• Feb 4th 2010 at 7:58PM
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2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser – Click above for high-res image gallery

When is a truck not a truck? Well, that depends on your definition of truck, it seems, as many vehicles currently on dealer lots all around the country carry the truck designation from their manufacturers while most rational people like you and me would consider them cars.

So, why would an automaker call its car a truck if it's not really a truck, and why should you care? That's the subject of today's Greenlings, and it may be a bigger issue than you think. Remember, cars and trucks carry different fuel economy requirements from the federal government, and, as you might imagine, this is the reason why large automakers are putting some of their very untrucklike vehicles firmly in the Truck Bucket.

Read on to find out which vehicles we're talking about and how it impacts fuel mileage regulations.

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So, we've established that cars and trucks are required to meet differing fuel economy regulations. Though as of late they are constantly changing, when the issue first reared its ugly head back in the late '90s and early 2000s, light trucks were required to average 21.2 miles per gallon while passenger cars were held to a 27.5 mpg standard. Why?

Back in the 1970s when fuel mileage requirements were first being drafted, the vast majority of trucks on the road were used by working people and farmers. The Transportation Department decided that it would be unfair to penalize these truck drivers by making them purchase vehicles held to the same mileage standards as cars, so a divergent set of rules were created for trucks. At the time, light trucks made up just a fifth of all vehicles sold in the United States. Today, that's not the case, as over half of new vehicles sold are trucks. In fact, the large number of truck sales can, at least in part, be explained by looking at the definition of what a truck is as opposed to a passenger car.

Not surprisingly, loopholes weren't too difficult to find in the government's definition of a truck (more on that in a bit), as automakers attempted to create new classifications of vehicles that blurred the line between a car and a truck. One of the first manufacturers to perform this tactic was Chrysler, which called its little PT Cruiser hatchback a light truck. Later, Subaru followed suit with its Outback wagon in 2005, as did Chevrolet when it introduced the HHR. Other so-called crossover vehicles, such as the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V and any number of minivans are also classified as trucks.

How are these vehicles classified as trucks? Actually, it's not as difficult as you might initially imagine. For instance, having removable rear seats or raising the ground clearance to about eight inches or so can classify a vehicle as a truck in the eyes of our legislators. Here's the government's definition:
Light-duty truck means any motor vehicle rated at 8,500 pounds GVWR or less which has a vehicle curb weight of 6,000 pounds or less and which has a basic vehicle frontal area of 45 square feet or less, which is:

(1) Designed primarily for purposes of transportation of property or is a derivation of such a vehicle, or
(2) Designed primarily for transportation of persons and has a capacity of more than 12 persons, or
(3) Available with special features enabling off-street or off-highway operation and use.
That definition clearly leaves plenty of room to play with the rules.

What vehicles should really be classified as passenger cars or trucks is clearly up for debate, but automakers are showing no signs of slowing down the practice, as the proliferation of CUVs that are targeted at moving people more so than moving belongings or acting as work vehicles will attest.

Perhaps the best way to keep automakers honest when it comes to classifying their vehicles properly is to create a more unified standard for fuel economy among the two classes. What are the chances of that happening? We'll see, right? In the meantime, click here for at least a partial answer.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      For such a tiny little thing, the PT Cruiser does hold a lot when the back seats are removed. Flat floor, large hatch - it's actually quite convenient...

      That said, it's the CAFE standards that caused more than half the vehicles sold now to be trucks. When the ratings were first implemented, about the only way to get there was to produce small cars - smaller than what many people wanted or needed. The truck loophole allowed manufacturers to produce vehicles that people wanted, or at least preferred, over the smaller cars being offered. I'm sure that many people would have been happy to continue driving a huge car only getting 20 MPG but now are in pickups or SUVs getting 15 MPG or less.

      Even now, a manufacturer can't really produce enough large cars that could get people out of even larger SUVs with worse gas mileage as it would kill their overall CAFE numbers.
      • 5 Years Ago
      A little common sense goes a long way. Clearly in many cases the manufacturers are violating the *spirit* of the law, if not the letter. Still, it seems like it must be a long stretch to manage to classify a minivan or a PT Cruiser on an SUV as a light truck.

      (1) Designed primarily for purposes of transportation of property or is a derivation of such a vehicle, or
      ___A: Nope, an SUV or minivan is designed primarily for transportation of persons, not property.
      (2) Designed primarily for transportation of persons and has a capacity of more than 12 persons, or
      ___A: Nope, a PT Cruiser or SUV doesn't seat that many people.
      (3) Available with special features enabling off-street or off-highway operation and use.
      ___A: Nope, a minivan or PT Cruiser isn't designed for off-road use.
      • 3 Years Ago
      This is all just the car companies' way of somehow, dodging the fuel efficiency standards for the future. Larger vehicles after a certain weight are exempt from the standards. Quite a half-assed way to meet the (lenient) standards, but understandable. No company wants to spend money to comply with government regulations if they can just process a small bit of paperwork.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This car/light truck game has been going on a lot longer than this article would lead you to believe. I specifically remember this conversation coming up with the dealer when my family was purchasing a generation 1 Plymouth Voyager Minivan back in 1985.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Its a general question comes in people mind that why these cars are named as trucks..These article will clear them few points and let them understand the difference. Good Share.
      • 5 Years Ago
      How about this: In order to be classified as a truck, the net weight capacity must be at least 2/3 from cargo, and a maximum of 1/3 from passengers, with each passenger's weight being counted as 200 pounds.

      So, if it can hold 2 passengers (400 pounds), then it must be able to carry at least 800 pounds of cargo, in order to be counted as a truck. If it can hold 3 passengers (600 pounds), it must be able to carry at least 1200 pounds of cargo. If it can hold 4 passengers (800 pounds), it must be able to hold at least 1600 pounds of cargo. And so on...

      No seats can ever be put into the cargo area.

        • 5 Years Ago
        Hi Niel,
        I see where you're coming from, but I don't see how the government will determine how I use my vehicle and rate it accurately. Whether or not something is a truck is determined by the physical attributes of the vehicle, not in how it's used.

        My Chevy Metro only ever has me in it - never any passengers. If I add 400lbs of cargo, then it's a truck, right?

        An illogical extreme, I know, but it's that's silly.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Hi Miles,

        Does she regularly fill the seats with passengers? If so, it is not a truck, by this rule that I was suggesting. If she never caries more than 2 or 4 people, and it can carry the cargo load, then they can call it a truck.

        The point is, the manufacturers need to be forced to improve the FE on all their vehicles, and the loophole that lets them define ~half their vehicles as trucks is a big part of the problem.

        Sincerely, Neil
        • 5 Years Ago
        Sorry Niel, my wife's Suburban is still a truck.

        4x4 with low range
        Pulls a trailer that weighs more than itself regularly
        Carries (inside the vehicle) 4x8 plywool/drywall occasionally

        That's not a car.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Good idea.

        Legal requirements to classify as a truck in germany right now:
        gross weight >2,8 To and >50% of available space for cargo.

        Implications are, cheaper road tax but also not allowed to be on the road on sundays.

        That is under investigation though, as too many SUV owners registered as trucks to save the tax but ignored the sunnday penalty. Your "no seats in cargo area" rule would cure this.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Good timing. In another article, I referred to a step-van as a truck, and was quickly corrected.

      I need an education on what exactly constitutes a "truck". I know for sure that you can get a "truck" license plate for your car... I see them on German luxury-brand station wagons all the time around here.
        • 5 Years Ago
        A german wagon as a truck? Really? I wonder how the owners benefit from that...

        My full-sized van was titled as a wagon (20 years ago). I asked the DMV about it and they said it's a wagon if it has seats in the back and windows all around.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think a combination of things would work out well.

      Over a 10 year period truck standards should be improved to meet the same requirements of cars.

      Over the same 10 year period increase the tax on gasoline at a steady rate.
      • 5 Years Ago
      They should change the definition of a truck to something simple like this:
      A vehicle is a truck if it has at least 50% of the floor area of the vehicle devoted to cargo space and does not have seats in that area OR if it can carry more than 12 people.

      Simple, pickups like the F-series remain classed as "trucks" but SUVs, 4x4s and minivans like the Jeep Cherokee, Suburban, LandCruiser, PT Cruiser, RAV4 etc get classed as "cars".

      There may be a legitimate reason to classify full-on offroaders like the LandCruiser as "trucks" although I dont see one myself in which case the rule could be changed further.

      But getting minivans and SUVs and so on classed as "cars" would encourage makers to make them more fuel efficient and encourage a shift back to more car-styled bodies and chassis instead of the 4x4-like "high driving position with big chunk bits underneath" platforms many of these crossovers and SUVs and such have been using to date.
      • 5 Years Ago
      How about a little democracy? The EPA and ask a representative sample of the population "Is this a car or a truck?" and show them a a photo of said vehicle, maybe other vehicles built on the same platform(say the Neon) and a quick spec sheet, if they desire. It may not be perfect, but I'm pretty sure the average person would agree the PT cruiser is NOT a truck.
      And if they do, its not the manufacturer's fault anymore.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I would love to see the standards reworked. The fact that 50% of vehicles sold now are trucks is the key. Are 50% of vehicles sold really for the purpose of moving cargo, more than 12 people or for going offroad? Answer: nope. So having these vehicles fall under standards that were created for vehicles to fulfill those functions makes no sense.

      The definition of a truck and the fuel standards for these vehicles should be realigned to match the current realities. Trucks can still be trucks, but vehicles sold to families should almost always be cars.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Leaving the decision up to the customer, would just make it impossible to plan to the CAFE standard for automakers.
        Just tax the fuel and let people pay for what they burn
        • 5 Years Ago
        Fuel economy is not the only reason to push people towards cars. Trucks are somewhere between 2 and 6 times more likely to kill you than cars, they cause more damage to road surfaces, they require more parking-lot asphalt per capita (paid for by--guess who?), they cause visibility problems at intersections and in parking lots, their high headlights create more glare... Most of this is due to trucks being, on average, larger, higher, and heavier than cars.

        On many levels it makes sense to treat trucks differently: they should be subject to lower speed limits, they should cost more to drive (easy on toll highways or with a gas tax), they should cost more to park, they should not be allowed to park within a few car-lengths of intersections, their headlights should be lowered... every one of these "should" items is fair, and would make truck owners pay for services that they use and that car drivers don't. As is, car owners subsidise truck owners.

        A sliding scale would be nice--parking proportional to vehicle size, driving proportional to road damage rate (cube of weight?), etc. But since we have a binary regulatory infrastructure, it would be trivial to segregate parking, tolls, "trucks use right lanes" laws, etc., based on the car/truck distinction. If you need a large, heavy vehicle, then you do, but it's reasonable to expect that you shouldn't ask car drivers to pay more for driving cars because of your choice.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I couldn't agree more about raising gas tax.... except

        CAFE requires the OEMs to sell their small vehicles at artificially low prices to keep their sales numbers up, which makes car ownership more feasible for low-income families. While I'd rather have everybody have access to public transportation and so not need a car, the reality of infrastructure in America is that if car ownership and operation became more expensive for these families, there would be a lot of suffering before infrastructure buildout and residential patterns could adjust. Your 5-year plan might be a bit too abrupt.

        About the Suburban. If it's used to commute to your office job, cart the kids to soccer practice, and to drive to the Grand Canyon for vacation, then, functionally, it is a car, and should without question count towards GM's car CAFE numbers.
        • 5 Years Ago
        just for future clarity's sake,

        in automotive discussions, OEM does not = vehicle manufacturer, no?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Are you saying an 8-passenger Suburban is a car?

        Just taxing the fuel is so much simpler - and likely more fair and effective in getting people not to drive rediculously over-large vehicles. Just kill CAFE forever and add a nickel tax to each gallon of fuel every month for the next 5 years.

        Flame away!
        • 5 Years Ago
        I believe that defining vehicles is hard.

        The solution I propose is that any vehicle can be registered at any DMV as either a car or a truck, (or maybe as a personal or a work vehicle), but registering as a truck should be very expensive, but can be written off in a business's tax.
        If it's registered as a car, it's fuel economy goes into that OEM's CAFE calculation for cars, if it's registered as a truck, it counts towards truck CAFE numbers.

        So an extra (for example) $2000 every couple of years would keep (most) people who don't need trucks for work from buying them, but businesses would not face that cost. On the flip side, if OEMs market Yukons as family vehicles, then they get counted towards the car CAFE numbers.

        It would take a bit of information technology, but that's pretty cheep these days.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I said let trucks be trucks and cars be cars. It doesn't matter if the Suburban is a car or a truck, given that most are bought by families who then use it for car functions, it should have to meet the fuel standards that were created to govern vehicles used for car functions.

        As to whether it's a car or truck, look at the heritage of it, it's clearly a car. It used to be a station wagon, it's a people hauler, always was. Throw the family and stuff in and hit the countryside.
        • 5 Years Ago
        A car and a truck is defined by what it physically is - not how it's used.

        If I bounce a baseball while running would you say I'm bouncing a basketball?

        If I whittle a stick with an axe would you call it a pocketknife?

        My neighbor works in heavy construction and takes his family around town in his F250 on the weekends. Is that a truck 5 days a week and a car on the weekend?

        I guess I'll just sit here and disagree.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Stop subsidizing all fuels and none of these stupid government regulations matter.
      • 5 Years Ago

      Here in Holland they are classified according to weight with minimum requirements as to:
      1) cubic load capacity
      2) blinded windows
      3) partition between passenger and cargo compartment.

      They influence taxation and emission standards.

      The google translation of the requirements can be found here:

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