Base Price (MSRP) $16,500
As Tested (MSRP) $21,425
It was only a matter of time. This year, as if the PT Cruiser needed something to make it stand out, Chrysler is offering flames as an option. Order the factory optional tone-on-tone flames and experience a throw-back to your misspent youth. Or maybe just go back in time.
Flames or no flames, there's nothing on the road quite like the PT Cruiser. Though it has become a familiar site, it still attracts attention., 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. It is, as Chrysler says, too cool to categorize.
Yet the really great thing about the PT Cruiser is its combination of practicality and reasonable price. Its affordability and practicality make it suitable for everyday use by everyday people. Shorter than many compact cars, it offers the interior volume of a sport-utility vehicle. And it's almost as much fun to drive as it is to be seen in.
Three models are available: base ($16,200); Touring ($17,915); Limited Edition ($20,265). All are powered by a 2.4-liter twin-cam engine available with the standard five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic transaxle ($825).
PT Cruiser comes standard with air conditioning, power windows, rear defroster and wiper, six-speaker AM/FM/CD and 15-inch wheels. An optional Power Convenience Group ($570) adds remote keyless entry, automatic power central locking, and dual power heated fold-away mirrors.
The Touring model gets everything in the convenience package plus a touring suspension, wider tires on 16-inch silver aluminum wheels, fog lights, a fold-flat front passenger seat, security alarm, and other features.
The Limited Edition model comes equipped with just about everything: leather upholstery, side-impact airbags, cruise control, glass sunroof and chromed 16-inch alloy wheels.
Options include four-wheel antilock disc brakes with traction control ($595), engine block heater ($35), and a roof rack ($175).
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. Front passenger side-impact airbags are standard on the Limited Edition and optional on the other models. Seatbelts should always be worn, however, and the PT Cruiser comes with three-point safety harnesses at all positions-including the rear seat's center position. 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. A passenger-side armrest has been added along with an underseat storage bin.
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.
PT Cruiser is more than just show. It's also about go. It offers a better power-to-weight ratio than the Volkswagen Golf, though it isn't as hot as a GTI. Tipping the scales at about 3123 pounds with the manual transmission, the PT Cruiser sports a power to weight ratio of about 21:1. That's a better power-to-weight ratio than a four-cylinder Honda Accord or the typical minivan. According to published reports, the PT Cruiser can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds and cover the standing quarter mile in about 16.7 seconds.
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.
The PT Cruiser can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds (when equipped with the manual transmission), which is more than respectable for a car in this price range. 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 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 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.
This car continues to be too cool to categorize. Its affordability greatly increases the appeal of its unique design. It continues to be fun, and the novelty has still not worn off. In the long term, the PT Cruiser offers a highly functional interior suitable for moving people or cargo. Add in the driving enjoyment and it's an affordable car that should keep its owners smiling for years. And if that's not enough, you can always order it with flames.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.