You see it splashed across billboards, magazine covers, and nightly news stories. It's become the darling of radio contests and eBay speculation. It's even inspired tons of fan-based Web sites and, of course, a national club already exists. Two years ago you might have assumed we were discussing Volkswagen's New Beetle, but that "timeless classic" is old hat; displaced by this year's new "it" vehicle -- the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
In case you're one of the three people out there who hasn't already heard about Chrysler's latest show-car-turned-production-car, we'll provide a brief history. At Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January of 1999, DaimlerChrysler Co-chairman Robert Eaton unveiled a diminutive, highly stylized hot rod called the PT Cruiser. The car/truck/mini-ute had already made appearances at previous auto shows, but it was at the '99 Detroit Show that the official word came: The PT Cruiser will be available in the 2000 calendar year...and at a starting MSRP of under $20,000!
Right from the start, Chrysler referred to its Cruiser as a "segment buster." The company's idea was to build a vehicle that offered the utility of a mini-ute with the looks of a street rod, all at a price the average consumer could stomach. However, the most shocking aspect of Chrysler's PT Cruiser is not its utility or its price or even its looks. What amazes most enthusiasts is that the PT Cruiser exists at all. The straight-laced world of Corporate America isn't known for taking risks, and nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than in the boardrooms of our conservative Big Three automakers. So love it or hate it, any of us with even a drop of automotive enthusiasm in our blood owes Chrysler major kudos for making the PT happen.
But what lies beyond the radio contests and glossy cover shots? Is the PT Cruiser a truly functional utility vehicle, or just another pretty face? The answer is yes.
Having spent a week driving the stylish Chrysler around Los Angeles we can confirm that the Cruiser scores in the looks department. People waved, honked, stared, and started conversations with us as we sat at red lights. Sounds like Beetlemania all over again, right? The Cruiser's exterior shape was inspired by the panel vans of the late 1930s, complete with bulbous fender flares, an egg-crate grille and a pointed hood. One thing we instantly realized upon approaching the vehicle for the first time is that looks really can be deceiving. Its exterior lines give the Cruiser a meaty appearance that suggests bulk and heft, but in reality this thing is tiny! You'll note that most PT Cruiser advertising involves nothing but the PT in terms of subject matter. No other cars (or trucks) appear in the ads to give it scale. Certainly we're not suggesting that a successful vehicle has to be a hulking leviathan (Please! No more Excursions!). We just don't want anyone out there to be fooled...like some of our staffers were when they assumed a PT Cruiser would work as a substitute for a minvan or SUV. Keep in mind, folks, that this car is based off the Dodge Neon and it is 2 inches shorter overall than a Neon. In other words: It's S-M-A-L-L.
Small on the outside doesn't necessarily mean small on the inside; Ford's Focus has already proven that. With creative packaging, a compact, easy-to-drive vehicle can also offer gobs of interior space. And so it is with the PT Cruiser. Maximum cargo capacity is a cavernous 76 cubic feet and the highly configurable interior allows for 26 different seating/cargo space arrangements. A removable cargo shelf can be placed at three different heights in the cargo area and also perform drink-tray duty during tailgate parties. The second row seats are removable as well through a quick release system -- but don't try to lift the "65" section of the 65/35 split seat unless you've got an active gym membership. This item is both heavy and bulky, despite a built-in handle and wheels that allow it to roll. If you manage to get the second row seats out, or simply fold them down, the folding front passenger seat will allow 8-foot long items to be carried inside with the rear hatch closed.
In maximum people-moving mode, with all seats installed and upright, the Cruiser can haul four adults in relative comfort. Head and shoulder room is plentiful and the high seating positions contribute to commodious legroom, sufficient thigh support, and excellent outward visibility. Our Limited Edition model had leather seat covers that felt rather vinyl-like, but the suede inserts were both visually and tactilely pleasing. Small items, like articulating headrests, a well placed driver's seat armrest, power seat height adjustments, and ample lumbar support, combine to give the PT a near luxurious feel that belies its sticker price.
That same sense of luxury continues throughout the PT Cruiser's interior design. White-faced gauges with chrome rings, a one-touch tilt/slide sunroof, power windows (with one-touch down for the front doors), power locks, sliding sun visors, dual power outlets, and a CD/cassette combination sound system all contribute to a strong sense of value. Throw in some solid door "thunk," a rattle-free body, an exterior temperature and direction display in the overhead console, three-point safety belts at all seating locations, and a quiet highway ride, and you find yourself asking, "How did they meet this price point?"
Then you take a closer look at specific interior pieces and the PT's thin veneer goes transparent. For instance, the rear windows have only one set of controls, located on the back of the center console. This is a compromise for both front and rear passengers with either group able to access the buttons but neither finding them at all convenient. A quick rap on just about any interior surface will reveal hard plastic where many of today's vehicles feature soft-touch material. Even the "chrome" rings around the gauges are actually chrome-plated plastic, and a driver's seat-only armrest had front passengers griping.
Ergonomic complaints also arose when trying to locate the front window buttons (located high in the center stack). Vent controls, which consisted of a small, central "pivot point" that merely flopped around with little effect on airflow, allowed cold air to blast front passengers in the face unless the main vents were completely turned off. Climate controls were generally praised for their simple layout and design, but, as is typical of modern Chryslers, the stereo featured tiny controls and a cumbersome memory system. To operate it requires the extra step of hitting the "SET" button rather than just holding down one of the preset station buttons for a few seconds like every other system in the industry.
Still, we can't fault items like the clearly labeled, easy-to-reach cruise control, headlight and wiper stalks. We've always liked Chrysler's interior light switch system, where the light itself is the switch and you simply push it for activation. The one-touch sunroof features a separate "VENT" button, meaning you don't have to search for that sweet spot between fully closed and partial venting like on so many other vehicles. Storage bins in each door, along with a deep glove box, a shelf under the passenger seat, and a total of four cupholders leave plenty of room for today's travel accessories (Palm Pilots, cell phones, etc.).
While the PT Cruiser stumbles over a few points, like interior ergonomics and rear seat removal, it really only falls flat in one respect: engine performance. The 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower inline four-cylinder just doesn't supply enough machismo to get the job done. The problem lies not so much in horsepower but in torque, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. With 162 foot-pounds peaking at a heady 4,000 rpm, low-end grunt is sorely lacking. What this means out on the street is that the engine has to be wrung-out to create any serious forward thrust. With the manual transmission (as our test model was equipped) we could readily access the engine's "happy zone," but, as our editor-in-chief discovered during the PT Cruiser's press intro last spring, an automatic-equipped version lumbers along with the alacrity of OPEC after an oil shortage.
Even with the manual transmission we questioned the PT Cruiser's ability to hold highway speeds over a serious mountain pass. While the vehicle maintained 80 mph on freeways in and around Los Angeles, it took some work to get it there. Far more troubling was how a loss in momentum required a long time to get back to 80 mph, especially if anything more than a slight incline was involved. And what happens with an automatic-equipped, fully loaded Cruiser taking advantage of those 76 cubic feet of storage? Well, just remember that NHTSA classifies the Cruiser as a truck...so we suppose it's OK to use those truck lanes when climbing mountain passes.
The power issue becomes even more dreadful when you realize that the rest of the PT Cruiser's driving traits are quite admirable, even sporty. Overall ride quality is tight without being abusive and steering feel is among the best we've experienced in this class of vehicle. Its Neon beginnings shine through in the Cruiser's excellent suspension tuning, responsive turn-in and minimal body roll. We're not recommending people autocross their PT Cruisers, but in comparison to Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4 or Nissan's Xterra, the PT is clearly the "driver's mini-ute" among its main competition.
Which brings us to the final (and certainly most troubling) aspect of the PT Cruiser. Everything we've stated thus far is based on acquiring one of these street rod/utility vehicle hybrids at the MSRP of approximately $20,000. Trouble is, you'll be hard-pressed to find one for less than $25,000, and in SoCal they're changing hands regularly for $27,000 to $30,000. Waiting lists are now running close to a year and the 30,000 units originally planned for European distribution have been redirected to the U.S. in a too-little, too-late attempt by Chrysler to meet demand. Even the Federal Government was forced to pay thousands of dollars in dealer gouging just to buy a couple of PT Cruisers for crash testing.
So, what started out as a cool-looking and highly configurable mini-ute has turned into an overpriced, underpowered styling exercise with cheap interior pieces and spotty ergonomics. At $21,000 for a fully loaded Limited Edition, you're getting a fun and functional people mover that could use some more power. At $25,000 or more you're just getting ripped off, plain and simple.
In theory, the PT Cruiser works. In reality, at least for now, check out the Honda CR-V or new Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins. And when your local Chrysler salespeople quote you a price in the mid 20's, or higher, laugh in their faces.
System Score: 6.0
Components. The system consists of a pair of six-inch full-range speakers in the C pillars, along with a pair of six-inch mid-bass drivers in the lower-front doors. A pair of tweeters grace the corners of the dashboard, firing upward into the windshield and reflecting sound into the passenger compartment. As always with Chrysler systems, a generous power amplifier supplies healthy boost to the audio signal (i.e., the thing cranks). The radio faceplate offers ten AM and ten FM presets, along with a single-play CD and a cassette. A three-band graphic equalizer occupies the left side of the radio, allowing the user to tailor the sound to their particular taste. Overall, the radio has a solid ergonomic feel, with large, square buttons for presets, notched rocker switches for seek, tune and scan, and a decent-sized circular volume knob. The topography of the faceplate allows the user to get around easily and quickly. On the down side, Chrysler continues to use their cumbersome, two-stage presetting procedure on this radio, making it difficult to set stations quickly.
Performance. Most Chrysler stereos are long on amplification and short on refinement, and this system is no exception. On the plus side, the power amplifier delivers robust and unsullied bang for the buck, the dash-mounted tweeters image excellently, and the whole cabin is filled with sound. Chrysler has also wisely designed the volume slope on the radio to prevent amplifier clipping. In layman's terms, this means you can turn the thing all the way up without producing that horrible distorted sound that fries your brain; since this also fries speakers, it's a good thing. This feature insures long life for the components in this system, both the amp and the speaks. A nice touch, Chrysler. Although the tweeters produce a superb three-dimensional stereo image, they're overly bright (probably intentionally so, to give customers that bright "sizzle" that so many mistake for a clean high end) and hurt the ears. I found that I had to turn the treble almost all the way down to adjust for the bright tweeters. On top of that, female vocals sound hollow and empty, indicating a gap in the upper midrange. Bass response is likewise slightly inaccurate, producing lower frequencies that, while deep, are a little tubby and loose. On the whole, it's a decent-sounding system that blends well with the car. Best Feature: dash-mounted tweeters. Worst Feature: radio presetting procedure.
Conclusion. While not the best-sounding system in the world, this one is still a good value. In the small enclosure of the PT Cruiser, all passengers are treated to enjoyable sound. The tweeters on the dash are something most manufacturers should be doing, following Chrysler's lead. If you could buy this car anywhere close to sticker (not likely in the coming months), you'd get a great sound system for the money. -- Scott Memmer
"I love this car. It's comfortable, easy on gas, certainly turns heads everywhere I go. It's roomy, holds a lot of stuff. Lots of people ask me about my PT Cruiser, and I tell them all the same thing. I just love my Cruiser. Also, I think it has all the speed anyone needs, it certainly goes up hills great. It really takes off. I couldn't be happier with the PT Cruiser. I want to keep it forever. Favorite Features: Color -- red storage capacity ease in driving Sunroof comfortable seats style open-hatch back door-convenience." -- Boren, Sept. 25, 2003
"This car is extremely unreliable. It has been one problem after another. The latest problem is a smell of a burning electrical system. Do not purchase this headache." -- Do not buy Chrysler, Sept. 12, 2003
"I love this car. It has features found on the more expensive cars. It is great to drive. You can see the road and it is easy to enter and exit the car. I will buy another cruiser. I hope it lasts as long as my Neon which has 167,000 miles and still going strong. Favorite features: Fold-up backseats. The appearance! The extra electric outlets for DVD players, cell phones." -- Hot Rod Sandy, Sept. 4, 2003