It's easy to be dazzled by outward appearances. Witness the puzzling popularity of Britney Spears. Witness the glitzy glamour of Las Vegas. Witness the rapture caused by the Chrysler PT Cruiser's debut at the 1999 Detroit auto show. Chrysler's announcement that it would start production in the spring of 2000 caused a traffic jam at dealerships as potential buyers queued up to place their orders. Eager customers anxiously waited months for their cars to be delivered.
We weren't so easily blinded, however. We placed our order and, our anticipation tinged with a healthy dose of skepticism, awaited the arrival of our Four Seasons PT Cruiser. Yes, the PT was striking (in a 1937 Ford/London taxicab kind of way), but we wanted to see whether this cute little toon car could endure twelve months in the hands of our hard-driving staff. We knew that Chrysler's reputation for quality, especially in brand-new models, had been sketchy. We knew that underneath the sheetmetal lived some of the underpinnings of the humble Dodge Neon. We wanted to find out if this Chrysler worked as well as its cutting-edge design promised.
Right out of the gate, it became obvious that the PT's retro sheetmetal, while its most noticeable feature, actually distracted us from what is the vehicle's strong point: its overall packaging. Road test coordinator Monte Doran detailed the car's merits in the very first logbook entry: "The PT is an ingenious exercise in packaging. The exterior is fairly petite, and as a result, the vehicle is easy to wheel around. Yet it feels enormous in-side. The tall roof line and straight sides make for a large, open greenhouse. The cargo area is very spacious, particularly so because the clever package shelf effectively doubles your rear floor space."
In fact, the PT's overall length is only 168.8 inches, so it takes up less room in the garage than would either the Ford Focus or the Neon, yet the numerous configurations (twenty-six, according to Chrysler) create a cargo capacity that rivals those of sport-utes and minivans. The rear seats can be folded down, flipped up, or removed. The front passenger's backrest can be folded forward to make room for long items such as an eight-foot ladder, and not only is the cargo shelf height-adjustable, but it can be removed and used as a picnic table or as a carrying tray for messy items such as outdoor plants.
The PT's seats were almost unanimously praised for comfort and ease of entry and exit. Chief copy editor Wendy Keebler lauded the high seating position: "Visibility from a vehicle is very important to me, and the high-feeling position helps enormously." After a trip from New York to Detroit, motor gopher Tony Quiroga declared: "The PT's seats are so comfortable, I could sit in them all day." We trust Quiroga on that, as he logged more consecutive miles behind the wheel of the PT than anyone, with a round trip to California to go along with the New York trek.
We weren't nearly as unanimous in our opinions about the design and quality of the Cruiser's interior. Half of our drivers agreed with Doran, who called the interior "appallingly cheap. Everything within sight looks cheap and tacky." But editor-in-chief Jean Jennings voiced the opinions of others that "fit and finish are really well done, and surfacing is basically attractive." What can't be argued is that, whether it pleased us aesthetically or not, the interior held up well over more than 31,000 miles. At the end of the test, we detected no squeaks or rattles, and the trim pieces all stayed firmly in place. In fact, the whole car still felt solid after twelve months, a testament to its build quality and a reason to believe that Chrysler's past initial quality problems are being addressed within their new-vehicle programs.
Most of our negative feedback on the PT Cruiser had to do with the engine. The 150-horsepower, sixteen-valve four-cylinder, while not exactly underpowered, is raspy and coarse, especially when compared with the more refined four-cylinder engines from Chrysler's Japanese and German competitors. It helped that we opted for the five-speed manual transmission, which allowed us to keep the peak power within easy reach. Our reaction likely would have been different had our car been equipped with the automatic tranny. It also would have been different if we'd waited until this summer for the PT Cruiser GT and its 205-horsepower, 2.4-liter turbo four (see Driven, page 106).
On the ride-and-handling front, there were those who felt the suspension was tuned a little too harshly, but no real complaints were registered. In fact, the handling quotient hardly mustered any attention whatsoever, perhaps telling us something about the appeal (or lack thereof) that this car has for enthusiast drivers. Executive editor Mark Gillies summed it up: "It is a nice, very usable, solid small car that steers, rides, and stops nicely but doesn't display the depth of ability that the [Ford] Focus does." So, while it might not light the enthusiast's fire, the PT won't exactly throw a wet blanket on it, either.
One thing that's definitely appealing about the PT Cruiser is its price. With a base sticker of only $15,935 plus $565 destination charge, we piled on the options and still barely broke the $20,000 barrier. Air conditioning and power windows are standard, to which we added the Preferred package (which included power locks, heated rear-view mirrors, and a fold-flat front seat); the Luxury Touring Group (sixteen-inch aluminum wheels and tires, a touring suspension, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel); and a handful of other goodies such as ABS, side air bags, and an in-dash CD player.
Save for one mishap that was entirely our fault, out-of-pocket expenses for the year were a paltry $300.99, the cost of four scheduled maintenance visits. However, the mishap in question was a costly one--$3131.13, to be exact. To make a long story short, we'll quote directly from the service invoice: "Driving down road, hit a raccoon, damaged front lower spoiler and knocked off a hose. Lost oil. Gauges came on. Customer drove until died. Towed in." Yes, we're embarrassed.
For the 2002 model year, changes are minimal. A flame paint job is available from the factory in four exterior color choices, just in case your local paint shop has a waiting list. A CD player is now standard, as is an underseat storage bin and a passenger's-side armrest (this seemingly minor bit of cost cutting had been annoying both to us and to our readers).
In twelve months, our Chrysler PT Cruiser proved itself to be a very reliable, very useful, very affordable "Personal Transportation" vehicle. One can't help but wonder, though, now that all the hoopla has died down and the waiting list is a thing of the past, whether the PT's star will continue to shine. No longer a novelty, the PT will need to prove itself on the vehicular stage not only as a design exercise but as a great small car. With the new GT, Chrysler has shown that it's willing to invest in the PT program, but it still has some work to do in engine refinement, ride and handling, and interior material quality to match the very best small cars in the world.