Cue the shot, drop the top. Chrysler, makers of America's best-selling convertible, the Sebring, adds a new open machine to its lineup: the long-awaited PT Cruiser convertible. Revealed as a design study at the New York auto show in 2001, it took a little longer than expected to materialize, but it's ready to hit the stage at last. It's late, but with PT Cruiser looks, a standard power top, a spacious back seat, and prices beginning at $19,995, you can be sure that there's an audience waiting.
Say what you like about the PT Cruiser, but as the last legacy of the pre-English-as-a-second-language Chrysler, it speaks of a company that did not have any apologizing to do in the creative thinking department. With more than 640,000 built since its spring 2000 introduction, this Neon-based retrovan was a fresh breeze that not only earned its keep in the budgetary scheme of things but also has inspired a fanatical following. Among those following is General Motors, with the upcoming 2006 Chevrolet HHR (for heritage high roof), designed by the PT Cruiser's designer himself, Bryan Nesbitt, who was hired away from Chrysler by GM.
Every car manufacturer struggles to keep sales interest piqued in a new model as the years following its introduction accumulate. This reality seems especially acute for the recent wave of retrostyled vehicles. With a self-selecting and quickly sated audience, new conquests are hard to find. At the same time, these cars are meant to have long life cycles, which leaves their makers time to answer the perplexing question: How do you update something deliberately made to look old?
The PT Cruiser, whose sales declined by more than 20 percent (to 107,759) in the United States in 2003, fell victim to the same malaise Volkswagen suffered a few years back with its retro New Beetle. And, as Volkswagen has found (also belatedly), convertibles can help restore lost volume.
You either like the Cruiser's mini-gangster styling or you don't. We do. As convertibles go, it's a good one for function, with significantly more luggage room and ten inches more rear legroom for its two rear-seat passengers than the open-topped VW, itself sporting more legroom than the Ford Mustang convertible, the PT's other close price competitor. With raised ("theater") seating, life for occupants of the rear seats--usually the most miserable people in any convertible--is less bleak but not perfect. There is a huge "sport bar" (so named by lawyers to minimize its responsibilities in a rollover) to contend with. It helps tie the body together, as well as providing a mooring for seatbelts, overhead lights, and the like. Chrysler says it directs air over passengers' heads when the top is down, but you could have fooled us. When the roof is up, the sport bar is completely encapsulated inside the car, making it seem as if there's a somewhat intrusive, freestanding object directly in front of you. Which there is. (Come to think of it, sports bars are always like that, especially around happy hour.)
The entry-level PT convertible comes packing 150 ponies and a five-speed transmission--a team hard-pressed to motivate the hardtop PT even before it gained the convertible's extra 280 pounds. Next up is the Touring model, with an available 180-horsepower turbo, at $22,900. It splits the difference between the slow and basic base model and the 220-horsepower, high-output GT, which, at $28,155, goes pretty fast but isn't so cheap anymore.
Chrysler has made numerous structural reinforcements in the name of safety, as well as improving ride and handling, in making their little van a convertible, but rough roads set the Cruiser positively aquiver with cowl shake. Faster models also suffer not insubstantially from torque steer.
Not that it really matters. People don't buy PT Cruisers for best-in-class dynamics. They want the style the open-air PT delivers. With the United States and more than thirty other countries in which to sell them, Chrysler's Toluca, Mexico, plant ought to find a home for every one it builds.