New Car/Review

Chrysler

The Chrysler PT Cruiser (2001), What a Way to Go

SEE ALSO: Chrysler Buyer's Guide

By Larry Weitzman

When Chrysler decides to innovate, they innovate. Sixteen years ago it was the minivan, now its innovation is using a design that resembles automobiles from the late 1930s and early postwar designs. Like a great painting, good design is good design and the guys from the late 30s at Ford and Chrysler must have got it right because this new PT (personal transportation) Cruiser is selling like hot dogs at the World Series.

Some buyers have reported paying heavy premiums above sticker for the privilege of ownership. When the supply catches up with demand that phenomenon should abate, but this week's Road Beat is certainly not going to help matters, as this is one trick automobile/truck.

That's right, it is classified as a truck by the EPA. That means that with the new truck CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards for light trucks, this PT Cruiser definitely helps raise their average, a double benefit for Chrysler.

Creating a new concept like the Cruiser was nothing less than a stroke of genius. Everyone has their opinion as the which car it was designed after. A 1937 Plymouth, a 1946 Ford or an amalgamation of many cars from the late 30s and 40s. Whatever the origin, the result is a car/truck that is patently beautiful and cute. This is an instant cult car that has real practicality. The hood has a little feel of the Prowler, just wider and shorter.

Fenders are defined, but integrate smoothly into the body. There are no free standing headlights or headlight bulges, but instead high tech jeweled glass units that fit flush in the fenders. And do they work. This thing could be used for tennis court lighting. The windshield which looks more on the vertical, actually is quite swept back. In the cab forward tradition of Chrysler, the windshield base extends far into the hood.

Bulging fenders give way to a lower rocker panel that gives the feel of a running board and the rear fenders have a streamlined shape that have integrated taillights. Outside of the fenders and rocker panels the body is really quite simple. The shape of the hood flows directly into the body, there are no other lines or ridges. The entire body is encircled by a single indention line that runs from the hood joint where it lifts up, just above the door handles, through the gas door and around the smooth tailgate. The entire shape is about as perfect as you can get. The Cruiser will soon come in a panel truck.

It sits tall at 63 inches, but it is 5.6 inches shorter than its distant cousin, the Neon, at 168.8 inches. Width is only 67.1 inches. But its solid nature belies its one failing, avoir du pois. At 3,184 pounds the Cruiser is nearly 500 pounds heavier than its larger in length cousin, the Neon.

With an engine borrowed from the Voyager minivan, Stratus and Breeze, the 2.4L DOHC 16 valve inline four makes good power. But don't be racing any street rods for pinks, or you will soon be walking. At 150 hp at 5,600 rpm and 162 pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm, this midsize four (based on the 119 cubic feet of passenger volume) does a good job at faking it when you see the performance numbers below. And by the way, with balance shafts, its a very smooth runner with none of the buzziness associated with some other inline fours. It was refined at any speed, even at the rev limiter and 6,300 rpm.

Cog swapping is done through either a five speed manual or a four speed automatic. Unless your left foot is broken, go with the five speed and its relatively short chrome shifter topped with an ivory "cue" ball etched with the tranny pattern. It has a very smooth positive feel and shifts can be made effortlessly and very quickly. The clutch is light and progressive.

Performance is actually better than other small four cylinder vehicles, with 0-60 coming up in just 9.01 seconds. And it feels strong. Mashing the go pedal in first or second will reward the driver and passenger(s) with solid and strong thrust. Passing performance is more than adequate with 50-70 coming up in just 5.51 seconds and a steep grade will slow that time by exactly 4 seconds (9.51). All the passing times were done using third gear. Since second gear is good up to about 57 mph at redline, using second and third will not improve these times. Add about two seconds to the 0-60 times for the automatic. Passing times should remain close to the five speed manual.

Rumor had it that there would be a V-6 coming in the form of the 200 hp 2.7L base engine used in the LH cars. I don't know where they would put it. The engine compartment only has enough left over space for keeping a slice of bread warm (maybe). But in Mexico, they bolt a turbo and intercooler to this same motor on the Stratus which adds 18 hp and 52 pounds of torque. That would be nice and hopefully doable. But the good news, is that this Cruiser performs very nicely just the way it is. It is anything but underpowered, even considering its hotrod looks. But the aftermarket will more than likely take care of those who want more power.

Fuel economy is rated at 20/26 for the manual. I only got about 20 mpg, but I was also dipping well into the throttle during most of the test and spent little time on the freeway and lots of time at the malt shop.

Stopping power is excellent. With the antilock brake option ($790) comes four wheel discs with front vented rotors. If the accel rate isn't good enough for you, the decel rate is most certain to impress. The Cruiser was able to stop from 40 mph is less than 45 feet under perfect control. Very impressive.

Underneath the front end you'll find MacPherson struts, coils, shocks and an antiroll bar. In the rear is a really trick set up for a live axle. It's uses a twist beam located by two trailing arms and a Watts linkage for control with shocks and coils that don't intrude into the cargo or passenger compartment. Even without intrusive strut towers, rear wheel travel is listed at an impressive 8.5 inches. An antiroll bar finishes off the rear.

My test car came with the touring suspension which includes slightly firmer spring rates and shock valving along with 205/55X16 inch tires and wheels. But don't let the touring moniker fool you into thinking the ride will be anything but harsh or too firm. It isn't. In fact, its one of the best small car rides I have ever encountered. This car isn't good because of its trick retro body, it's good notwithstanding the fabulous shape.

On Ponderosa Road it excelled, soaking up the washboard and bumps better than a Brawny paper towel does in TV commercials. The body was rock solid, with excellent noise isolation. Handling in the two 90 degree bumpy corners was near perfect, holding its line perfectly with the rear tires always maintaining contract with the road at a speed I rather not divulge. In spite of its tall nature, body roll is keep to a minimum.

On the twisties of Green Valley, Latrobe and Cold Springs the Cruiser handled smoothly with very nice transitions. The power rack and pinion steering was just right in effort levels and nicely balanced with excellent feed back. It is fun in the twisties with a performance level far better than expected.

On the highway, the PT is a real cruiser. It is quieter and smoother than expected. It absorbs small imperfections easily and keeps its passengers coddled in real comfort. 70 mph will produce 3,000 rpm on the tach, but the cruiser remains placid. This would be an enjoyable long distance traveler.

If you like the outside, you are going to love the inside. First is the room and the versatility. It has umpteen loading options. My test rig was the Limited Edition (I think they are all limited right now) which means leather and suede trim. The front chairs are very comfortable. Even the door paneling, while somewhat hard, is very stylish.

The dash is a three hole retro affair and looks to be surrounded in body painted metal which is actually plastic, but it looks good. The dash is hard, but it has nice look to it, so much so I kept touching it to see if it was soft. In the center hole is a plainly readable speedo flanked by a tach in the right hole and a grouped temp and fuel gauge in the left.

In the center is the vertical stack which looks like a large pod containing the power window switches for the front windows, the AC and radio which came with CD/cassette and equalizer ($225 option). The sound was excellent and fitting with the Cruiser's nature. The center console has the gear shifter, cupholders, coin storage and other nooks and crannies. At the rear of the center console are the window switches for the rear passengers, easily accessible to the front seaters and the rear passengers. Without a duplication of switches, Chrysler must be saving money, an issue will get to later.

The rear seat is huge. Plenty of room for guys 6 foot three with plenty of headroom and legroom. It is set up with split folding 65/35 seatbacks. You can put both seats flat, or take them out. The right front seat folds flat which gives enough room for a surfboard or an eight foot ladder. This Cruiser has more utility in 168 inches than any other car/truck I have ever encountered. With the rear seats out, it can carry two bikes upright.

When opening the rear liftgate you will be greeted with a tray that can be positioned high to act as a modesty panel for a private trunk. It can be pulled part way out and serve as a table for a tail gate party or it can be placed in a lower position. There is a power outlet and side wall cubbies for more stuff. If this thing gets four wheel drive, it will become the best selling sport ute of all time, if people don't considered it that already. There is very little I can find wrong with this car/truck other than the desire to have it perform like a Prowler instead of the Cruiser. But wait there's more.

The best news of all is the pricing. For what you get, this car is inexpensive. The base sticker price is only $15,935 and that includes things like power windows and AC. Add $565 for the trucker. My tester was equipped perfectly with quick order package 27G which includes leather, moonroof, side air bags, chrome 16 inch wheels, touring package, cruise and more. 27G sells for a net of $3,360. There were two more options on my vehicle that are, one very important, the other is for music.

ABS with four wheel disc brakes is worth every penny of the $595 and the radio with a CD and cassette is another $225. But the standard unit comes with CD changer controls, so an after market unit with a changer may be a better way to go.

The total price os my tester was $20,680. The four speed automatic will cost another $825. This Cruiser is a bargain considering what you get. It's fun to drive, has copious amounts of room, it's more versatile than a Swiss Army Knife and it's reasonably economical.

Shingle Springs Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge has had a few PT Cruisers but they don't last long, maybe a nanosecond. This is a unique motor vehicle that does many things well, with looks that don't come any better at a price that makes it a bargain at list. Let's hope the factory doesn't go on strike (it's in Toluca, Mexico) and there are enough auto workers to work three shifts a day. I want one, too. I hope Chrysler doesn't forget about the turbo charger and all wheel drive.

Specifications

Price              $16,500 to about $21,000

Engine
Inline four cylinder      150 hp @ 5,600 rpm
DOHC 16 valve             162 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm

Transmission
five speed manual

four speed electronically
controlled automatic

Configuration
transverse front engine
front wheel drive   

Dimensions
Wheelbase            103.0  inches
Length               168.8  inches
Width                67.1   inches
Height               63.0   inches
Weight               3,184  pounds
Track (f/r)          58.3/58.2  inches
Fuel Capacity        15.0   gallons   
Wheel size           16x5   inches
Tire size            205/55X16
Turning Circle       36.5   feet  (manual transaxle)
Coefficient of drag  0.398

Performance
0-60               9.01  seconds
50-70              5.51  seconds
50-70 uphill       9.51  seconds
Top Speed          Plenty fast and well into the triple
                     digits
Fuel Economy       EPA rated at 20/26 mpg city/highway.
                     Expect 20-22 mpg in El Dorado County and
                     26 plus mpg on the highway at legal
                     speeds.

 

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