the world car.

Thirty years ago, it made sense to create separate safety and environmental standards for cars and trucks. Back then, cars were cars and trucks were called 'commercial vehicles,' because they were just that. They were used in business, carried commercial license plates and spent their days on job sites.

Those days are long gone. Today, probably 90 percent of 'trucks' are sold as cars to folks who assume, wrongly, that their vehicles meet the same government standards as anyone else's car.

All those soccer moms thought their minivans met the same safety standards as any other car or station wagon. They still don't realize the difference.

Today, more and more car companies are slipping vehicles into the 'truck' category just so they don't have to meet the more difficult standards for safety, emissions and fuel economy. For most 'trucks,' the concept of 'commercial vehicle' has been lost for years.

Maybe the time has come simply to change the definition of a truck rather than try to toughen standards for trucks.

For example, I can't imagine why, except for federal rules, a Chrysler PT Cruiser would be in the 'truck' category. There are plenty of other examples from practically all vehicle makers of a categorized 'truck' that everyone knows is another personal-use car for the consuming public.

If we created a realistic classification for commercial trucks, then we could simply eliminate the loopholes and go about our business. The other alternative seems to be to raise the standards for fuel or emissions or safety for all trucks, and that doesn't make sense for actual commercial vehicles.

Let's quit saying 'truck' when referring to a vehicle that is a car by any sensible definition of use. It would make a lot more sense and be a lot easier to administer than fiddling with truck standards.

As we once said, a car's a car unless it's a truck.

You can reach Keith Crain at kcrain@crain.com

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