The volume dependence of respiratory elastance makes it difficult to recognize actual changes in lung and chest wall elastic properties in artificially ventilated subjects. We have assessed in six anesthetized, tracheotomized, and paralyzed rabbits whether reliable information on the static pressure-volume (PV) curve could be obtained from recordings performed during step variations of the end-expiratory pressure without interrupting mechanical ventilation. Pressure and flow data recorded during 5- and 10-hPa positive-pressure steps were analyzed in the time domain with a nonlinear model featuring a sigmoid PV curve and with a model that, in addition, accounted for tissue viscoelastic properties. The latter fitted the data substantially better. Both models provided reasonably reproducible coefficients, but the PV curves obtained from the 5- and 10-hPa steps were systematically different. When the PV curves were used to predict respiratory effective elastance, the best predictor was the curve derived from the 10-hPa step with the viscoelastic model: unsigned differences averaged 8.6 +/- 11.1, 26.9 +/- 36.4, and 5.5 +/- 5.8% at end-expiratory pressures of 0, 5, and 10 hPa, respectively. This approach provides potentially useful, although not highly accurate, estimates of respiratory effective elastance-volume dependence.