Hot-rod competition for the lovebug.
by Jill Amadio
Move over, Mr. New Beetle, here comes your worst nightmare. Going after your well-deserved reputation as the most sought-after gimmicky vehicle around, the oddly styled Chrysler Cruiser is about to knock your socks off both in the U.S. and 40 other countries. Predictions are it'll match Volkswagen's lovebug million for million in sales, particularly considering the Cruiser's price: $16,00 to $19,995.
If owners are prepared to handle raised-eyebrow reactions, they'll head for Chrysler showrooms in droves.
What is this wild concoction? Even Chrysler can't give you a straight answer. They call it a duffle bag because you can stuff all sorts of things into it, from people to plants. And company executives are beaming about the fact that the weird-looking four-door, five-passenger Cruiser built in Toluca, Mexico, is a marketer's dream. Whether it creates a new segment called Truck Unplugged or Gehry Goes Greek remains to be seen.
The designers targeted active lifestylers who don't like to be lumped with the minivan crowd or who feel that SUVs have become far too common. At the same time Chrysler wanted something youthful, charismatic and a little bit shocking. After all, Chrysler had already produced the Prowler and the Viper.
The company claims that their styling direction was not retro but a combination of the familiar and the future. Well, grandma and grandpa will find it just as appealing for its 1930s look as for its removable back tumbleseat that can be wheeled into their garden and sat upon.
Although it appears to be a mix of minivan, SUV and sedan, it really resembles a London taxicab, those tall, ungainly but tremendously comfortable old Austins that allowed you to climb into the cab practically standing up. The Cruiser is not, of course, high enough for that feat, but at 63 inches it's merely an inch shorter than a Jeep Cherokee and seven inches taller than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. So the Cruiser affords plenty of space and features for every kind of lifestyle from corporate junkets to country weddings.
PT stands for "Personal Transportation" and Chrysler believes the Cruiser can satisfy almost every transportation need. You can even sleep in it.
It's difficult to know where to start extolling the grandeurs of the PT Cruiser. From some angles its stately roofline, Art Deco-inspired grille with that era's popular horizontal bars, along with elliptical front and rear lights personify elegance - but then you reach the back end and, with the liftgate up and the unique picnic table slotted into place, you're ready for beer and hotdogs.
The front-wheel drive Cruiser has a slightly bulldog-like stance emphasized by a forward-leaning body style and higher back end that allows for stadium rear seats (translation: the back seats are higher than the front so that rear passengers can see over the top of, instead of staring at, the driver's boring head).
The front fenders deserve an award for artful fluidity and the doorsills are pseudo running boards. Will we see this in the Louvre alongside the original Range Rover?
Off-the-wall, on the bull's-eye
The Cruiser is such a curiosity, almost off-the-wall, it would be easy to assume the designers had put all their efforts into styling and neglected everything else. Not so. Just about every feature you'd need in a microvan, a small SUV or a car is packed in very neatly and nicely.
Once inside and seated, the passenger compartment is just as delightful as the exterior. Recessed retro-styled gauges and dash panels in 1930s colors match the exterior paint to provide a jaunty, jazzy look, along with beautifully sculpted chrome door handles (push-button style on the outside). On the manual model, the cable-operated shifter is an old-fashioned cue ball knob on a tall, slim stalk.
Audio and air controls on the center dash are modern with large switches and knobs, not unlike those on the Cadillac STS. The glove compartment is deep, and most useful of all, the front seatback folds down so you can sit a laptop computer on it. And work.
Seats are the same contemporary buckets and benches you'll find in other 2001 models but they are far more flexible than most. The 65/35 split-folding rear seat can fold flat, tumble forward, or be taken out individually or in tandem. Cargo volume behind the rear seats is 19 cubic feet. If you remove the back seat completely, you'll have 120 cubic feet of cargo space.
Many minivan features abound: tie down hooks, cubby bins, an under-seat drawer, map pockets, a rear storage divider, and cargo net.
Bowling shirts apropos
If you want cool cruisin', this is the vehicle. Helping everyone feel real cool were the two-toned 1950s bowling shirts Chrysler provided, hoping to get us in the right mood before we got behind the wheel of the automatic and manual transmission models.
I wanted to drive the five-speed gearbox first because they're much more fun and with a 250-mile or so route to drive throughout the day I figured I'd rather amble lazily back on the return trip with the four-speed automatic.
My Cruiser was parked uphill and I found the clutch and shifter ultra-sensitive and needing a firm foot before I managed to move forward instead of backwards. Once I got the feel of the shifter and adjusted to its height it was a slick mama all the way.
We drove our test cars out of Del Mar, Calif., where the racetrack meets the sea, and threaded inland through newly-developed residential areas before leaving civilization behind and tackling the gentle pine mountain ranges.
On the easy curves of Highway 94 that stretched inland and touched the tip of the largest park in the nation, Anza-Borrego, the Cruiser behaved remarkably well, taking corners upright with no lean and accelerating nicely when asked. Chrysler engineers injected a healthy dose of roadability into the Cruiser, with the rear suspension's Watt's linkage helping constrain lateral movement and body lean so there's less side-to-side variation and better handling.
The rear suspension has a travel of 8.5 inches to avoid bottoming out. If you're after more performance and better steering control in hard braking situations you can opt for the combination of four-wheel anti-lock brakes with Chrysler's low-speed traction control.
This is no hot rod and doesn't claim to be in spite of its hype as a VIV (Very Interesting Vehicle). It drives and performs like a regular car, and after a while you forget about the retro stuff and just enjoy the Cruiser's casual roominess and comfort.
The engine is a new 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder inline with 150 horsepower. It didn't puff once when ascending 4000 ft. There's enough power to get you up and down without straining and lots of low-speed torque, though I'd prefer a six-cylinder. To help keep the rev-happy engine quiet, a system of counter-rotating balance shafts counteract second-order imbalances that can cause vibration. Aluminum alloy pistons help keep the idle smooth.
Driving home a point
Appropriately enough, when we arrived at our lunch location in Campo Valley we discovered it was a museum for antique trucks. Many were rusted old wrecks, but the shining light in their midst was a beautifully restored 1912 Julian stage for 15 passengers with a four-cylinder Mack engine that produced 50 horsepower. And it still fired up.
After lunch we switched cars. My automatic version proved as driveable as its sister five-speed but it groaned a little on the way back home through the mountains. It was happiest on the high-speed freeway where little wind noise or tire noise crept into the cabin.
My main complaint regards visibility. Wide A, B and C-pillars tend to obstruct your view at certain angles. However, I realize that were the pillars thinner it would ruin the retro look. And with this Cruiser, appearances are premier.
Safety was a big consideration when designing the Cruiser, and Chrysler offers optional side airbags along with standard front airbags. European-height head restraints have a locking feature for added stability during a crash, and high-strength steel is used in many parts of the vehicle. To prevent window fogging, an automatic override of recirculation occurs when the defrost or mix modes are on.
There's a lot more to say about the PT Cruiser, but is it for you? It's pretty irresistible, expected to have a longer shelf life than That Other Weirdo, the New Beetle, and certainly the price is right. If you believe this car's a state of mind, you'll want one.
2001 CHRYSLER PT CRUISER
Base price: $16,000
Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder, 150 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 103.0 in
Length: 168.8 in
Width: 67.1 in
Height: 63.0 in
Weight: 3123 lb
Fuel economy: N/A
Major standard equipment:
Dual front airbags
AM/FM stereo with cassette
CD changer controls
© 2000 The Car Connection