WASHINGTON - Subaru of America Inc. says it was not manipulating the system when it decided to call its 2005 Outback sedan and wagon "light trucks" for federal fuel economy purposes.
Still, the decision to change the Outback's designation likely will add momentum to a government plan to consider rewriting the rules that define trucks and cars.
"It's one more example of how definitions set up in the '70s are not adequate for the 21st century," says Tim Hurd, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA manages the corporate average fuel economy program, or CAFE.
Federal regulations define a "light truck" as a four-wheel-drive vehicle that meets at least four out of five criteria for approach angle, breakover angle, departure angle, running clearance and axle clearance.
The new, higher-riding Outbacks meet and exceed four of those five criteria, Subaru says.
Subaru says the Outbacks were designed that way because customers want more SUV-like features in their vehicles without sacrificing fuel economy or comfort.
The automaker has been barely meeting the 27.5 mpg fuel economy standard for cars but has been meeting the light-truck standard of 20.7 mpg comfortably. The Baja is the only Subaru truck at the moment, spokeswoman Lisa Fleming says.
If Subaru calls the Outback a truck, it can make the vehicle more powerful without endangering its compliance with the car standard. The new vehicles haven't been rated, but the company says the base 2005 Outback will have improved fuel economy.
Critics often cite DaimlerChrysler AG's decision to call the PT Cruiser sport wagon a light truck as the worst example of using CAFE loopholes.
The critics say manufacturers take advantage of outdated rules to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the CAFE program.
The PT Cruiser qualifies as a truck because the seats can be removed to make a flat cargo floor. The Cruiser's greater fuel economy helps DaimlerChrysler's fleet of mostly big, powerful trucks meet the truck standard.