Looks are only the beginning.
by Albert Hall
Base Price (MSRP) $16,000
As Tested (MSRP) $20,590
There's nothing on the road quite like Chrysler's new PT Cruiser, and that's a big part of its fun. Is it a hot rod, a little panel van or a uniquely styled compact car? People from all walks and stations want a better look, intrigued by the Cruiser's difficult-to-define character.
Yet the really great thing about the PT Cruiser is its combination of practicality and a reasonable price. Chrysler turned the automotive industry on its ear when it launched the Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler. Those cars showcased Chrysler's design trends. Viper and Prowler are great cars for serious enthusiasts who don't mind making a few sacrifices in terms of comfort and convenience. But, in a way, the PT Cruiser is even more exciting because it's a real car suitable for everyday use by everyday people. It's almost as much fun to drive as it is to be seen in, and it has more people and cargo hauling flexibility than the typical sport-utility vehicle, in a surprisingly compact, economical package.
Over the next year or two, the PT Cruiser may change what the world expects from a small car.
Buyers can choose between two well-quipped variants of the PT Cruiser. At $16,000, the base car has power windows, air conditioning, rear defroster and wiper, six-speaker AM-FM cassette and 15-inch wheels. The high-trim $19,995 Limited Edition comes with just about everything, including leather upholstery, side-impact airbags, glass sunroof and chromed 16-inch alloy wheels. Options available on the Limited Edition include ABS, automatic transmission, 16-inch painted aluminum wheels (in place of chrome), engine block heater, CD changer and a roof rack. Several option packages can tailor the base car to a buyer's tastes or needs without reaching $20,000. (Prices include destination charge.)
The PT Cruiser blends the retro look of a late-1930's American sedan with new-age styling cues like dual-beam flush headlights and bullet-shaped taillight lenses. When it comes to automotive styling, however, pictures speak louder than words. Take a long look and make your own call. If the PT Cruiser's styling intrigues you, you'll likely find plenty underneath to keep your attention.
By exterior dimensions, the PT Cruiser is quite compact; it's nearly 6 inches shorter than a Neon. Yet with 63 inches from pavement to the highest point of its roof, the Cruiser is also 7 inches taller than a Neon, and nearly as tall as some minivans. That height is a crucial element of the PT Cruiser's design.
The PT Cruiser has a thorough complement of safety features for a sub-$20,000 car. Front passenger side-impact airbags are standard on the Limited Edition and optional on the base car. The rear seat's center position has a three-point safety harness. The front belts have pyrotechnically charged tensioners, just like luxury cars, to keep the belts tight during an impact. The rear bench is equipped with child-seat tethers.
Inside, the Cruiser's T-shaped symmetrical dashboard uses painted inserts to pull exterior styling themes into the cabin. The instrument panel is clean, functional and aesthetically pleasing. The driver faces three white-faced gauges set in individual cylinders, with speedometer center, tachometer right and fuel and water temperature left. Switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials and a single pair of buttons for the front windows. The door levers have a nice action and the switches operate with good tactile feel -- not world class, but a noticeable improvement over Chrysler's sloppy mid-'90s standard.
The same improvement applies to the interior finish. The leather package, in particular, has a rich appearance, given the Cruiser's price, with suede inserts in the doors and along the lower cushion edges.
The front seats have a reasonable amount of bolster to keep driver and passenger from sliding side to side. Perhaps more important, the seating position is upright, with a fairly high, commanding view ahead, much like a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. And with 120.2 cubic feet of interior volume, there's no premium on space in the PT Cruiser. The government's standard for defining a large car, like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lincoln Town Car, is 120 cubic feet.
All that space is largely a function of the Cruiser's height. Its roof rises toward the rear, and its rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front are. The front seats are mounted on tall boxes, leaving plenty of room for rear passengers to stretch their legs underneath. An auto critic who stands six feet-nine-inches tall fit comfortably front or rear, in his preferred upright seating position.
Chrysler claims the PT Cruiser's cabin can be configured 26 different ways. We didn't count, but there are clearly a lot of options. This flexibility stems from three features: a 65/35 split rear bench that can be folded flat, tumbled forward or removed, a movable parcel shelf, and an available front passenger seat that folds flat. The rear seats are anchored with quick-release attachments, and fitted with suitcase-style handles for lifting and steel wheels for rolling. The smaller section weighs 35 pounds, and the larger, 65. The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheel wells. The rear cabin has lots of tie-downs, including a pair on the center pillars that can be used with various seat configurations.
The parcel shelf and front passenger seat increase hauling options. The shelf can be positioned at the top of the rear seatbacks for a standard privacy cover over the cargo hold. It can be lowered to a level that creates a flat floor when the rear seat backs are folded forward. In can be installed vertically across the width of the cabin to divide the cargo hold, or hung out of the tailgate as a small table. It can also be turned over so its hard-plastic underside acts like a large tray, containing drops from dripping paint cans or mud from work boots.
With the front passenger seatback folded flat onto the bottom cushion, there's a table next to the driver and in front of the rear passengers. Even better, there can be more than 8 feet of flat surface between the dashboard and the tailgate. So the Cruiser can accommodate a tall stepladder or a load of two-by-fours within its cabin.
Whatever it's hauling, the PT Cruiser can go enthusiastically. It weighs 3123 pounds with the manual transmission, meaning each of its 150 horsepower pulls roughly 21 pounds of iron. That's a better power-to-weight ratio than a VW Golf, a four-cylinder Honda Accord or the typical minivan, yet a poorer one than sportier cars like the Golf GTI GLX or Honda Prelude. The power-to-weight ratio provides a good indicator of where the PT Cruiser fits in the performance spectrum.
Wedged tightly between the Cruiser's stepped fenders and under its tapering hood is a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine with twin overhead cams. Big four-cylinder engines have a natural tendency to idle roughly, so Chrysler uses a counter-rotating balance shaft to smooth things out. The 2.4 happens to be the base engine in Chrysler's minivans; for the Cruiser, improvements were geared toward reducing noise and vibration rather than increasing power. Peak horsepower remains at 150, with 162 foot-pounds of torque. The PT Cruiser offers both a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission.
With manual transmission, the Cruiser will travel from zero to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, and that's more than respectable for a $16,000 car. The shifter is surprisingly precise; it's not sports-car grade, but not bad for a longer-throw gate with a lever that's a foot long. Working the gears to get the most from the engine is a pleasant proposition in nearly all circumstances.
The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the Cruiser cruising, because the 2.4's power is biased toward higher rpm. On the other hand, there are four gears in the automatic, and kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough torque for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads.
The Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan. It will hustle with good composure and reasonable verve. Body lean is well controlled. By design, the Cruiser understeers moderately, a push that warns a driver to slow down through curves. The Cruiser's strut-type independent front suspension is similar to the Neon's. Its rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the solid rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement. Overall, however, Chrysler's suspension engineers have delivered a good balance of handling and a comfortable ride.
They've also done a fine job of masking the Cruiser's height. Only in quick, hard, slalom-type maneuvers does the PT Cruiser start get top heavy. You can almost feel the high mass of the car try to continue in one direction as the front wheels turn in the other. Yet most drivers will never drive hard enough to notice. And in sudden, emergency-type lane changes, the PT Cruiser is more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan. At speeds beyond legal Interstate limits, the Cruiser is stable, and not particularly susceptible to cross winds.
A lack of noise may be the most impressive, or surprising, of all the PT Cruiser's qualities. There is little wind noise, almost no tire or road noise, and just an audible whine from the drivetrain. It has better noise, vibration and harshness control than Chrysler products of the mid- to late 1990s have conditioned us to expect.
Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard. A better plan is to order the optional anti-lock brake system, which comes with four-wheel discs and low-speed electronic traction control.
The PT Cruiser is no boy racer, nor even a hotrod in the mold of cars that inspired its styling. The Cruiser is, however, a car that turns heads with its looks. It delivers exceptional functionality for its size, and it won't wilt during an enthusiastic drive.
The PT Cruiser should appeal to all types of buyers, from active singles to young couples with children. It represents a good value unless demand is such that dealers pack the sticker. Then there's the look, unique among current production cars. What if the novelty of the Cruiser's styling wears off after a year or two? We're still left with a car that's enjoyable to drive and well suited for whatever most buyers will ask of an automobile.
Think about what the PT Cruiser offers, and some other very good small cars start to look somewhat limited.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.