WASHINGTON - Talk about bridging the gap between cars and trucks.
The Lexus RX 300 is a truck under federal safety standards, but it is classified as a car for emissions and fuel-economy regulations.
By contrast, the Honda CR-V meets or exceeds the car safety standards but has been certified with the EPA as a light truck.
The two are early examples of a new generation of mixed-breed vehicles - which Automotive News refers to as sport wagons - that are adding tension to an already strained federal system of vehicle classification.
On the one hand, lighter, more efficient sport wagons classified as trucks could give manufacturers some breathing room in meeting corporate average fuel economy standards.
On the other hand, sport wagons could speed the movement to eliminate differences between car and truck regulations.
In sum, sport wagons could provide ammunition for both CAFE hawks and CAFE doves.
In the short term, sport wagons will cloud the already murky federal line between cars and trucks.
'It's getting a little grayer,' said Mike Michels, spokesman for Lexus Division, which is marketing the RX 300 as a new breed of sport-utility.
'Our definition is getting outdated now,' acknowledged David Good, a certification engineer for the EPA at its Ann Arbor, Mich., facilities. 'We should probably go back and change our definition of a truck.'
Manufacturers decide for themselves how they want vehicles categorized, but they are supposed to comply with criteria administered by the EPA for emissions and fuel economy and by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for safety.
The criteria, which deal with issues such as ground clearance and approach angles, are spelled out in dense legalese and are subject to some interpretation and bending.
Decisions are made 'on a case-by-case basis,' Good said. 'We try to use common sense.'
The agencies have the final word. But the EPA's common sense probably failed when it agreed to call the American Motors Eagle four-wheel-drive wagon a truck in the mid-1980s, he observed.
Here are some ways the new generation of sport wagons could affect the CAFE debate:
A manufacturer having difficulty meeting fuel-economy standards for its truck fleet could seek to have higher-mileage sport wagons classified as trucks and thereby get a boost in truck CAFE numbers, government and industry officials said.
Or lawmakers favoring uniform CAFE standards for cars and trucks could try to sway votes by arguing that sport wagons are proof that separate standards - 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for trucks - are outdated, congressional staffers said.
The blurring of the car-truck demarcation will bolster the arguments of those who contend that all vehicles should meet the same environmental standards. But there is danger of creating a hardship for trucks that are used commercially, said a Clinton administration regulator who asked not to be named.
Some in the auto industry already favor uniformity.
'Most light trucks are not used as cargo carriers. They are personal vehicles. Why shouldn't they have the same standards?' said Don Bearden, director of government affairs for Subaru of America Inc.
His company's sport wagons, the Legacy Outback, Impreza Outback and Forester, are classified as cars for safety, emissions and CAFE purposes, although the Forester shows up in a Department of Energy fuel-economy guide under special-purpose vehicles, along with vans and sport-utilities.
In reality, the movement to apply the same safety regulations to cars and trucks is already well advanced and is gaining momentum - with or without more sport wagons.
Steve Kratzke, director of
crash-avoidance standards for NHTSA, said the agency has moved quickly over the past decade to eliminate differences.
'Our goal, whether it is called a car or a truck, if it is a light vehicle, it is going to have the same safety,' he said.
For trucks, the requirement to have dual front airbags is effective with the 1999 model year, but manufacturers are already installing them. Likewise, side-impact standards will be uniform for cars and trucks this fall. Differences in stopping distances are to be ended in September 2000, Kratzke said.
Remaining differences include windshield defroster performance, mirrors and glass tinting. Truck bumpers can be different from those on cars, but that is considered a consumer information issue, not a safety standard, he said.
On vehicle emissions, California regulators already have taken steps to treat cars and trucks the same, and some manufacturers are voluntarily improving some light-truck emissions to near carlike levels.
The movement is likely to accelerate later this year when the EPA proposes new tailpipe emission standards to take effect in 2004.
The EPA is expected either to propose equivalent standards for cars and trucks or at least to narrow the gap.
If not, said Frank O'Donnell, director of the Clean Air Trust, a Washington-based environmental group, 'We and others will be clamoring for it.'