The Chrysler PT Cruiser combines the retro look of late-'30s American iron with modern performance, efficiency and features. The PT Cruiser comes in two body styles, a versatile five-door wagon and a not-so-versatile two-door convertible.
The five-door model's tall body boasts lots of room for people and cargo. In fact, its interior volume and versatility compare well to a small SUV. Fold the seats down and you can carry an eight-foot ladder. Pull the rear seats out and you can haul a load of building materials or a big-screen TV. Yet the PT Cruiser is small and easy to park.
It's also easy on gas. The lower-level models are competitively priced, and we think they make the most sense.
The PT Cruiser convertible is one of the least expensive convertibles on the market. It looks like a chopped-top gangster-mobile with the top up and puts the wind in your hair with the top down. Roomy seats make it great for four passengers. Its trunk is tiny and awkward, however; in fact, we can't think of a trunk that's less convenient than the one on the Cruiser convertible.
The PT Cruiser doesn't fit within existing automotive marketing segments, but competes on some levels with the Chevy HHR, the Scion xB, and the Mini Cooper. Like them, it is essentially a car: The PT Cruiser is based on the Dodge Neon, a compact car noted for sprightly performance. So it drives like a car, though the handling is not as good. Cruiser is an appropriate name.
Chrysler has dropped the high-performance GT models for 2008. Frankly, we thought they were over-priced and favored the standard model that is still available.
New for 2008, a tire-pressure monitor and front side air bags are now standard on all models and the base wagon is now called LX. In addition, the Touring model gets a standard automatic transmission and 16-inch wheels. The 2008 Limited model now has 17-inch wheels, the 2.4-liter turbocharged engine, ABS and traction control as standard equipment.
Chrysler PT Cruiser LX wagon ($14,940); convertible ($18,530); Touring wagon ($18,930); Limited wagon ($22,660)
The Chrysler PT Cruiser blends the retro look of a late-1930s or early 1940s American sedan with new-age styling cues such as dual-beam flush headlights and teardrop-shaped taillight lenses.
The look was refined beginning with the 2006 models, but not drastically changed. The horizontal-themed grille does not extend below the bumper as on older models and it's topped by a prominent Chrysler eagle and flanked by gently scalloped headlamps. Round foglights frame a horizontal slot in the bumper. Around back, a body-color spoiler on the liftgate is said to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
Exterior dimensions indicate the PT Cruiser is quite compact. It's shorter in overall length than most compact sedans, but it's relatively tall. Measuring 63 inches from the pavement to the highest point of its roof, it's nearly as tall as a minivan. That height is a crucial element of the PT Cruiser's design.
The design of the convertible is quite a bit different from that of the wagon. For starters, it's a two-door rather than a four-door. The convertible looks shorter than the wagon, but it isn't. Maybe it's the single long door on each side that creates this illusion. It's lower, however, by almost three inches, which certainly alters the looks. But there's a lot more to it than that: close examination reveals that the windshield is raked more radically and uses a different A-pillar design.
With the top up, the convertible looks like a custom chopped-top hot rod. And it looks pretty cool. Drop the top and the gangstermobile turns into a chick car. With its top down, the PT Cruiser convertible's high tail and integrated sport bar remind us of the old Volkswagen Cabrio. But where the VW's side windows sealed against its sport bar, the Chrysler's windows seal against each other for a more modern convertible profile. Its slightly narrower and color-keyed sport bar sits behind the windows, inside the car, and is aerodynamically designed to minimize wind noise. A nice boot is provided that dresses up the appearance with the top down.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser pulls its exterior styling themes into the cabin, although here, too, the retro theme is tempered by a modern-looking center stack that visually splits the vintage-styled dashboard.
The driver faces three white-faced gauges set in individual cylinders, with speedometer center, tachometer right, and fuel and water temperature left. Accessory switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials at the bottom. Window switches are high in the center stack, inconvenient for quick operation, forcing the driver to search for them. The door levers have a nice action, and the switches operate with good tactile feel, though they're not world class. The standard stereo sounds tinny; we haven't tried the Boston Accoustics system. Also, there's a separate Set button for the station presets. It's fussier than simply holding the preset down.
A bonus of the Cruiser's tall profile is its upright seating position, with a fairly high view ahead, somewhat like a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. The front seats have a reasonable amount of bolstering to keep driver and passenger from sliding side to side. The leather package offers a rich appearance given the Cruiser's price, with suede inserts in the doors and along the lower cushion edges.
The center console incorporates a sliding armrest. The PT's console also includes a covered tray for concealing small items, a storage bin that holds six CDs, a coin holder and fold-out cupholders for rear-seat coffee consumers.
Roominess is a virtue in the Cruiser. The wagon's 120.5 cubic feet of interior volume is comparable to that of large cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lincoln Town Car, though it certainly doesn't have the ambience of those cars. Much of that space is a function of the Cruiser's height.
To take advantage of this, the rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front. This theater seating, as it's called, affords the back-seat passengers a better view forward. Rear passengers also can stretch their legs underneath the front seats, which are mounted on tall boxes. A 6-foot, 9-inch passenger can fit comfortably in the front or rear seats.
The cabin of the PT Cruiser wagon can be configured 26 different ways. 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 in the cargo bay, and an available front passenger seat that folds flat. The rear seats are anchored with quick-release attachments for easy removal. Suitcase handles and steel wheels make it easy to stash the rear seats in the garage and move them about. The smaller portion of the rear seat weighs 35 pounds, but the larger section weighs a hefty 65 pounds.
With both rear seats out, the Cruiser provides 62.7 cubic feet of cargo volume. A mountain bike fits with the rear seats removed; take the front wheel off the bike and you can leave the rear seats in place. The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheelwells, not wide enough for four-foot building materials, but still enormously useful. Folding the front passenger seatback flat forms a table next to the driver, or makes room for an eight-foot stepladder or a load of two-by-fours.
The convertible doesn't stand as tall as the wagon. It offers just 84.3 cubic feet of interior volume (compared with 120.5 for the wagon). Head room and hip room are significantly reduced, front and rear. It's fine up front, though. The convertibles get sportier seats with more side bolstering. The chair-like rear seats in the convertible have lots of leg room making them very comfortable, though it's tight around the hips and shoulders. The convertible's seats can be configured nine different ways, suggesting practicality. Trying to load something into the back seat is annoying, however. You have to set down whatever you're trying to load, use both hands to
The PT Cruiser is fun to drive, but it's not a sports car. In essence, it's a tall, practical economy car that goes relatively quickly. The standard engine is rated 150 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the Cruiser from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds and down the quarter-mile drag strip in about 16.7 seconds. We call that peppy, but the base engine makes its best power at higher rpm, so you have to really get on it to get that type of performance. Big four-cylinder engines have a natural tendency to idle roughly, so Chrysler's 2.4-liter engine uses a counter-rotating balance shaft to smooth things out.
The PT Cruiser offers both a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission. The manual gearbox is surprisingly precise, not sports-car grade, but not bad for a unit with a longer-throw gate and foot-long shifter. Working the gears to get the most from the base engine is enjoyable.
The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the base Cruiser cruising, because 'automatics tend to keep an engine in lower rev ranges and the 2.4-liter's' peak torque is reached at a relatively high 4,000 rpm. (Torque is the force that propels the car from intersections and up steep hills). On the other hand, kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough power for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads. In short, we like the manual better than the automatic. With the manual transmission, the base engine is EPA rated at 21 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. With the automatic, the ratings are 19/24.
The 180-horsepower turbocharged engine that's standard on Limited and optional otherwise produces a healthy 210 pound-feet of torque, starting at 2800 rpm and holding steady to 4000. That improves performance with the automatic considerably, and makes it eaiser to make that pass, accelerate ahead of traffic, or fill that hole in traffic. The turbo is relatively devoid of turbo lag, so the extra power makes the PT Cruiser easier to live with on a daily basis. And the fuel economy hit is not that larger. With the manual, the turbo 2.4 gets 20 mpg city and 25 highway; with the automatic, it is rated at 18 city and 24 highway.
Even the base PT Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan, maintaining its composure in the corners. With its big 17-inch wheels and tires, the Limited is sportier, though it lacks precision. Though it is noticeable in all models, body lean is much better controlled than in any SUV and is good for an economy car. The rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the twist-beam rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement and the chassis does not feel rigid. In quick, hard, slalom-type maneuvers any PT Cruiser starts to feel 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. It feels tentative when turning in for high-speed corners and does not inspire confidence. It's more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan in sudden lane-change maneuvers, but it really is more of a cruiser than a sports machine.
In spite of its height, we did not find the Cruiser to be particularly susceptible to cross winds at high speeds. There is little wind noise, almost no tire or road noise, and a just-audible whine from the drivetrain.
The ride quality is generally absorbent in all models. The suspension feels better controlled with the Limited's 17-inch wheels and touring suspension, but these is little if any price to pay in ride quality. The convertible is less rigid and exhibits some cowl shake but is satisfylingly well controlled. Suprisingly, some convertible coupes have more cowl shake.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser appeals to people of all ages and lifestyles with its whimsical, retro design. Its affordability increases its appeal. It's also practical, with a roomy, versatile interior. It isn't particularly refined, however. The convertible offers genuine open-air fun and is great for carrying four people, but there's no place for cargo. The lower-priced models offer the best value and we think they make the most sense.
NewCarTestDrive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino and Phil Berg reporting from Detroit and Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.