By Christian J. Wardlaw
Relax. The 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser isn't what you surmise it to be. It's not a go-fast hot rod, it's not a mini-SUV, it's not a station wagon, and it's not a small van. It defies classification, though the feds have tried. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls it a light truck, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it's a car. NHTSA overrules EPA, so PT helps offset JGC's fuel-sucking V8 so DaimlerChrysler can meet truck CAFE. We're having trouble making sense out of all this. U 2?
PT Helps DC Meet CAFE
After having spent 200 miles driving and riding in the PT Cruiser, we would list the following vehicles as competitors: Ford Focus Wagon, Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4 and Volkswagen Golf. The primary selling points of the PT are design and functionality. Once you look beyond the veneer of sassy styling and a multi-configurable interior, what's left is a relatively mundane five-door hatchback.
Purposely designed to meet NHTSA's definition of a light-truck, the PT Cruiser makes the cut thanks to removable rear seats and a flat load floor. With a planned output of 180,000 Cruisers annually (30,000 of which will go directly from the Toluca, Mexico, assembly plant to overseas markets in both left- and right-hand drive versions), this "truck" helps offset the lousy fuel economy of thirsty Dodge Rams and Durangos, allowing Chrysler to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and avoid stiff fines levied by the government. Crafty folks, ain't they? We think other automakers will follow their lead, especially if truck sales continue to boom.
But for all intents and purposes, this is a car. It drives like a car. It rides like a car. It looks like a car. Tom Gale, executive VP of Chrysler passenger car design, claims the Cruiser's sheet metal wasn't inspired by any single vehicle from history. Rather, the PT's "form vocabulary" is late '30s and early '40s. Whatever the case might be, it works and is unapologetically American. Our single quibble with the exterior styling relates to the dark gray bumper caps, and even then we'd only complain loudly about the one in front, which makes the PT look like it's wearing a cheesy moustache. Otherwise, this is one cool-looking set of wheels that generates plenty of attention.
Our favorite design elements, aside from the overall shape and flared fenders, include the rear hatch release (which is deftly integrated into the winged Chrysler logo on the rear hatchback), the stylish taillights, and the unobtrusive rocker panel moldings that, admittedly, won't help save the bodywork from dings and dents. Park in the space furthest from the store. Not only will this keep your nose out of the Yellow Pages in search of a dent-removal service, but it may also deter crowds from causing a sensation everywhere that you park. We also liked the massive, chrome door handles, but we kept grabbing them and yanking the handle to open the door. That won't do the job, because you've got to use your thumb to depress a small release button oddly reminiscent of those found on early '70s Ford Mavericks. A small, but appreciated, touch was the addition of small mudflaps mounted behind the front tires.
If you like the outside, you'll probably get a kick out of the interior as well. Composed mostly of hard plastic, the surfaces are coated to reduce the shine and slippery feel common to such construction. Body-color-coordinated inserts serve as dash panels in front of the driver and front passenger, and recessed white-faced gauges set a theme that continues with round air vents and simplistic rotary knobs for the climate controls. Models equipped with a manual transmission have a large, white "cue ball" screwed atop the stick, and a compact driver's airbag allows for a small steering wheel hub and four long, thick, rubberized spokes, contributing to the interior's retro appearance. Chrome latch releases accent the door panels, all four of which have large bins for storage.
Tall and narrow, the seating position inside is chair-like on a slightly short but firmly padded bottom cushion. Despite the existence of a height adjuster, we left the driver's seat at the lowest setting in order to enjoy the best possible driving position offered by the PT Cruiser. When raised, the seat "dumps" the driver forward toward the controls, and put our tester too close to the steering wheel. A separate bottom cushion tilt adjustment would work nicely to help alleviate this problem. Drivers get a fold-down armrest; passengers do not, front or rear. During our time as a front passenger in the PT, we found ourselves wishing for better side bolstering to keep us more securely ensconced in the seat. The Cruiser tends to lean in turns, and even a moderate clip through the esses will easily result in side-to-side body toss.
Head and legroom up front is quite accommodating, even for those well over average height. So airy and spacious is the front section of the cabin that it's easy to move the seat forward in the track to provide more comfort for rear riders. The back seat, too, is raised high off the floor. It provided enough comfort to keep our reviewer (six feet tall with a 33-inch inseam) reasonably happy for a 45-mile stint. Rear power window switches, located at floor level on the back of the center console, are inconvenient (but great for the driver to reach and roll down the windows), but the back glass lowers almost completely. This ought to keep Fido happy.
It should be noted that when the front passenger seat was all the way back in the track and reclined a bit for comfort it forced our tester's knees to straddle the seatback when he sat in the rear seat. Furthermore, because the distance between the front and rear seatbacks is minimal, it could be difficult to install rear-facing child seats properly while simultaneously preserving front occupant comfort. Also, toddlers in larger seats may have little room for legs and feet. Finally, hard plastic front seatbacks mean it can hurt when knees and shins bump into them, but they're there for a good reason.
Designers sought to create a vehicle that could be used the way a backpack is - stuffed with assorted doo-dads and employed to carry a wide variety of payloads. The 65/35-split rear seat is completely removable, helped by casters that allow the seats to be rolled to the back of the car and hoisted into the garage, creating an impressive 64 cubic feet of cargo space (with the back seat installed and in use, 19 cubes serve your needs). The small one weighs 38 pounds, and the big one tips the scale at 60 pounds. In all, 26 different seating configurations are available to meet your needs, and the hard plastic seatbacks that can cause passengers discomfort help prevent damage when longer items are loaded inside.
If you feel you got enough of a workout at the gym and don't need maximum capacity, you can simply flip and fold the back seats for smaller hauling jobs. In combination with the stout cargo shelf, designed to hold 100 pounds, and folding front passenger's seat, a "flat" load floor can be created that will swallow an 8-foot stepladder if you position it just right. Opt for the roof rack, and you can load up to 220 pounds of gear overhead for a family vacation.
PT also caters to tailgaters, thanks to the cargo shelf, which can be configured to stick out of the back of the car for easy access to sodas and chips before the big game. A storage panel in the left side of the cargo area can house a roadside emergency kit, while a cargo lamp and 12-volt power outlet are located in the right panel (optional on base models). Like a light truck and most minivans, the space-saver spare tire is located under the cargo area, accessible from outside using a crank operated from the trunk area on the PT, which makes tire changing in the rain or snow that much more fun.
Up front, a number of small storage nooks and crannies are provided. The cubby bin under the stereo is sized to hold CDs, but there's no rubberized insert to secure them in place and the slot itself is not canted at enough of an angle to deter stored items from launching themselves into the center console area when accelerating quickly. Front seat riders can choose from three cupholders, while the backseat passengers get one large one and two storage bins that can double as slots for juice boxes. Unfortunately, they're mounted low to the floor, and will be nearly impossible for children to reach when they're buckled in properly. Furthermore, exposed screwheads in the bottoms of the cupholders are sure to collect french fry crumbs and other unsightly filth over time, especially if a Coke gets dumped in them.
Order the smoker's package, and a GM-style canister ashtray takes up residence in one of the cupholders, while a lighter gets stuffed into the lower-dash power point, leaving the cosmetic plug to dangle into one of the other beverage portals. Coin storage slots are also provided, and rubber liners keep the money from rattling occupants' nerves. A slot for a pen exists, but there's no clip to hold one in place, and the glovebox is rather small.
Four large, user-friendly rotary knobs operate the climate controls, and they're conveniently located just above the stereo, which was obviously plucked from the Chrysler parts bin. It looks out of place sitting in the middle of the dashboard, like a Timex on the wrist of an extra in a scene from "Spartacus." Not only does it require fiddling with slide levers to set bass, treble and midrange, but it also requires the use of a "set" button to program presets. But these are minor annoyances in comparison to the lack of a tuning knob. Sound quality is good, but not exceptional. There's opportunity here for an optional Infinity speaker system, at the least.
Power window switches are located in the center of the dashboard and operate only the two front windows, with an express-down feature for both of them. The driver can easily reach back to the rear of the center console to power down the remaining windows. Each of the four, circular air vents can be shut off completely, but the small knob that allows you to adjust airflow rate is poorly marked and requires enough effort to twist that more sensitive fingertips may hurt afterwards. Power mirror controls, mounted low on the lower-left dash panel, are out of reach for those with shorter arms, which means setting them perfectly the first time might be difficult since your head won't be properly positioned.
Driving into the sun, we found dashtop glare moderately distracting. Rearward visibility was hampered by the backseat head restraints, and we found the hard plastic upper door panels an uncomfortable place to rest an elbow while Cruising. Slide the one-touch-opening power sunroof back, and a small wind deflector deploys, resulting in a relatively quiet ride. Turbulence up front is minimal.
Despite our minor gripes, style and utility are what the PT Cruiser is all about, and those are its strongest selling points. Lots of buyers lament the near extinction of the five-door hatchback, and Chrysler will win their business with this car, along with countless others who might otherwise purchase a conventional station wagon or mini-SUV. However, be warned that the hardware beneath the bodywork is comparatively unremarkable.
Riding on a dedicated platform, PT shares nearly a fifth of its innards with the Dodge Neon. Engineers wanted the Cruiser to be safe, tight and rattle-free, so it's endowed with a structure that exhibits exceptional bending resistance and torsional strength. Mechanical noise, vibration and harshness are quelled nicely when the engine isn't revved hard. Aural annoyances under normal driving conditions are limited to expected wind roar (the Cruiser has a brick-like coefficient of drag measuring nearly .40) and some road rumble on rougher pavement surfaces. Doors slam shut with an authoritative thunk!
Chrysler says the PT easily meets strict European offset crash standards, and the company has thoughtfully made side airbags available to all buyers of the car, rather than just those who pony up the cash for the Limited Edition. In back, four steel crossbars are installed in the rear hatch, designed to absorb crash energy and protect rear seat occupants. But with less than two feet of space between rear passengers' heads and the back window, we wouldn't want to find out how well they perform when a drunk driver slams into an inert Cruiser at anything above walking speed.
Suspended with MacPherson struts up front and a unique twist-beam axle supported by coil springs and incorporating a Watt's linkage in back, the PT Cruiser provides a taut but not punishing ride. The Watt's linkage is used to control lateral loads and reduce excessive body roll. Still, the PT isn't the right choice for carving canyons. With 8.5 inches of wheel travel available and a relatively high center of gravity, the PT does a better job of soaking up the bumps than cutting corners. Similarly, Goodyear Eagle GA tires, sized P205/55R16 on our test car, excel at providing a quiet ride, not thrills in the twisties.
PT Cruiser's brakes are larger than Neon's, but the standard setup remains front vented discs coupled with rear drums. With the optional antilock braking system, buyers get discs all around, as well as low-speed traction control. The pedal on our automatic-equipped test vehicle produced surprisingly good feel and progressive modulation, but we felt it was located too close to the accelerator, making it easy to catch the gas pedal when stepping on the brake. Steering is power rack-and-pinion that exhibited vague on-center feel but direct response off center during our drive.
Our chief complaint about the Cruiser is with the engine. Under the V-shaped hood, packaged nicely and exhibiting bright yellow markings for all service points, is the familiar twin-cam, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine commonly found in base versions of the Cirrus/Breeze/Stratus sedans and short-wheelbase minivans. Tweaked to improve refinement, reduce noise and boost low-end torque, this motor, charged with motivating the 3,100-pound PT, makes 150 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 162 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.
This is not enough power. When mated to a five-speed manual transmission, acceleration from zero to 60 requires 9.5 seconds, according to Chrysler spokespeople. Saddle it with the optional four-speed automatic, and you can expect to tack on another second or so. Add some people, gear, and drive through mountainous terrain, and it's gonna be a long, slow haul. Though rated to produce 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway with an automatic transmission (27 highway with the manual), we drove about 200 miles and used ¾ of a 15-gallon tank of gas, which roughly translates to less than 20 mpg.
We asked Chrysler spokespeople about the corporate 2.7-liter V6, which makes 200 horsepower and would make driving the PT Cruiser thrilling rather than amusing. It won't fit, because there isn't enough space between the front of the car and the firewall. Evidently, engineers are looking at ways to boost power and performance using the 2.4-liter engine, but given the expected popularity of this vehicle with aftermarket tuners, we wouldn't be surprised if numerous turbocharged and supercharged PT Cruisers clog floor space at the 2000 Specialty Equipment Manufacturer's Association trade show in Las Vegas this year. One way or the other, a little extra cash and effort will get you more performance before the end of December. We virtually guarantee it.
As it stands, the PT Cruiser is great fun to look at and sit in, but only mildly satisfying to drive. We drove two versions of the Limited Edition, both manual and automatic, over a wide variety of roads from San Diego eastward into the mountains, and can report that the PT makes a great city car. On the highway, it's loud and tedious to drive. And unless you absolutely must have your gears shifted for you, skip the extra cost slushbox and stick with the stick for better performance, fuel economy, and responsiveness.
Our route wound from sea level to elevations of about 4,500 feet -- high enough to witness snow melting after a harsh winter storm. When revved hard, a regular occurrence on our test drive, the Cruiser's overtaxed engine emits both a whine and a groan, and it's genuinely displeasing to listen to. The automatic transmission shifts crisply enough though, and holds third gear nicely for hill climbing. Try to pass when traveling through thinner air, and you'll get lots of racket from the other side of the firewall accompanied by barely discernable increases in velocity. Again, the solution to this problem is a turbo or supercharger.
At sea level, the PT is noticeably more responsive, especially with the manual transmission. But rowing your own gears isn't wholly satisfying. The self-adjusting clutch feels like it's being forced through a vat of coagulating maple syrup, and the gearbox isn't as precise as many others.
The Cruiser's predominant cornering characteristic is understeer, and if you lift off the throttle in mid-turn, it keeps plowing. Body roll is evident at moderate speeds, and when hustling the PT and exploring the limits of handling, occupants get tossed around quite a bit. Additionally, when you brace your left leg against the door panel for a quick right-hander, it gets mashed into the mesh speaker grille covering. This produces a grimace, not a grin. No, this is a city car, happiest puttering from home to the mall, driven at normal speeds.
That's OK with us, and it's OK with Chrysler. This isn't supposed to be a performance car any more than Buzz Lightyear was a real Space Ranger. It's a family-functional runabout, with style. Starting at about $16,000, the standard model is well equipped, needing only a set of decent wheels to be truly phat. Air conditioning, floor mats, rear defogger, theatre-dimming interior lighting, and premium sound are among the laundry list of standard features.
A sampling of options includes side airbags, overhead display for compass and exterior temperature, power door locks, cargo net, and deep tinted glass. Heated power exterior mirrors, power moonroof, remote keyless entry, power driver's seat height adjuster, and cruise control are also available. Later in the model year, a storage compartment for the space under the front passenger's seat will be available.
Adding one of two packages turns the base PT into a Touring Edition. You can go basic, choosing the option group that includes fog lights, 16-inch alloy wheels, P205/55R16 tires and a touring suspension. Or you can get a luxury touring group with those items plus chrome plating on the wheels, chrome exhaust tip, embroidered floor mats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Buyers of the Limited Edition get all the aforementioned goodies standard, plus articulating headrests and leather upholstery on the seats. All PT Cruisers can be equipped with antilock brakes, a roof rack, and a sound system that includes both cassette and in-dash CD players.
Chrysler spokespeople say that the next logical extension of the Cruiser line would be a performance-oriented GT Cruiser, similar to the concept car that appeared at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year. But first, customer demand must be assessed after the assembly line reaches full capacity in the middle of the summer. PT Cruisers are arriving at dealerships at a trickle as you read this, and if you've got to be the first on your block to own one, you'll likely get gouged by the dealer for the privilege. Since 150,000 will be produced annually, this isn't a limited-production vehicle despite the Limited Edition nomenclature on the tailgates of uplevel models. Be patient, and before you know it, Cruiser-mania will subside and you'll be able to buy one for less than sticker.