Review : 2002 PT Dream Cruiser


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

SEE ALSO: Chrysler Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowden, The Car Place

GOODSTUFF
Funky looks
Functional interior
Good handling
Nicely upholstered
Fun

BAD STUFF

Awkward window switch locations Poor fuel efficiency Wind noise at speed This model is too expensive

Specifications Style: wagon/van/ute/truck/? Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder Transmission: four-speed automatic Drivetrain: front-wheel-drive Horsepower: 150 hp @ 5,200 rpm Torque: 167 ft-lbs. @ 4,000 rpm EPA mileage: 20 city/26 highway Weight: 3,123 lb. Base price: $20,465 Price as tested: $24,220

First, the bottom line

NOTE: Comments expressed about the first-year PT Cruiser, a 2001 model, still apply to this "upscale" 2002 Cruiser. In this review, new comments specific to the Dream Cruiser will appear in boldface, along with new multimedia graphics.

Let's say you're the young executive in charge of Chrysler's exterior vehicle design. Your name is Bryan Nesbitt. And you, Bryan, are charged -- always -- with creating vehicles that excite at least some segment of the auto-buying public.

You have at your disposal teams of talented people to execute your project. But you need the idea. You are the inspiration.

Five years ago, you joined this auto company best-known today for its design prowess. Chrysler, now properly called DaimlerChrysler, has given us the Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler and a whole line of stylish, best-selling minivans. Exciting designs, generally well-executed.

But it has stubbed its toe at other times.

Take the Neon. Please. A Beetle it was not.

Or take the series inspired by looking out the window -- the Stratus, Cirrus and Breeze. None kicked up a storm of admiration, caused a flood of interest, or created an avalanche of buyers in showrooms. For the most part, consumers said hail no.

Time to hit a home run, young man. Time to design something that will bring 'em back to the showrooms. And, oh yeah, use some parts from those Dodge Neon chassis thingys and some minivan engine stuff we have in abundance. It'll save some bucks, you understand.

So you and a buddy sit down and brainstorm. You begin with the knowledge that retro is hot. Not only in cars, either. Retro is hot. What if, you wonder, what if the new design harked back to another time? What if the new design, in fact, could look kind of timeless -- a yesteryear look that works in any tomorrow?

Say hello to the PT Cruiser.

It's that home run you were looking for. Go pick up your bonus, Bryan. You deserve it. You have out-thought the competition and done something special -- created a new category of vehicle that defies conventional labeling.

And, you're going to like this: After a week behind the wheel of a test Cruiser, I can tell you that only the New Beetle drew more admiration in recent years. And that's probably only because seemingly everyone once owned a Beetle and had a story to tell. This never-owned-one-like-it before model enjoyed wide acceptance.

The middle schooler next door greeted the PT Cruiser's arrival with a shout of "Awesome car!"

Retired couples driving massive American iron looked it over carefully and allowed as how they wanted one.

Workers exited work stations to come stare whenever I parked the Cruiser. They all admired it. Not once did anyone say anything derogatory about the styling or practicality of the design.

I have little to add in the way of criticism. Chrysler, you've done a great job and you should sell every one of these that your factories can produce.

It's a winner in every way.

What a difference a year makes. Yes, Bryan, you were so successful with the original Cruiser that you became a hot property and you jumped ship to General Motors, where ex-Chrysler guy Bob Lutz is trying to turn around a Titanic bureaucracy. Good luck, Bryan. Can you say "Committee rules"?

Meanwhile, back at what we still can't bring ourselves to call "DaimlerChrysler," what passes for management must have kicked themselves 10,000 times when talking about the PT Cruiser.

"What were we thinking?" they must have screamed over and over. "We could have sold that stinkin' car for $20,000 base! Ooooo. Our quarterlies would have gone through the roof. The Wall Street collapse would not have happened. Our golden parachutes would have gone platinum."

And so they huddled and came up with a new game plan, post Bryan.

"Special" Cruisers would turn what is essentially a decent mid-teens car into a mid-$20s profit machine.

Enter the PT Dream Cruiser.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this strategy. Almost every automaker employs it. VW stood back and watched the New Beetle soar off showrooms and then began planning a speed model with a turbocharged engine, a diesel, a convertible. Nothing wrong here. But "special" models usually are really special in some way.

With the Dream Cruiser -- as far as I could tell from a week of testing -- the special stuff -- basically -- includes gold paint and a two-tone interior treatment festooned with special badging.

Under the hood and under the passenger compartment, it's a $16,000 station wagon.

The $16,000 wagon carries a $25,000 price tag.

"Now we're talking proifit margin! What fools we were."

Safety The PT Cruiser looks BIG in photographs. It's not, really. It's big inside, small outside. That makes for easy driving around town, easy parking and turning, but raises safety concerns among some.

But even though the Cruiser is loosely based on a Dodge Neon platform, it's no Neon. The Neon is a true lightweight at under 2,600 pounds, while the Bruiser, er Cruiser, weighs in at 3,123 pounds.

The extra weight adds a bit of force in any two-vehicle impact, making you as much a butter as a buttee.

Air bags are standard and child seat anchors are neatly built-in. But anti-lock brakes are a you-need-'em $790 option. With that hefty price tag, you get superior rear disc brakes instead of the standard, somewhat smallish drum brakes. Side air bags are also an option, which our tester had at $350.

Seat belts are located at all five passenger positions, but the center position in the second row lacks a head restraint. Visibility is good, without major blind spots for the driver.

So far so good. But the prospect of fire -- something reviewers rarely consider in any fashion -- reared its head with the PT Cruiser. You see, I scorched the headliner. Ooooo. Yes, I did.

At night, I was using movie lights inside the car for a shooting session when I heard this hiss-sizzle sound and saw smoke wafting in front of my camera. A movie light between the front seats had generated enough heat to scorch the headliner inches above it, without coming into contact with the headliner.

The resulting burn was not pretty. It quickly disintegrated layers almost to the metal roof.

Just how fast would this thing burn?

Too fast is the answer for this and almost all vehicles. How many times have you seen a vehicle fully engulfed in flames, the upholstery fueling a conflagration begun, almost always, from a source outside the passenger compartment area? If interiors were essentially fireproof, spilled-fuel fires or engine fires might be kept outside, and rescuers would have more time to get to those trapped inside.

The cost to fireproof vehicle interiors? Negligible. Fireproof upholstery is not much more expensive than standard cloth. Ditto the materials inside seats. And used for headliners. Why not use fireproof materials in vehicles (which can be thought of as rolling bombs, with the detonator in front of you and the explosive just under your rear end!)?

Someone will do so first and the rest of the automotive world will lamely fall in line 'cause they have to. In less than 10 years, fireproofing of interiors will be expected and tests will record survival times for those trapped in a flaming vehicle.

In fact, I'd like to see the feds add fire as another safety test. Use the standard blowtorch on the interior and separate the out-of-controls-in-a-flash from the I'm-safer-than-you vehicles.

A headliner just doesn't have to be scorched by a light inches away. Fact is, it doesn't have to burn, at all.

ADDENDUM: After this review was written, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) crash-tested a PT Cruiser -- and the results were not encouraging. The Cruiser earned only two stars for protecting the driver in a frontal crash. That's poor by NHTSA standards. The Cruiser did much better in the side-impact test, earning a top five stars for the rear seat area.

But two stars is not acceptable. Note that NHTSA does not explain exactly why a particular rating is given. The passenger compartment of the Cruiser looks intact after the 35 mile-per-hour head-on into a barrier, so we can only assume the crash dummy's head struck something.

The Dream Cruiser model adds side air bags for driver and front seat passenger, but continues anti-lock brakes as an option. Only this time, ABS comes as part of a $2,340 option package called "customer preferred." Essentially, this package is what makes a Cruiser a Dream Cruiser. Almost everything that is "special" is part of this expensive package. And the automatic transmission listed as standard on the Dream Cruiser is a mandatory $825 extra-cost item.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety still has not crash-tested a PT Cruiser, so we have only the poor federal results to consider. They are discouraging, to say the least.

Handling The '40s' vehicles that the PT Cruiser most resembles were not exactly handlers.

When car enthusiasts discovered the relics in the '50s and turned them into street rods, it took more than a little work to make these cars handle and brake. Today's PT Cruiser is a far cry from the retro cars it resembles. This one handles, right off the showroom floor.

With wheels extended to the corners, the PT Cruiser bites into a curve and asks "how fast?" It stays flat through the curve and the optional 16-inch wheels and larger tires provide good grip.

Our tester also had the four-disc, anti-lock brake setup that matched braking with handling. That most likely cannot be said of the base model, lacking both tires and brakes for performance handling duties.

The steering is properly firm and the Cruiser centered well at highway speeds. But that's hardly its forte, and it's breathing heavy past 70 miles an hour. There is NO instantaneous passing power at those speeds.

Cruising an interstate is done at 3,000 rpm or more, contributing to relatively lousy fuel economy for a car of this size, powered by a four-cylinder. I mean, the 2001 Z06 Corvette is powered by a 5.7-liter V8, produces 385 horsepower, weighs the same as the Cruiser, zaps to 60 mph in 4 seconds flat, yet delivers 28 miles to a gallon at cruising speed. And this little scooter gets 26? (The Dream Cruiser was even worse: 19/25 and the actual highway mileage was 22 mpg.)

And that's maximum. The competition at this level? Recall that a tested diesel VW Beetle returned a 52-mpg average for a 1,600-mile vacation trip.

It's not only gear ratios that fight fuel economy. This thing is a flying brick, returning a 0.38 coefficient of drag that would look good only attached to a Jeep Wrangler or Hummer.

But around town, the PT Cruiser owner will be pleased. Steering, parking, braking .. all is pleasant and easy. And its skidpad rating of .86g is outstanding.

Handling feels unchanged with the Dream Cruiser, although it has a "sport suspension" as standard equipment. For its pathetic horsepower output, the handling is more than a match.

Performance Let's not confuse the PT Cruiser with a hot rod, shall we?

It certainly looks like something from a Henry Gregor Felson novel, but performance figures don't lie. Zero-to-60 in more than 8 seconds? This is a cruiser, not a racer.

Let's put it this way: Bonnie and Clyde would not choose this to flee bank robberies.

Or put it this way: PT could stand for Pretty Tame.

But it's also obvious what Chrysler can do with future Cruisers. The company is already showing a 200-horsepower, turbocharged model called the GT Cruiser. Just as VW took its precious time in turbocharging the Beetle, so Chrysler is likely to proceed slowly with changes to the Cruiser.

For most folks, however, this 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is sufficient.

And aftermarket parts makers are probably salivating over the idea that young people may once again get involved in, as they did in the '50s, customizing and "souping up" PT Cruisers. The PT is, after all, "personal transportation".

I'd begin modifications with the muffler. It's much too quiet. Where's the Cherry Bomb? Where's the Abarth? Let's have some sound! The Cruiser's exhaust sound is like .. playing a Whitney Houston song as low background music. Seems wrong somehow.

This chassis with its wide stance and reasonable wheelbase could easily handle additional horses. More horses is a no-brainer, in fact. Look for Chrysler to follow VW down the road to higher performance.

The five-speed manual transmission that is standard is easy to use, with a light clutch and sure shifts. Topping the shifter is a white cue ball, similar to ones hot rodders loved in the '50s. Only thing missing here is a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror (and, actually, that would have been an ingenious touch, much as VW put a flower vase on the dash of its New Beetle).

The automatic transmission that comes with the Dream Cruiser adds a discordant note to the interior design. The oh-so-perfect cue ball has been replaced by a gear selector straight from a Dodge Intrepid. Ugh and yuck. This makes two really lousy design elements that Bryan probably shudders at. The radio bears no resemblance to any retro model -- as it should. It's parts-bin stuff and looks out of place.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if these cars are not only customized -- flame-painted, louvers punched in the hoods, Moon disks on the wheels, Lakes plugs under the rocker panels, etc. -- but spawn a new category for racing. Retro-looking cars made a stab at racing not long ago, but Cruisers can do more than that once thousands are in the hands of consumers. And consumers love to identify with race cars. The economics will soon be in place.

Below are figures from computer-testing the 2001 PT Cruiser.

PT Cruiser Performance/Handling Data

Acceleration (mph) 0-30 0-40 0-50 0-60 0-70 0-80 0-90 0-100 Elapsed time (secs) 2.5 4.5 6.1 8.8 11.4 14.7 20.5 27.2 Top speed 116 mph Quarter mile 16.6 @ 82.2 mph Slalom 61.3 mph Lateral acceleration .86 g

Comfort

The retro style attracts, but it's the comfort and functionality of the PT Cruiser that will win over converts. No small vehicle matches the versatility of this one.

In fact, what do you call this thing?

For emissions purposes, the federal government says it's a car.

For fuel economy purposes, a different agency of the same government says it's a truck. And that obviously allows Chrysler to achieve an earth-unfriendly 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. That is shameful fuel inefficiency from a four-cylinder engine. Real-world performance doesn't even match these awful estimates from EPA. In exclusive interstate driving, with cruise control in use, the Dream Cruiser could only average 22 mpg, measured from two full tanks of gas consumed.

I say it looks like a funky station wagon. And I want a woodie version! (There is now a "woodie" Cruiser option, but it's not nearly as attractive as this photo-generated one. The Chrysler version looks like they adherred drawer liner paper on the Cruiser.) But it could replace a minivan, a compact sport utility or even some trucks. Plus, it would make a smashing London taxi.

Whatever it's labeled, call it superbly designed -- outside and in. True then, mostly true now.)

That retro look extends to the chrome door handles operated by push buttons. On the rear hatch is the old Chrysler logo, and a lift tab opens the hatch. The optional roof rack at $140 can be slid to the rear, where it acts as kind of a spoiler, or separated to support a bicycle, kayak or skiis.

But moving one bar to the front creates a wind howl so loud you'll swear a hurricane is brewing outside. You'll quickly move the offending bar to the rear of the vehicle. Heck, even without the bar noise, the PT Cruiser has serious wind noise problems. You can thank styling that is anything but aerodynamic. You'll live with the noise 'cause you love the look of the Cruiser.

The Dream Cruiser's mandatory option package includes a sliding sunroof, which eliminates the roof rack. This kind of tradeoff will be unacceptable to some.

Head room and foot room at every passenger position is terrific. Entry and exit is super easy and the rear doors open very wide. The driver sits high, as in a sport utility, with a commanding view of the road ahead. Rear visibility is surprisingly good (thanks in part to an absence of a head restraint in the middle of the second row of seats).

This interior looks good. But look closely and you might discover problems, as I did. Both rear seat head restraints had come apart at their bases. Revealed were cheap plastic closure devices with a life expectancy of get-it-out-of-the-showroom. We are left to guess if other cost-cutting measures will haunt Cruiser owners in the next year.

The dash looks suitably retro and most controls are readily at hand. There are two "power outlets" (Chrysler doesn't call them cigarette lighters anymore, since its cigar-chomping chairman retired).

But the power window switches seem clearly an afterthought. Crank windows would have been fine, but someone decided power windows should be standard. The only place to locate the switches was -- two places. The set that controls the front windows is dead center atop the console in the middle of the dash. The set controlling the rear windows is at the extreme rear of the console, down almost on the floor. Both sets are convenient to no one.

The power window controls are still poorly located in the Dream Cruiser. A rear seat passenger accidentally stepped on the rear controls and popped open a window, much to her surprise.

Our Touring Edition model was full-featured at $19,820. About the only desirable item we didn't have for testing is a $1,800 navigation system with its screen atop the console. Our tester did have a compass and outside temperature indicator near the rear view mirror.

The seats can be folded or removed or configured in any of 25 ways. A rear shelf can be set at any one of three levels, or removed altogether. It's perfect for tailgating parties and will hold up to 100 pounds of stuff.

Finally, the PT Cruiser handled all manner of road surfaces without punishing those inside or isolating the driver from road feel.

The Dream Cruiser, as might be expected, adds luxury touches to the basic Cruiser. The color, for instance, is special, called Inca Gold. Inside, the upholstery has become an attractive gold and gray combination. It's not quite as neat as a retro-looking rolled and pleated Naughahyde would have been, but it's close.

Take a look around in this interactive 360-degree view. Note the absence of a head restraint at the rear center position, the clever design of the air conditioning vents and steering wheel, and the out-of-place gear selector.

There's also a 360-degree exterior walkaround of the Dream Cruiser from this link. Place your cursor inside the loaded image and drag left or right to move around the Cruiser on a rain-dampened cul de sac street. (Requires QuickTime)

Parting Shots Oh yes, this is one cool vehicle. It's a clear winner for Chrysler.

Style. Versatility. Good handling. Comfort. Convenience. And the price is definitely right. Well ... that was true for the base Cruiser. Not true for this model.

If you want one, get ready to stand in line. No longer true. Chrysler initially saw the PT Cruiser as right for Europe and is scheduled to export a significant number of Cruisers it produces here. This year, for instance, it will send abroad 40,000 of its 130,000 production run. Next year, it plans to produce 235,000 PT Cruisers and sell 185,000 through American dealers. There is probably a buyer for every one of them.

So, in the foreseeable future, haggling over the low sticker price seems unlikely. But at least these shouldn't sell for a premium, as Vipers and Prowlers have done.

GEORGE BOB: On value

Other than the pause the crash tests results create, I can give you no good reason not to buy one.

Line up.

PT Cruisers have become so common now that the looks no longer elicit envious stares and shouts of admiration. To have impact today, a PT Cruiser must stand out from the crowd somehow. Certainly, the Inca Gold paint job on the Dream Cruiser stands it apart.

But reaction to that color was mixed. Older folks disliked it, sometimes intensely. Younger people often commented favorably.

In addition to the standout color outside and inside, the Dream Cruiser has special badging on the rear liftgate and floor mats. It comes standard -- in that expensive package that makes it a "Dream" at all -- with a number of semi-luxury items, such as remote keyless entry, cruise control, a decent stereo system, power seats, a compass/temperature display in the rear view mirror, and heated seats.

But all this has taken the price into "serious competition" territory, and the Cruiser doesn't compete well there. Compare feature for feature and the Cruiser has only its unusual appearance as a trumping attraction. If that's enough for you, the Cruiser is a fine vehicle; the Dream Cruiser is the best equipped Cruiser.

But my hunch is many buyers are waiting for a Cruiser that matches its bruiser looks with much, much higher performance. Since the Prowler is disappearing after this year, and since the Prowler is rear-wheel drive with a V6, why not sculpt a Cruiser body onto that drivetrain?

'Nuff said.

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