Car Video: Oversteer
Here's Why the Plymouth Prowler Is the Strangest 1990s Car
I recently had the chance to drive a 1999 Plymouth Prowler, which is an unusual automobile that seems like it was originally designed as a Hot Wheels toy and then later approved for production by a 10-year-old boy who won a "Be the president of Chrysler for a day" contest at school by selling the most Nutri-Grain bars.
Full disclosure: I've always thought the Prowler is really, really cool-looking. But, until this weekend, I had never actually had the chance to drive one. So when Rayco Eurospec -- a dealership near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with a hilariously amazing exotic and weird-car inventory -- invited me to drive their one-owner purple '99 Prowler with less than 10,000 miles on the odometer, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, the day I arrived had a high temperature of 22 degrees.
I put the top down.
But before we get to my Prowler driving experience, I want to go over a few things that make this car the single strangest production car to come out of the 1990s. Such as, for example, the entire front bumper and front fender situation.
Here's the deal: The Prowler's front bumpers protrude from its pointy little nose in a very distinctive, very hilarious way. I think the bumpers are kind of cool. Many owners don't like them, and removing them is a popular Prowler modification. Either way, this much is true: You can stick your entire hand through them. I have no idea why.
But the front fenders are way stranger than the bumpers. The Prowler's front fenders are located outside the car, attached to the pointy nose but completely independent of it. The resulting situation is almost unbelievable: When you drive the Prowler down the street, you can see the fenders turn while you turn the steering wheel. You can also see the fenders bouncing up and down, like a basketball, when you go over bumps.
Actually, when I say "fenders," I'm being charitable. You can see one fender turn -- the one on the driver's side. The fender on the passenger side is completely hidden from view, no matter how much you sit up in your seat -- which means that while you always know where the driver's side corner of the car is, you have absolutely no idea where the car ends on the passenger side. You just point it where you want to go and hope for the best.
And then there's the trunk. The trunk lid is rather large in surface area and unadorned with any badges or emblems that describe what this vehicle is. Instead, and inexplicably, those are emblazoned on the rear bumper. Lift up the lid and you'll find that the trunk is tremendously small, with barely enough room for a single piece of luggage. Suddenly you understand why so many Prowler owners bought those trailers.
But none of this stuff is the weirdest thing about the trunk. That honor goes to the fact that it's rear-hinged, and you open it using -- not a lever, or a latch, or the key fob -- an unlabeled yellow button mounted behind the driver's seat. Press it, and the trunk comes open... backwards.
I could write for days about the weird things on this car. How the speedometer is relegated to the middle of the dashboard, and instead the tachometer is directly above the steering wheel -- even though all Prowlers had 4-speed automatic transmissions. The fact that the sun visor, undoubtedly borrowed from some other Chrysler product, blocks your entire view of the windshield. The fact that the battery is located at the very front tip of the car.
But I won't. Because now, we must turn our attention to the next-strangest thing about the Prowler: the driving experience.
Despite 22-degree weather, wind and snow on the ground, I decided to put the top down on the Prowler for one major reason: Because you can't be tossed the keys to a Plymouth Prowler and drive around with the top up. This would be like getting the keys to a speedboat and going slowly. Getting a pair of expensive skis and mounting them on your wall. Getting a bottle of Flinstones Chewable Vitamins and swallowing them. It would be MADNESS!
So here's what I discovered about what it's like to drive a Plymouth Prowler: It's slow. But not for the reason everyone thinks. Collective wisdom about this car is that Plymouth made a mistake by using a V6 instead of a V8, but here's the thing: Except for the Prowler's very first model year, 1997, when it had only 214 horsepower, this was a 253-hp car that weighed 2,800 pounds. That's a better power-to-weight ratio than the BMW 340i.
The Prowler's problem isn't its horsepower, but rather its transmission: Chrysler didn't have a stick shift they could bolt up to the 3.5-liter V6 from the 300M sedan, and they weren't about to develop one for this bizarre, low-production thing. So instead the Prowler uses a slow, laggy 4-speed automatic, with a gear lever borrowed straight from the Dodge Intrepid. It's the single biggest letdown on the entire car, bar none.
Fortunately, there were a few surprises in the Prowler that balanced out the whole transmission situation. One was the open-air driving feel -- while most modern convertibles have a high deck in back that limits your visibility, the Prowler drops off substantially right behind the seats. The result is that you really feel like you're driving in an open-air roadster, more than in any other car on the market. It's really neat. Assuming you don't roll over.
And then there was another pleasant surprise: the handling. I thought this car would be all about style, with very little substance -- but it turned out to be surprisingly capable around corners, with very little body roll. It is, as I say in the video, almost as if Chrysler was trying to make an actual sports car. The tradeoff, however, is ride quality, which is midengine-exotic-car bad -- which would be fine, except you're sitting in a $40,000 Chrysler with an automatic transmission and the radio from a Dodge Durango.
In the end, I was surprised by the Prowler. Surprised by its weird quirks. Surprised by its small trunk. Surprised by how well it handled. Surprised by how poorly it rode. Surprised by the dull transmission. And surprised by just how often I noticed -- later, as I watched the film of me driving it -- that I was grinning from ear to ear.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.