Cars, Trucks And Cheating

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush participate in a wreath-laying ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11 in Shanksville, Pa., Sept. 11, 2006.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
With its retro gangster-era styling, the PT Cruiser is so wildly popular that it's won top honors as "North American Car of the Year."

But the PT Cruiser has a deep, dark secret: It's not a car at all, but a truck — a profitable distinction for Daimler Chrysler, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.

"There is no question that to the average person out there this is definitely going to look like cheating," says John McElroy, an automobile analyst. "I mean, how can you call the PT Cruiser a truck? It's not a truck. It's never going to be used as a truck."

But Daimler-Chrysler, with the government's blessing, sells the PT Cruiser as a truck, and that helps the company meet the government mileage standard for fuel economy.

There are two standards under U.S. regulations. Cars must average 27.5 miles to the gallon. Light trucks — a category that includes SUVs and minivans — only have to average 20.7 miles per gallon. Fines are levied if the standards are not met.

So, moving the PT Cruiser, at 27 miles a gallon, to the truck category drives up the overall mileage average among Daimler's trucks, an average that otherwise is dragged down by bigger, bulkier SUVs that only get 15 miles a gallon.

"For every PT Cruiser sold Daimler Chrysler can sell one more giant gas guzzler on which they make a mint," said the Sierra Club's Daniel Becker. "Detroit has found a way to legally cheat."

In fact, under existing regulations it's easy and legal for automakers to turn cars into trucks.

The PT Cruiser is built on the Dodge Neon platform. But when Daimler flattened the back floor and made the rear seats removable, that was enough for regulators to accept the Cruiser as a truck.

Other automakers are playing the same game: the Subaru Forester, the Lexus RX 300 and the Honda CR-V are all built on car frames but have been driven over to the truck column.

Designating car-like vehicles as trucks isn't the only trick for squeaking by mileage regulations.

Most Chevy Suburbans and all Ford Excursions are just heavy enough to be exempt from fuel standards, like dump trucks and school busses. Eliminating these gas guzzlers also helps the automakers' truck average because those vehicles aren't counted at all.

"There's no question that the automakers are trying to use every rule and regulation that they possibly can to their advantage because they are so close to barely meeting what the law is," said McElroy.

So far, only the Environmental Protection Agency has challenged Daimler Chrysler's assertion that the PT Cruiser is a truck. According to the EPA, when it comes to pollution, the PT Cruiser is still a car.

Just last week, CBS News reported that the Bush administration was getting ready to revise fuel economy standards.

The White House says it's waiting for the results of a study by the National Academy of Sciences before proposing new standads. But sources say advisors are recommending that President Bush raise SUV fuel standards soon by 3 miles per gallon.

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