Chrysler PT Cruiser combines the retro look of late-'30s American iron with modern performance, efficiency and features. It doesn't fit within existing automotive marketing segments.
The PT Cruiser is based on the Dodge Neon, a compact car noted for sprightly performance. It comes in two body styles, a versatile five-door model and a 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 shorter in length than a Neon, making it easy to park. It's easy on gas. The lower-level models are competitively priced, and we think they make the most sense.
Pricier turbocharged models add fire under the hood. For 2006, the fire has been turned up to 230 horsepower in the GT model. A more affordable 180-horsepower turbo is also available.
The convertible is one of the least expensive 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, but its trunk is tiny and awkward.
Chrysler PT Cruiser sedan ($13,405); convertible ($19,405); Touring sedan ($15,530); Touring convertible ($23,175); Limited sedan ($17,405); GT sedan ($23.030); GT convertible ($27,930)
The look has been refined for the 2006 models, but not drastically changed. Chrysler says the PT Cruiser now has the face of Chrysler, which seems to translate into a more horizontal-themed grille that no longer extends down below the bumper, topped by a more prominent Chrysler eagle and flanked by gently scalloped headlamps. Round foglights now frame a horizontal slot in the bumper. Around back, a new body-color spoiler on the liftgate is said to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
In terms of exterior dimensions, the PT Cruiser is quite compact. It's nearly 6 inches shorter than a Neon. Yet with 63 inches from the pavement to the highest point of its roof, the Cruiser sedan is also 7 inches taller than the Neon, and nearly as tall as some minivans. 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 sedan. For starters, it's a two-door rather than a four-door. The convertible looks shorter than the sedan, but isn't; maybe it's the single long door on each side that creates this illusion. It's certainly lower, by almost 3 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. 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. Our GT convertible drew many admirers.
The driver still faces three white-faced gauges set in individual cylinders, with speedometer center, tachometer right and fuel and water temperature left. The GT's silver-faced speedometer reads up to 140 mph, while the standard Cruiser's speedo goes to 120. It's unlikely you'll peg either needle, and we recommend against trying.
Accessory switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials at the bottom. Window switches are still 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 new Boston Accoustics system. Also, there's a separate Set button for the station presets, 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 in the three lower-line models 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 GT gets sportier seats with more padding in its side bolsters to hold you firmly in place in corners. The GT also features a leather wrapped steering wheel with satin-silver spokes, and bright accents on the pedals.
A redesigned center console now incorporates a sliding armrest, replacing the seat-mounted armrests provided previously. The new console also includes a covered tray for concealing small items, a storage bin that holds six CDs, a new coin holder and fold-out cup holders for rear-seat coffee consumers. A cell-phone charger is optional.
Roominess is a virtue in the Cruiser. The sedan'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. The roof rises toward the rear like on a chopped-top hot rod.
To take advantage of this, the rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front, resulting in what what the industry calls theater seating. The front seats are mounted on tall boxes, leaving plenty of room for rear passengers to stretch their legs underneath. A six-foot, nine-inch passenger can fit comfortably in the front or rear seats.
Chrysler claims the cabin of the PT Cruiser sedan 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 a 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 easier to stash the rear seats in the garage and move them about. The smaller seat weighs 35 pounds, but the larger section weighs a hefty 65 pounds.
With both rear seats out, the Cruiser provides 64 cubic feet of cargo volume. A mountain bike fits with the rear seats removed; take the front wheel of the bike and you can leave the rear seats in place. The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheel wells, not wide enough for four-foot building materials, but still enormously useful. Folding the front passenger seatback flat forms a table next to the
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 the engine's power is biased toward higher rpm, which is not where automatics work best. The engine's peak torque is reached at a relatively high 4000 rpm. (Torque is that 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.
The 180-horsepower turbocharged engine that's optional on Limited sedans and Touring convertibles produces a healthy 210 pound-feet of torque, starting at 2800 rpm and holding steady to 4000. That improves performance with the automatic considerably.
The quickest Cruiser is the GT, which develops 245 pound-feet of torque at 2400-4500 rpm. That makes the 230-horsepower High Output turbo feel like a bigger engine, even though it isn't. A rumbly exhaust makes the GT sound more like what hot-rodders wanted when the hot-rod body was first introduced. You know it's a turbo because of the telltale whine when it spools up, though chambers in the intake manifold act as sound dampers. The GT can get to 60 mph in about 7 seconds, which is decent but not rocket-like acceleration. Driving the GT around town, you'll likely forget to downshift, since the engine pulls strongly at 2500 rpm in any gear. Once you decide to go quicker, the GT acts a little more like the muscle car its body says it is.
The standard gearbox in the GT is a five-speed manual built by Getrag in Germany. We also drove a GT with Chrysler's AutoStick transmission, an automatic that has a semi-manual shift feature. It works well, with a tall shifter reminiscent of an old-fashioned hot-rod setup. Stand on it at low rpm and there's a little lag as the turbo gets into the boost, but once it spools up it takes off decisively.
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 GT hustles like a sports sedan, though it lacks the precision of one. Body lean is well controlled. 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 the PT Cruiser starts to feel top heavy, even with the GT's stiffer suspension and big wheels. 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. A Neon is a much better choice for lapping road circuits or blasting down country roads.
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
The Chrysler PT Cruiser appeals to people of all ages and lifestyles with its whimsical, retro design. Its affordability increases its appeal. And its practicality often closes the deal with a roomy, versatile interior that makes the price easy to justify. It isn't particularly refined, however. The GT models deliver strong acceleration performance and bring hot-rod credibility to the Cruiser's hot rod image. The convertible offers genuine open-air fun and is great for carrying four people, but isn't practical for hauling cargo. The lower-priced models offer the best value and we think they make the most sense.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino and Phil Berg reporting from Detroit.