What Exactly Defines Cars and SUVs These Days? Marketing Spin and a Regulatory Morass

Quick, look at the picture above. Which of these Volvos is a car, and which is the truck?

The Volvo on the left is the V60 Polestar, a fizzing family hauler with 415 hp and 494 lb-ft coursing through its 2.0-liter turbo-four engine and e-motors. It has 5.4 inches of ground clearance and gets 28/33 mpg city/highway fuel economy (70/68 mpg-e on gas and electricity). The Volvo on the right is a (discontinued) XC70 AWD, a refined trundler generating 235 hp and 236 lb-ft through a 3.2-liter inline-six engine. It has 8.3 inches of ground clearance and fuel economy of 18/25 mpg city/highway.

On initial inspection, they’re both wagons based on passenger-car platforms. And they sure look like the same type of vehicle, right? Wrong. The V60 Polestar is a station wagon, which means it is classified as a car, while the XC70 is perceived as an SUV, which means (technically) it’s a truck. At least, that distinction is made according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which often classifies new vehicles in surprising ways that don’t quite jibe with perceived reality.

I don’t mean to pick on Volvo. All automakers do this. They can use the flexible parameters the government provides for categorizing vehicles to help them better fit within regulations. If classified as a wagon (and thus a car) or as a SUV (and thus a truck), different regulations for fuel economy, emissions, and crash testing apply.

But instead of looking at the underlying platform and structure (a car-based unibody or truck-based body-on-frame), the EPA merely groups automobiles by interior volume, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration groups cars for crash testing by weight class.

If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is. And sometimes the definitions work against both automakers and consumers.

We have lifted hatchbacks that have barely more ground clearance than a Toyota Corolla sedan and are only offered in front-wheel-drive form—yet automakers insist they be marketed as SUVs, adding their own spin in this classification fog. Yes, we’re looking at you Nissan Kicks, Hyundai Venue, and Toyota CH-R. But dig deep into the EPA’s fueleconomy.gov website, and you will find they are (correctly) classified as cars.

But then we have a direct competitor to those vehicles in the Kia Seltos, which in addition to its off-roadish looks has optional all-wheel drive and a ground clearance of 7.3 inches (though a bit shy of the 8.4 considered the cutoff point for calling something an SUV). It even has a locking differential. That should get you to your ski lodge. Is it a SUV? Yes, according to the EPA. But it’s also based on the same platform as the front-drive Kia Soul hatchback, which is a car; that platform also underpins the front-drive-only Hyundai Venue. Hmmm.

Even weirder, in the old days, vehicles could be categorized as both a car and an SUV. For instance, the EPA decided that under its parameters the PT Cruiser and the original Lexus RX 300 were cars, but manufacturers could categorize them as trucks for NHTSA crash-test and Corporate Average Fuel Economy purposes. Talk about wiggle room.

This year, we even have a carmaker that symbolically shot itself in the foot by playing with definitions. Mercedes-Benz insists on categorizing its E450 All-Terrain as an SUV rather than as a wagon (thus fitting it into the “car” category). As a result, the MotorTrend 2021 Car of the Year victory by the E-Class lineup does not include the All-Terrain, simply because Mercedes lifted the chassis a few inches, slapped on some macho cladding, and slightly improved its off-road capabilities over the standard E450 4Matic wagon it replaces this year. Too bad. Our Golden Calipers would look rad on its long roof.

On the flip side, when we contact automakers to submit vehicles for SUV of the Year, we caution them against sending front-drive tall hatchbacks or wagons—because they’ll inevitably get stuck in the silt pit of the Honda Proving Center and thus essentially will be disqualified. But they do it anyway, with predictable results. Continue the confusion.

Although we most definitely have more pressing regulatory matters confronting the EPA and NHTSA, perhaps the automakers and these governmental bodies can come to a consensus as to what these vehicles actually are. They’re cars, right?

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