Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
As the first of nine new-vehicle introductions scheduled for 2004 (all 2005 models), the PT Cruiser Convertible can be viewed as Chrysler's initial salvo into what will likely be the most product-rich year in the history of the American car industry. In a matter of months, we'll see the rear-wheel-drive 300C and Magnum (with optional Hemi power), as well as a pair of redesigned minivans, an extended-wheelbase version of the Wrangler, an all-new Dakota and yet another convertible -- the drop-top Crossfire.
But for this month (remember when new models used to get a year in the spotlight?), it's all about the PT Cruiser Convertible. To put it simply, the convertible version of the PT is exactly what the name implies. The exterior and interior styling, along with the standard and optional drivetrains and suspension, have all been seen before on the five-door model. The convertible's wheelbase is unaltered, and it's even built alongside the existing PT Cruiser on the same assembly line at Chrysler's Toluca, Mexico, plant.
Yet Chrysler insists that its engineers didn't simply "cut the roof off of the existing PT Cruiser." Reinforcements were added to the areas underneath and above the rear seat to increase bending resistance. Two metal bars have been placed inside each door to further aid body stiffness and, of course, the fixed "sport bar" (don't call it a roll bar) also serves to strengthen the vehicle's structure. The sport bar further reduces wind buffeting during top-down driving, and it gave Chrysler engineers a convenient place to mount the shoulder belts. A final bonus is the sport bar's twin dome lights that offer interior illumination where most convertibles can't.
Other major PT Cruiser deviations from the five-door model, beyond the power-retracting top and larger two-door design, include the reduction in seating capacity from five to four and a new rear cargo door that hinges upward just below the car's rear belt line. The hinge of the rear hatch is perhaps the most impressive piece of engineering to be found on the convertible. It allows the hatch to rotate nearly 180 degrees, effectively reducing the amount of back bending necessary every time something is loaded or unloaded. The cargo hold itself isn't huge at 7.5 cubic feet, but the design of the rear seats allows them to fold down and tumble forward, increasing cargo capacity to 13.3 cubic feet (enough to handle two sets of golf clubs). And, because the folding top is completely separated from the cargo area, these numbers remain the same whether the top is up or down.
The top itself is a three-layer design that is meant to reduce wind noise during top-up driving. It retracts completely in 10 seconds after releasing a single latch at the center of the windshield header and hitting the toggle switch in the lower center stack. To further reduce wind noise and solve sealing issues, the side glass uses "smart" technology to lower slightly when opening or shutting the doors; these windows automatically return to their fully raised position once the doors are shut.
Despite the loss of its fixed roof and two side doors, the PT Cruiser Convertible remains as space-efficient as its five-door stablemate. Interior volume is an impressive 84.3 cubic feet, and each of the four seating positions offers abundant head- and legroom. Getting into the rear seat can be tricky because of the sport bar-mounted front seatbelts, and adults with even moderately wide shoulders will find the rear seat a bit narrow. But rear legroom and headroom are acceptable, even with taller drivers and passengers riding up front. Chrysler rates rear-seat legroom at 40.9 inches, and happily points out that the Mustang and New Beetle convertible offer 29.9 and 30.1 inches, respectively. However, with the top up, the backseat area can seem a bit gloomy due to the small side and rear glass, despite the elevated rear-seat height in relation to the front seats. This is especially true in PT Cruiser Convertibles with a dark interior.
What isn't gloomy is the reaction one gets when driving a PT Cruiser Convertible -- with the top up or down. We spent the good portion of a day riding around Phoenix, Ariz., in one, and just as the original caused a stir when it first appeared four years ago, the new convertible version is likely to capture the hearts of fun-loving Americans. Power, as expected, is barely adequate with the standard 150-horsepower engine, but the upgraded 180-hp and 220-hp turbocharged versions are more than capable of motivating the vehicle. The midlevel 180-hp engine was particularly impressive for its nonturbolike behavior. Engineers told us they wanted to give this engine a more reserved demeanor, with a broader, almost six-cylinderlike torque curve. We say, "Mission accomplished."
Handling is on par with the original version, which is to say confident if not truly sporting. Chrysler representatives told us the convertible is supposed to offer a quiet and stable environment. The three-layer top and smart side glass seemed to be working as we drove along the freeway with the top up at 80 mph. Wind noise was impressively low for a sub-$30,000 convertible. We did notice a lot of road noise over certain pavement types, and even engine noise was more intrusive than we expected. Both of these sound sources come from beneath the car, leading us to wonder if engineers concentrated a bit too much on high-level noise sources and not enough on noise from beneath the vehicle.
As with interior noise levels, we found the convertible's overall body rigidity impressive...depending on the road surface. Company officials were quick to point out all the work they put into strengthening the PT's platform to handle convertible duty. Sure enough, on generally smooth pavement, with only the occasional harsh bump, the PT resisted flex admirably. However, on roads with multiple, smaller bumps, there was a subtle flutter that came through the steering wheel. It wasn't overt, but it's something both my co-driver and I noticed. Because we experienced the flutter on more than one test vehicle (but again, only on certain types of roads with rapid-fire imperfections), we're hesitant to write off the flutter as a product of the early production models we were driving. Extended seat time in a test vehicle, driven over our official road test loop, should provide some clarity on this issue in the coming months.
The 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible began production in January 2004 and should be in Chrysler showrooms by the end of March. Three versions will be offered, a Standard model for $19,995, a Touring model for $23,490 and a GT model for $28,155 (all prices include the $590 destination charge). The standard model includes the 150-hp version of the 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine, a power top, rear window glass with electric defrost, air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, AM/FM stereo with cassette player and 15-inch wheels. The Touring model adds the 180-hp, turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter engine, a boot to cover the retracted top, 16-inch wheels, cruise control, foglights, security alarm, floor mats and a CD player. The GT bumps power to 220, adds a performance-tuned suspension, antilock brakes, traction control, chrome grille, 17-inch wheels, chrome-plated exhaust pipe, leather seats, a power height-adjustable driver seat and side airbags. All models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but a four-speed automatic is available on Touring and GT models.
The success of the original PT centered largely on its styling, but the car's combination of utility and value meant it was more than just a pretty face. With over 600,000 sold in four years, the car has far surpassed the company's initial sales goals. The convertible version maintains these fundamental principals with an even greater emphasis on "fun." We expect a second wave of PT Cruiser enthusiasm to sweep America in the coming months -- something Chrysler is hoping will be a trend with all its new-model introductions in 2004.
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