updated 1/13/2004 2:48:02 PM ET 2004-01-13T19:48:02

Subaru is modifying its Outback sedan and wagon to meet the specifications of a light truck, a classification with less stringent fuel and emissions standards than for cars.

Mike Whelan, a spokesman for Subaru of America Inc., said Tuesday that the changes for the 2005 model year are in response to feedback from Outback owners who requested features allowed only in trucks, such as higher ground clearance and tinted side-rear windows.

Federal regulations on fuel economy and emissions divide companies' fleets into two categories — cars and light trucks. An automaker's car fleet must have an average fuel economy of 27.5 miles per gallon for the 2005 model year, while trucks must average 21 miles. By pushing a borderline vehicle into the truck fleet, a company gains more flexibility for that vehicle and can also boost its truck-fleet average.

Emissions standards for trucks are also less stringent than those for cars.

Brendan Bell, a global warming expert with the Sierra Club, said the modifications set "a dangerous precedent."

He said Subaru was able to get the Outback sedan classified as a truck because of its four-wheel drive capability and that other companies might now seek to get sedans with all-wheel drive classified as trucks.

"Subaru markets this vehicle as the alternative to an SUV," Bell said. "That's the real irony to this. They're betraying consumers' trust and giving them a dirtier vehicle."

Whelan acknowledged that the Outback switch, initially reported by The New York Times on Tuesday, will subject it to lower fuel economy and environmental standards, but emphasized the main reason was to provide the features customers want.

Whelan said fuel economy figures for the 2005 Outback, which is to be introduced at the Chicago Auto Show next month, were not yet available.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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