The major change is that Subaru has created a small pickup bed on the Baja. This means that the Baja could be classified as a truck by NHTSA, just like the 310-hp V-8-powered Ford F-250 pickup.
The Baja demonstrates how NHTSA's truck definitions are out of date, critics say. The definitions were written in 1977, when trucks accounted for 23 percent of the market. Today, light trucks account for 50 percent.
The 1977 regulations say any vehicle with an open bed or four-wheel drive, among other things, is a truck. But what was a common-sense definition of a truck 25 years ago now is a broad umbrella that includes the Chrysler PT Cruiser and perhaps the Baja.
Dan Becker, director of the global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club, called the truck definition a "loophole big enough to drive a pickup truck through."
Classifying the Baja and PT Cruiser as trucks "is an effort by the auto industry to evade the law at a time when we need more than ever to cut our oil dependence," he said.
Subaru says the Baja meets the light-truck regulation because it has an open cargo bed and four-wheel drive.
"It looks like a truck, it acts like a truck, so we're going to classify it as a truck," said Don Bearden, director of government affairs for Subaru of America Inc. The Baja goes into production this summer with estimated annual sales of 24,000 units.
In marketing literature, Subaru touts the pickup bed of the Baja, so the company sees a marketing advantage in pitching the vehicle as a truck.
The final verdict rests with NHTSA.
"If we don't accept it, we go back and forth with an automaker until it is fixed," said NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd. "If there are 10,000 vehicles in one category that we don't believe should be in that category, then we would make the automaker change it and recalculate the CAFE."