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Category: Commercial Vehicles

What is the ‘Chicken Tax’ and why is it bad for imported trucks?

If you’re an American fan of small pickups and other utility vehicles, you may often find yourself reading about unobtanium models that are sold in what seems like every automotive market but our own. Hey, this is America. We love trucks, right? Even tiny ones like the Ford Maverick have proven wildly successful, suggesting that small trucks imported from overseas could perform similarly well. So why don’t we see them? Blame the Chicken Tax. 

What is the Chicken Tax?

You’d be forgiven for assuming the Chicken Tax has something to do with transporting barn fowl, but believe it or not, the two are almost entirely unrelated. So how is it that we live in a world where chickens are to blame for expensive imported pickup trucks? Well, the simple (and simultaneously quite complex) answer is “politics.”

Essentially, “Chicken Tax” is a complete misnomer. It refers to an import tariff imposed on (among several other things) light-duty trucks. It gets its name not from its purpose, but from its genesis: it was conceived as part of a series of retaliatory tariffs intended to punish Europe for taxing American chicken exports. So there were chickens involved at some point, you see, just not in any way that relates to cars. The story is pretty wild, and we’ll refer you to this excellent Writeup by Wired if you’d like the full version.

How much is the Chicken Tax?

This is no small penalty: The import tariff on light duty trucks was set at 25%. That’s stiff enough to deter quite a bit of overseas competition, and as some automakers have learned, difficult (and not to mention costly) to circumvent. Ford recently settled a decade-long “Chicken Tax” investigation over its importation of Transit Connect utility vans in a way that it still maintains was compliant with U.S. regulations. Needless to say, federal regulators disagreed.

What does it apply to?

Nominally, the tariff was imposed on light trucks, but given how broadly that definition is used in today’s regulatory environment, it’s really more accurate to say that the Chicken Tax applies to utility vans and pickup trucks. Passenger vans and SUVs are exempt from the Chicken Tax, but not exempt entirely from import taxes. They’re assessed at a far more reasonable 2.5%. That’s why you see plenty of imported crossovers and sport ‘utes on the road, but not nearly as many trucks or cargo vans. 

In the early days, overseas manufacturers found ways around the Tax by exporting “chassis cab” models to the U.S. At that point, a bed would be attached to the rear frame and the entire truck could be sold as a pickup. This loophole was eventually closed. The Subaru Brat (as featured in the Wired story above) famously came with two jump seats in the back to qualify as a “passenger” vehicle until the law was adjusted to account for anything with a bed, jump seats or not. Womp-womp. 

Who pays the Chicken Tax?

In theory, the Chicken Tax is a cost eaten by the manufacturer and baked into the car or truck’s sticker price. In practice, very few manufacturers are subject to the Chicken Tax in 2024 because most trucks and cargo vehicles sold in the United States are built here. The rare exceptions tend to be smaller boutique builders whose customers may not love paying extra, but are likely able to afford it. 


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Junkyard Gem: 1982 Jeep J-20 4X4 Pickup

The Jeep SJ Wagoneer was built for the 1962 through 1991 model years, by Willys Motors, then Kaiser-Jeep, then American Motors and finally Chrysler. For all but the last few of those years, a pickup version of the SJ was manufactured as well. Today’s Junkyard Gem is one of those trucks, an AMC-built ¾-ton four-wheel-drive J-Series, found in a Wyoming car graveyard with snowplow mount still attached.

The Equality State gets meme-worthy amounts of snow in winter, and four-wheel-drive plow trucks tend to be in heavy demand there. The blade is missing from this Fisher plow assembly, but we can be pretty sure it moved cubic miles of the white stuff during its career.

AMC would sell you a factory-installed Snow Boss plow system for 1982, on your new J-Series, Wagoneer or Cherokee. This truck’s owner went the aftermarket route.

The Jeep SJ pickup began life as the Gladiator, a name revived recently on a Wrangler-based pickup. After that, it became the J-Series through the end in 1988. From 1974 on, the ½-ton Js were badged as J-10s and the ¾-ton ones were J-20s.

This one was sold new in Denver, about 100 miles south of the Wyoming state line.

It still has Colorado plates with 2013 tags, so we can assume it did most of its plowing in the Centennial State.

The American Motors Corporation bought Jeep in 1970, dropping the Gladiator name soon after.

Kaiser-Jeep had been buying AMC engines for its trucks since the middle 1960s (along with 225-cubic-inch Buick V6s with Dauntless badges), so it was easy for AMC to continue bolting in its powertrain hardware once it took over Jeep.

This truck has the 360-cubic-inch (5.9-liter) pushrod AMC V8, rated at a Malaise-y 150 horsepower and 205 pound-feet for 1982. A 258-cubic-inch (3.7-liter) AMC straight-six was base equipment in the J-10.

The AMC 360 stayed in production after Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, with the last ones built for the 1991 model year.

The transmission is the base four-on-the-floor manual with extra-low “granny” first gear. A three-speed automatic was available as an option.

The final J-Series pickups were built by Chrysler as 1988 models, after which they got axed so as not to compete with Dodge pickups.

Go ahead, drop a piano into your J-10!

You Jeep truckers just keep on truckin’ in the snow, don’tcha?

Avoid the embarrassment of destroying your date’s front porch by trading in your tank for a Jeep pickup.

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Junkyard Gem: 2014 Chevrolet Impala Limited

What does a car company do when it introduces a completely revised new generation of a vehicle even while fleet sales of its predecessor remain strong? In the case of 21st-century General Motors, you keep making both versions. That’s what GM did when the tenth-generation Chevrolet Impala had its debut as a 2014 model, continuing to build the ninth-generation Impala for fleet-only sales through 2016 and calling it the Impala Limited. Here’s one of those not-so-rare-but-still-interesting machines, found in a Colorado car graveyard recently.

This 2016 Chevrolet police-vehicle brochure photograph shows the Impala Limited on the left and the regular Impala on the right. The steel wheels on the Limited look better than alloys on a cop car, in my opinion.

The tenth-generation Impala had moved from the aging W Platform to the global Epsilon II platform, making it a sibling to such machines as the Opel Insignia and Saab 9-5. It was built for the 2016 through 2020 model years, making it the final Impala. That was quite a run for a model dating back to 1958.

This car is a good old W-Body, a chassis design dating back to the 1988 Buick Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

That meant that the 2014-2016 Impala Limited was a bit shorter and much less roomy inside than the Epsilon-based 2014-2020 Impalas, but so what? Fleet mechanics had been working on W-Bodies for many years and knew them well, plus there was plenty of production capacity available.

GM had taken a similar route with the Chevrolet Classic a decade earlier; the Malibu moved over to the Epsilon platform for 2004 (making it sibling to the Saab 9-3 and Saturn Aura), while the N-Body version remained in production for fleet-only sales through 2006.

The engine in this car is a 3.6-liter High Feature DOHC V6 with variable valve timing, rated at an impressive 302 horsepower and 262 pound-feet. These cars were quick thanks to their curb weight of just over 3,600 pounds.

The only transmission available was a six-speed automatic. In fact, the final model year for a manual transmission in a U.S.-market production Impala was 1973 (when a three-speed column-shift manual was base equipment on six-cylinder cars).

I was traveling and renting cars all over the country during the Impala Limited’s heyday, in my role as wise and respected Chief Justice of the 24 Hours of Lemons Supreme Court, and every Lemons staffer preferred the ninth-generation Impala to all other rental options during the 2006-2016 period. Even when poorly maintained, these cars always run pretty well, plus they came with decent audio systems and plenty of engine power. In fact, we often held drag races between various rental cars on the long straights at road-race tracks; here I am officiating at a race between a rental Maxima and a rental Impala Limited at GingerMan Raceway in Michigan (the Limited won, as it nearly always did).

I always appreciated the AUX input jack in the Impala Limited’s radio when I rented these cars; this very useful feature was still fairly difficult to find in rental-spec cars during the middle 2010s.

The tenth-generation Impala was bigger inside than the Limited and rode more quietly, but I was disappointed when the ninth-gen cars departed rental fleets.

I haven’t documented any first-generation Impalas in junkyards, but I have photographed used-up examples of the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh generations (including Bel Airs, Biscaynes, Caprices and other members of the Impala family).

Clinkscales Chevrolet in South Carolina had deals on ninth-gen Impalas for you!

It was a whole new animal.

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