Chrysler combined retro styling with comfort and versatility to make the PT Cruiser a head-turning favorite.
By Jim Brightly
Chrysler’s neat little PT Cruiser is a hit wherever it’s driven. In fact, here’s something to consider if you’re thinking about buying one: do so only if you really enjoy talking with strangers. Young and old alike will approach you in gas stations and restaurant parking lots with questions such as: “How do you like it?” “Does it drive as neat as it looks?” “What kind of mileage does it get?”
What was first known as the Pronto Cruizer during its infancy grew up to become the PT Cruiser and has flooded the nation’s highways with its retro look. According to Chrysler, since the PT Cruiser’s production launch in February 2000, more than 310,000 of the cars have been sold worldwide, including 157,000 sold in North America in 2001. Initially, dealers attached premiums to the car’s price, but now the pipeline is full, and you can find some deals if you take the time to look. Speaking of looks, the PT Cruiser has a distinctive, unique, and — at least to these eyes — cool appearance.
But how does the PT Cruiser work as a towed vehicle with all four tires on the ground? When equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, it can be towed behind a motorhome with no factory restrictions as to distance or speed. PT Cruisers with the optional four-speed automatic transmission cannot be flat towed without modifications.
My interest in the PT Cruiser was sparked after seeing so many of these retro rods being flat towed behind motorhomes during FMCA’s convention last summer in Redmond, Oregon. So we decided to test one and find out why it has become such a popular automobile.
First, the PT Cruiser has plenty of charm. With rounded fenders, a sloping grille, and an elegantly designed liftgate, the PT Cruiser’s features are reminiscent of an era that produced cars that you loved — and still do. Fortunately, the PT Cruiser is as practical as it is stylish. With 120.2 cubic feet of interior space, it offers nearly endless versatility to pack, stow, and carry almost anything. Much effort was put into perfecting the functionality and design of the PT Cruiser’s cabin.
An errand here, a tour there — it all adds up to spending time in your towed vehicle. And any time you’re behind the wheel, you should feel safe and secure. Chrysler engineers spent considerable time making sure that the PT Cruiser offers many of the advanced safety features available. These include Next Generation driver and passenger front air bags, which deploy less forcefully than prior air bags. Head-impact provisions also are built into the upper trim panels to help protect occupants in the event of a collision. The available seat-mounted supplemental side air bags for front occupants provide additional head and thorax protection for the driver and the front-seat passenger in a side-impact collision.
In order to encourage seat belt usage, the seat belt cluster lamp now stays on after the engine starts and until the driver buckles up. In the event of a collision that causes air bag deployment (with the electrical system still intact), an Enhanced Accident Response System switches on the dome lamp and unlocks the doors (if equipped with power locks) to help emergency personnel render appropriate assistance. Front seat belts include height-adjustable turning loops and traveling inboard buckles for added comfort. A user-ready child seat system featuring lower anchors and top tether anchors minimizes child seat movement for all rear seating positions. Remember, a backseat is the safest place for children 12 and under. And always have your rear passengers use their seat belts, no matter their age.
The PT Cruiser is able to carry objects up to 8 feet long with the liftgate closed. Its secret is a fold-flat front passenger seat along with a rear seat that can be folded flat, folded and tumbled forward, or removed. Take along a passenger to help you load and unload and you still have a spacious 64.2 cubic feet of interior cargo room, with the rear seat removed.
The PT Cruiser’s 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine is a model of quiet, well-mannered behavior. Twin balance shafts, a cast-iron bedplate across the bottom of the engine, and a stiffer than normal body structure work harmoniously to make this smallish four-cylinder feel more like a medium-sized V-6 engine in routine driving. The five-speed manual transmission offers nicely coordinated gear ratios and is a pleasure to use with a fairly short throw between gear gates.
In spite of its 3,160-pound weight (with fuel tank filled), the PT Cruiser accelerated to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds. Thanks to a new intake manifold design that emphasizes low-end punch, there’s no need to grab for the gearshift to pass in traffic. In other words, most owners will never miss the lack of a V-6 upgrade in this machine. Driving style can greatly affect mileage on the PT Cruiser. Although we averaged 23.8 mpg during our 1,700-mile trip, the mileage ranged between a high of 27.0 mpg to a low of 19.9 mpg.
For those who must have more muscle under the hood, look for a more powerful PT Cruiser in showrooms this fall with the introduction of the 2003 PT Turbo. Equipped with a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the PT Turbo creates 215 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 245 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm.
Quick steering provides agile response and better than average feedback from the road. In spite of its rather small size, the PT Cruiser was amazingly comfortable for both the driver and the front-seat passenger throughout the long-distance driving evaluation, which was accomplished over a long weekend.
Flat towing the PT Cruiser with the manual five-speed transmission is quite easy. Simply put the ignition key in the “off” position and place the gearshift lever into “neutral.” Hook up the towed vehicle to your motorhome and you’re on your way. The vehicle may be towed at any legal highway speed, and there is no distance limit. As noted earlier, PT Cruisers equipped with the optional four-speed automatic transmission cannot be flat towed with four wheels on the ground unless modifications are made.
Some purchases in life are driven by forces beyond our control, with our only justification being “It’s so cool.” While there’s no doubt that the PT Cruiser is definitely cool, it also has the performance and versatility to make it a terrific towed vehicle.
2002 PT Cruiser Touring Edition
Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 150 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 162 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
0-60 mph: 9.5 seconds
Transmission: 5-speed manual with overdrive
Wheelbase: 103 inches
Mileage: 23.8 mpg as tested; EPA average — 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway
Fuel capacity: 15 gallons
Weight: 3,160 pounds as tested (fuel tank full)
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Base MSRP: $16,990
MSRP as tested: $20,040
The attention-getting PT Cruiser went topless at the 2001 New York International Auto Show. That’s when Chrysler designers showcased the Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible Styling Study, a radical interpretation of the popular vehicle. Starting in 2004, the soft-top version of the auto will go from a designer’s dream to a production reality when the first convertible PT Cruisers hit dealer showrooms.
The announcement, which was made on March 4, 2002, at the 2002 Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland, followed nearly a full year of public interest in the rag-top PT Cruiser. “We were overwhelmed by the positive consumer and media response when we took the wraps off the original Convertible Styling Study,” said Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler group president and CEO. “In fact, an Internet poll taken immediately after the unveiling showed that almost 90 percent loved the vehicle and begged us to build it.”
The Convertible Styling Study required Chrysler engineers to modify the standard PT Cruiser in several areas. After designers lowered the header and roof and resculpted the rear wheel flares, the styling study began to take on a new personality. The two-door PT Cruiser Convertible Styling Study featured a new rear quarter panel to accommodate the newly designed longer doors. To further enhance the design study’s exterior, body-colored bumpers and a chromed-accented grille were included to reinforce its customized look. In addition, the vehicle was lowered by 1.5 inches.
“Many will say the Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible is two vehicles in one,” said Trevor Creed, senior vice president of product design, following the unveiling of the styling study model in New York last year. “It has a certain modern look when the top is down, with its sport bar and long passenger compartment. Yet when up, the top has a slammed-forward retro position, much like a ’30s custom chopped coupe, emulating the tension of a bow being drawn back. Lower, sleeker with even more attitude, the PT Cruiser Convertible Styling Study is the latest example of the fun we can have with the PT Cruiser.”