2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser GT

Don Sherman
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Richard Newton

Phoenix, Arizona-- JFK's popular notions about the corruptive aspects of power don't apply to motor vehicles, because power tops our list of vital automotive attributes. Too much is just barely enough.

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Take Chrysler's PT Cruiser--as more than 300,000 sports fans have done since the PT's launch two years ago. Now that the waiting time is down to "What color would you like, sir?" Chrysler is ready to escalate the Cruiser's vitality. Beginning this summer, you'll be able to say, "Make mine a GT," a move that adds a turbocharger, an air-to-air intercooler, and an extra 55 horses under the hood. The increased urge is delivered to the front wheels by a husky Getrag five-speed manual transmission. This fall, those with a need for speed but a lazy left foot will be appeased by an AutoStick manu-matic option.

The GT Cruiser, as the car will surely be known on the street, if not in the brochures, is hardly a quickie, turbo-kit concoction. The engineering punch list includes an 8.1:1 compression ratio, new pistons and connecting rods for added durability, internal oil jets to cool the pistons, a bedplate for extra crankshaft support, exhaust piping half an inch larger in diameter, and a new intermediate driveshaft to facilitate equal-length half shafts. On the chassis front, there are five-spoke, seventeen-inch aluminum wheels, 205/50HR-17 Goodyear Eagle RSA all-season performance tires, stiffer springs, and firmer dampers. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard.

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Exterior badging is inconspicuous, and flame decal jobs are at your own discretion. The obligatory GT ID is positioned on the lower left corner of the liftgate with a 2.4 Turbo insignia holding court on the opposite side. The front fascia is punched out to feed more air to the hotter, hungrier engine. Bumpers are body color instead of matte black.

Major front-seat improvements are the big deal inside. Side bolsters are plumped up, and the cushions are an inch longer to help contain your thighs when the boost kicks in. Leather upholstery and electric bun warmers are optional. The steering-wheel grips have a hobnail finish keyed to a new dot-matrix motif for the dash accent panels. Instrument needles swing across silver-tinted fields, and the cue-ball shifter is also argent finished.

The PT GT really cooks. There's a hefty kick to the solar plexus and a satisfying stretch of the neck muscles when you stand on the throttle. The rise of enthusiasm in response to a right-pedal jab is smooth and swift. Best of all, your giddiness won't be undermined by cross talk in the front tires' driving and steering functions. Let us clarify: There is no torque steer.

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Torque, on the other hand, comes by the bagful. Chrysler engineers aren't yet sure exactly how much will make the show when their bosses say "Stop!" so production can begin, but they're promising at least 220 pound-feet and hoping for 240 pound-feet at 3600 rpm (versus the standard PT's 162 pound-feet at 4000 rpm). The Mitsubishi-supplied turbo builds 14 psi of boost to help deliver 205 horsepower at 5200 rpm.

Translating that into stoplight-grand-prix language, you'll be hustling to 60 mph a good two seconds ahead of those early PT Cruiser adopters. We measured a 6.9-second sprint with the manual transmission and 7.3 seconds with the automatic, versus 9.3 seconds in our winter-tire-equipped, stick-shift, Four Seasons Cruiser. Tell your parole officer that the GT Cruiser is a good nine (automatic) or twelve (manual) seconds quicker to 100 mph.

Thanks to the extra grip provided by the stickier tires on wider wheels, the PT now has what it takes to raise an enthusiast's metabolism. There's excellent feedback through the steering wheel, and the new suspenders curtail the body roll that thwarts the standard model's fun. If the thrill of extra power ever wears off, there's sufficient strength of character here to keep a demanding driver satisfied through the long haul. In our limited driving time, we found the suspension to be much firmer, further helping in the fun department. So what's the cost of all this speed and glory? Exact prices haven't been established, but Chrysler hopes to undercut Volkswagen's New Beetle Turbo S ($23,950) by a few hundred bucks.

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