Passionately purple. by Jim McCraw
Plymouth's Prowler is the first factory-built hot rod in history, a vehicle that simply has no direct competition because it is unique. It's built in the same Conner Avenue factory in Detroit as the Dodge Viper, and will only be available to about 3000 customers in 1997, so there probably won't be another one in your neighborhood -- unless you live in Beverly Hills or Miami Beach.
While the Prowler is significant to Chrysler Corporation's design reputation for its attention-getting index -- which is off the charts -- it is also important to Chrysler's technical reputation for its extensive use of aluminum.
The final car is about one-third aluminum by weight. Cast, forged and extruded aluminum parts are everywhere, and they serve to not only lighten and strengthen, but also add some techno-glamor to its underpinnings. Even the rear brake rotors are aluminum.
When the Prowler made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show, it seemed to be just another of those nifty but unproduceable show cars. And then Chrysler confounded us all -- again -- by putting it into production. The design is full of unusual elements, including the blade bumpers with integrated turn signals, encased projector-beam headlamps flanking the grille, motorcycle fenders for the front tires, composite trim pieces, the stamped aluminum body shell and the aluminum-intensive chassis and suspension.
The Prowler has a very neat, clean and sculptured appearance, whether you're used to looking at hot rods or not. From its chin pieces to its imitation 1937 Ford grille, the nose flows back into the short windshield, getting wider and taller all the way to the firewall. From the firewall back to the leading edges of the rear fenders, there is a very strong lower body sculpture that looks great and also stiffens the body.
From there, the fenders and decklid curve down gracefully to the minimalist rear bumperettes. The taillamps are integrated into the rear fenders, and the turn signal/backup lamps into the bumperettes. It really does look like a a classic '50s hot rod.
The convertible top is manual, and it folds neatly and completely into the trunk. The trunk is hinged at the rear and holds very, very little other than the top when it is stowed.
The Inside Story
Chrysler's interior design guys have done quite a good job in mixing the modern and the classic, using a host of pieces and elements borrowed from other car lines that work so well together you'd never know they weren't made specifically for the Prowler.
Prowler's cozy confines (only 38 inches of headroom with the top up, but who's going to drive with the top up?) offer leather bucket seats, a center console/armrest incorporating the shift lever and a single cupholder. The unusual instrument panel epitomizes the designers' masterful blend of then and now. The tiny tachometer, an aftermarket item made by AutoMeter, is mounted on the steering column, where it belongs in a hot rod, and the rest of the instruments are mounted in a body-colored panel with the speedometer at the center and four minor gauges flanking it, all five set in deep recesses for a very interesting effect.
Climate and audio controls are mounted below the instruments, and the Prowler's standard gear includes modern stuff like power windows, mirrors, and locks, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette sound system with six-disc CD changer, cruise control, and dual airbags. There are no options available, and the initial batch comes in any color you want --
Ride & Drive
The Prowler has only one powertrain combination, the 3.5-liter Chrysler V-6 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission with the AutoStick automatic, which allows manual shifting or full automatic operation. And, while it produces more than adequate performance for a weekends-only car, it doesn't quite measure up to the promise of those enormous rear tires.
The classic hot rod setup was a lightweight '30s coupe or roadster allied with a big-inch '50s V8, a combo that produced tire-shredding power and a wonderful exhaust rumble. With 214 horsepower, an automatic transmission and a tall rear-end ratio, the Prowler doesn't do any of that.
We were also a little disappointed with its underhood appearance. American hot rod tradition says your engine has to look as good as it sounds and performs. For the price, there should be a chromed air cleaner box and chromed cam covers at the very least, but there is not a lick of dress-up under the hood. It is as dark as a slumlord's heart, with no eye appeal whatsoever.
A contemporary touch that makes sense is the transmission location. Rear-mounted to maximize foot and leg room and improve weight distribution, it's connected by an aluminum driveshaft.
Prowler's suspension system is unique for an American passenger car. It's a racing-style double wishbone design, with upper and lower control arms and coil springs, but the coil spring is mounted inside the nose, operated by a rocker arm, very much like an open-wheeled racing car, to give the exposed front suspension a very clean appearance. The rear suspension uses a coil-over shock unit on each side with a single lower control arm and three-bar link on the top side, the differential being solidly mounted, using halfshafts to drive the wheels.
The outrageous tires and wheels were chosen as much for appearance as function. Chrysler chose P225/45R-17 fronts, which are very large for steering tires, and the rears are even bigger -- P295/40R on huge 10x20-inch aluminum alloy wheels. The tires are Goodyear Extended Mobility Tires, which can run flat, and the system includes a low pressure sensor with a dashboard readout. Not only do these tires give the Prowler an enormous footprint and an aggressive stance, they also eliminate the spare and a jack.
Driving the Prowler makes you the center of attention wherever you go, and almost automatically puts a smile on your face. The V-6 doesn't make V-8 noises, but it will propel the Prowler from rest to 60 mph in a taste over seven seconds, which is good performance by today's standards. The AutoStick transmission will hold the selected gear until the rev limiter hits the 6350-rpm limit, and when the transaxle shifts, it shifts hard, consistent with hot rod performance.
Although there's flex in this chassis, the Prowler handles better than any hot rod ever built. With its short wheelbase, ground-hugging stance and those monster tires, plus quick rack-and-pinion power steering, the purple projectile changes direction more like a Porsche than a Plymouth.
The suspension irons out minor irritants very well, but over more serious bumps and potholes it's overwhelmed and the chassis gets a lot of the load, which means the occupants really feel it. The all-disc braking system is easy to modulate, very direct and very powerful, inspiring a great deal of confidence on back roads. ABS isn't offered, but it would take very bad conditions to overpower the grip of the huge tires.
This is a terrific looking car with a proven powertrain and all the same power accessories you get in a Concorde sedan, for a relatively modest price. The $35,535 figure, which includes Plymouth's destination charge, is our best estimate, because the car still has not been officially priced, nor have its fuel economy figures been determined.
What's not to like? Well, there isn't much interior room for tall drivers, and once the seatback hits the rear bulkhead, that's it. The top works fine, but it isn't upholstered inside, and it looks cheap from that perspective.
And even though it handles far better than a classic hot rod, it's not in the same league with modern sports cars.
But the Prowler isn't about ultra-high performance and slalom-running. It's about feeling good and looking good and just generally flaunting it. Viewed from that perspective, no other production car comes close.
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