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Subaru's controversial new Outback debuts

Subaru has unveiled all-new versions of its Outback line, saying consumer preferences drove the controversial changes that will make the Outback sedan a “truck” under federal fuel economy rules.
Chicago Opens its Annual Auto Show
Subaru introduced its 2005 Outback at the Chicago Auto Show Thursday.Scott Olson / Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Subaru of America unveiled all-new versions of its Outback line on Thursday, saying consumer preferences drove the controversial changes that will make the Outback sedan a “truck” under federal fuel economy rules.

Those modifications are meant to give the wagon version of the Outback a more rugged look as automakers flood the market with competing models, all aimed at buyers looking for sport utility vehicles that ride and handle like cars. But environmentalists charge that the changes exploit a gas-mileage loophole.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to put all these cars into nice categories,” said Fred Adcock, executive vice president of Subaru’s U.S. sales arm, as he glanced around at the models on display for the Chicago auto show. “Things just don’t fit like they used to.”

Outback's evolution
Subaru, a unit of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., launched the Outback in 1995 as a variation of its Legacy sedan and wagon fitted with plastic cladding to give them a beefier look. The move proved so popular that the Outback models began to outsell the plain Legacy versions, accounting for 54,930 vehicles last year, down from about 70,000 in 2001.

Those models were classified as cars by the U.S. government for fuel economy and emissions rules. Those rules require the gas mileage of all of an automaker’s cars sold to average at least 27.5 mile per gallon in the 2005 model year, and trucks sold to average at least 21 mpg.

Under those rules, one definition of a truck is a vehicle with four-wheel-drive that can meet four of five technical requirements for off-roading. Subaru officials say the new Outback models meet that standard, thanks mostly to a 1.1 inch increase in ground clearance.

Why activists care
About 95 percent of Outbacks sold are wagons, but the four-door sedan will also count as a truck, a decision that environmentalists called an attempt by Subaru to exploit a loophole in fuel economy regulations. Calling the Outback a truck will likely improve Subaru’s car average, while leaving plenty of leeway in the truck standards to sell larger, less efficient SUVs.

"Instead of making more gas guzzlers, Subaru should pledge to bring its fleet average fuel economy up to 40 miles per gallon," Katherine Morrison, an attorney with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement. "By using currently available technologies, they can start improving the fuel economy of their best-selling vehicles and reduce global warming pollution and oil dependence."

But the Outback sedan won’t be the first sedan that’s called a truck in the government’s ledgers. That distinction belongs to the American Motors Corp. Eagle, a 1980s model which, like Subaru’s models, had four-wheel-drive and a high ride height.

In recent years, other automakers have also jumped through the loophole. Both Volkswagen AG’s Audi unit and Ford Motor Co.’s Volvo brand sell wagons that are classified as cars in base trim, but get branded as trucks when sold in a all-wheel-drive, higher-body version.

Higher mpg cited
Jim Murphy, general manager of governmental affairs for Subaru, said the change from car to truck was a consequence of other decisions to make the Outback wagons more closely resemble sport utility vehicles, and was not a goal for Subaru.

“If we had wanted to make it a truck, we would have made it much closer to the standards,” Murphy said. “In today’s world, there’s no benefit.”

Murphy and Adcock said the new Outback will have about a 5 percent improvement in fuel economy over the current model and average about 27.5 mpg, despite an increase in horsepower.