WASHINGTON - It's official: DaimlerChrysler's category-breaking PT Cruiser is a car and a truck.
The EPA decided that under its rules the vehicle is a car, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is sticking by its position that the manufacturer can call it a truck if it wants to - at least for now.
It is a testament to the general buzz surrounding the retro-styled, Neon-based vehicle that the dual classification is causing a stir in automotive and media circles. But the PT Cruiser is not the first vehicle to be treated this way.
For example, the Lexus RX 300, on the market since 1998, also is a car under EPA rules and a truck to NHTSA.
The upshot of the recent EPA decision on the PT Cruiser: The vehicle will have to meet slightly tougher tailpipe emissions standards than if it had received the truck classification sought by DaimlerChrysler.
But more crucial to the company is what NHTSA does because the safety agency also is responsible for administering the corporate average fuel economy program.
Annual sales of more than 250,000 fuel-efficient PT Cruisers - as trucks - would ease some of the pressure on DaimlerChrysler to stay in compliance with the CAFE truck standard of 20.7 mpg.
According to NHTSA's last CAFE report, trucks sold by the former Chrysler Corp. averaged 20.2 mpg in 1997 and 20.5 in 1998. The company has avoided fines because of provisions in the law that let makers use credits from past and future years.
Some consumers have questioned whether DaimlerChrysler's insistence that the PT Cruiser is a truck will cost them more - such as for insurance coverage.
But Don Griffin, director of business and personal lines for the National Association of Independent Insurers, said insurers tend to rate trucks as a lower risk than cars. However, rates will be based on the amount of claims filed.
NHTSA has not formally ruled on the status of the PT Cruiser, which goes on sale this month, because the agency does not have an application process like EPA's.
BLURRING THE LINE
NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said that after a year of sales that include PT Cruisers, the company would present its annual sales-weighted fuel economy figures to NHTSA. At that point officials could object if they felt the PT Cruiser was not properly categorized as a truck.
But the rule contains wiggle room. One provision says a vehicle with seats that can be removed for cargo-carrying purposes is a truck.
DaimlerChrysler officials have said they want to call the PT Cruiser a truck because it fits the federal definition of a truck.
EPA, which has different rules from NHTSA's, disagreed.
'It was pretty straightforward for us,' said Don Zinger, assistant director of EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
Still, he and other federal officials expect an intensifying debate over the classification systems.
Said Zinger: 'There are more of these hybrid vehicles coming along that blur the line.'