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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