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WASHINGTON -- A proposed overhaul of the nation's CAFE standards could prevent automakers from classifying carlike vehicles as trucks. But regulators fear it could inhibit the growth of the sport wagon segment.

The proposal, published last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would tighten rules that allow automakers to classify any vehicle with a flat cargo floor as a truck.

But the agency says it is reluctant to eliminate that criterion because it does not want to "deter the emerging fleet of crossover vehicles and significantly impair the minivan market."

NHTSA helped launch the minivan boom 20 years ago by allowing virtually any vehicle whose interior can be converted to a flat cargo floor to be called a truck. That allowed minivans to qualify for lower fuel economy standards.

Abusing the rules

But the government believes the practice has gotten out of hand. DaimlerChrysler AG's classification of the Chrysler PT Cruiser as a light truck was one reason NHTSA is reconsidering the definition of a truck.

But eliminating the flat-floor provision would reduce overall safety if it hurt crossovers and minivans, regulators say. If these vehicles were reclassified as cars, automakers would have to improve fuel efficiency by designing lighter vehicles with smaller engines.

Minivans and car-based crossovers - such as the Chrysler Pacifica - are safer than SUVs and pickups, NHTSA says. The vehicles have a lower center of gravity, making them less prone to roll over, and they are less dangerous for car passengers in collisions.

The conflict is just one of many found in the plan to revamp the 25-year-old rules governing corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE. The agency wants to improve fuel economy without hurting safety.

The agency is considering proposals to:

Divide light trucks into weight or size classes with different fuel economy standards.

Revise the obsolete definition of "light truck."

Expand the range of trucks covered by fuel economy rules to include the biggest SUVs - those with gross ve-hicle weights of 8,500 to 10,000 pounds. That would affect trucks such as the Ford Excursion and the Hummer H2. Vehicles that weigh more than 8,500 pounds are exempt from CAFE.

The Bush administration already has increased the light-truck standard from 20.7 mpg to 22.2 mpg. The changes will be phased in during the 2005 through 2007 model years. The passenger-car standard of 27.5 mpg is set by law.

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