2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser

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2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser

By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 9
Pros:
  • Nouveau retro styling
  • Affordable list price, if you can get it
  • Innovative, versatile interior
Cons:
  • Stand in line—lots of people want one
  • Four cylinder struggles in some conditions
  • Cheap, cue-ball look to the gearshift knob

DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser shows the rest of the auto industry how to really create a new kind of vehicle. Built on a modified Dodge Neon platform, the retro-look Cruiser mixes small-car size with new versatility, stylish fun and affordable pricing. Now, if only the engine could get more power. . . .

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

This seems to be the motto at DaimlerChrysler. Officials there launched the Neon small car in the 1990s and predicted it would be welcomed and loved by car buyers with the same quirky fervor that the Volkswagen Beetle garnered.

But it didn't develop that way, so now comes Round Two and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. An immediate hit at the auto shows, the Cruiser could finally be the DaimlerChrysler vehicle that captures the fancy—as well as the wallets—of American car buyers in a way that hasn't been seen since the Beetle or New Beetle.

A lot of reaction
I expected to get a lot of the same reactions to the PT Cruiser that I had when I test drove the New Beetle a few years back. You know—other drivers looking, then grinning, then waving or giving me the "thumbs up" to signal their approval of this new, stylish small car.

Well, I got reactions, alright—long, wishful looks. Women, in particular, seemed drawn to the PT Cruiser. One woman left her name and phone number on a piece of paper tucked under the Cruiser's wipers. Another followed me into a home improvement store to ask about the car, and a woman driving a Pontiac Sunfire stopped dead in her traffic lane to watch me and the Cruiser pass by. I could go on, but you get the idea. This car is hot!

Some common DaimlerChrysler parts
One of the intriguing aspects of the PT Cruiser's eye-catching style is what I call "nouveau retro." The young designer who penned the exterior of this vehicle never saw the hot-rod heydays himself, but used that era as his inspiration to dress up a Dodge Neon platform.

Yes, that's what's under the Cruiser's retro-styled sheet metal—the basic hardware of the Neon chassis. Some of the front suspension is common, too, and a slightly revised, 150-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine in the PT Cruisers sold in North America comes from the Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze. Anyone who has been in a DaimlerChrysler vehicle in the last few years will recognize the familiar "company-issue" radio controls, too.

Innovative package
But the truth is, it's difficult to focus on what comes from the DaimlerChrysler parts bin when you're in or near the PT Cruiser, because it's all wrapped up in such an appealingly novel package.

This is a hatchback that doesn't convey an overt cheapness like some other hatchbacks do.

This is a front-wheel-drive vehicle that doesn't look like it should be front drive.

This is a small vehicle—it's 5.2 inches shorter in overall length than a 174-inch-long Neon sedan—yet its interior volume index of 120 cubic feet as measured by Environmental Protection Agency rules is more akin to that of a short-wheelbase DaimlerChrysler minivan.

And this is an affordable—if you can get one for sticker price—vehicle with real style. It's even available from the factory with 16-inch wheels and tires that not only fill the wheel wells appropriately but also don't make the Cruiser feel "under-tired" in aggressive driving. Try finding 16-inchers on a factory-delivered Honda Civic.

Some issues for the skeptic
Still, a skeptic who's unswayed by the exterior styling can get inside the PT Cruiser and find some things to carp about.

The cue-ball look to the gearshift knob on the manual transmission lever is one.

Putting the power rear-window buttons only in one, odd spot in the PT Cruiser—at the back of the front-seat center console, near the floor—is an obvious cost-cutting decision. I also found myself kicking them or stepping on them as I moved in and out of the back seat. How long will they stand up to that kind of abuse, especially if kids sit in the back seat?

And I was unable to find—among the models DaimlerChrysler put out for the press—a rear parcel shelf/tailgate party table that didn't get jammed in one of its five positions and require some effort, even from DaimlerChrysler officials, to get righted.

Pretty normal ride in the city
All that said, the PT Cruiser is surprisingly easy to drive.

Despite its exterior look, the PT Cruiser doesn't feel like some brawny hot rod. In fact, it feels quite normal in city traffic, easing into traffic flows with decent, though not wildly impressive power.

Performance is estimated at a mainstream 8 seconds for a Cruiser to run from standstill to 60 miles an hour. So you can understand why you feel like you're simply in a normal, small car.

Also reminding you of that fact is the telltale four-cylinder buzz that comes through at times, especially when you're really pressing down hard on the accelerator.

The engine responds, but not always immediately, depending on where you are in the rev band. Maximum torque is 162 pound-feet at 4000 rpm and the PT Cruiser—at a weight of at least 3,123 pounds—is no little lightweight.

In fact, I noticed a sense of solidity and a slight heaviness in the PT Cruiser, which I hadn't expected. The doors feel rather heavy, for example, and close solidly. Again, I was thinking "small vehicle," so "lightweight" seems to come to mind right along with it. And, after all, Neons weigh about 2,565 to 2,600 pounds.

The PT Cruiser gives you the sense that while it may be compact, it's still substantial—not heavy and pondering, but substantial. You're not subjected to punishment on each and every road bump.

With a turning circle of between 36.5 feet and 39.7 feet, depending on tires and transmissions, the PT Cruiser handles U-turns and shopping center parking lots with ease, though Neons are a bit more nimble in those maneuvers.

High-speed stability
On the highway, I heard wind noise around the PT Cruiser. But the vehicle handled high speeds with decent stability.

The best part of the test drive came in twisty mountain roads. Yes, the PT Cruiser's little four banger lost momentum on some of the steeper hills, but it worked quite valiantly and largely acceptably on others.

What was most pleasing, however, was how the test PT Cruiser with 16-inch wheels and sport-tuned suspension held its line in the curves and settled itself nicely in aggressive driving.

Remember, this is a vehicle that's 5.25 feet tall—a full 8.1 inches taller than a Neon. So you might expect some instability, some sense of a toppling over to one side or the other when you're driving in the twisties. But the PT Cruiser tester did admirably well. Why?

Well, the front suspension with independent MacPherson strut configuration, asymmetrical lower control arms and a link-type stabilizer bar is pretty standard fare.

But the real engineering work is at the back, where DaimlerChrysler officials installed a twist-beam axle with coil springs and Watt's linkage. This is an elegant solution to the problem of how to provide both a flat load floor inside the back of the PT Cruiser and manage heavy loads and suspension control in a variety of sporty circumstances.

Compared with a track bar, which might be more common for a vehicle like this, the PT Cruiser rear suspension setup minimizes side-to-side handling variations and distributes transverse loads through two links rather than one.

Brakes are upgraded for the Cruiser, too, though standard rear brakes are drums, not discs, and an anti-lock brake system is optional. Steering is power rack and pinion.

Riding tall
Drivers will appreciate the higher seating position in the PT Cruiser. You don't sit up as high as you do in a big pickup truck, but you don't sit low to the pavement, either.

There's decent visibility all around, and I was amazed at how comfortably two adults sit in back. They, too, sit up a bit but they still maintain decent headroom of 39.6 inches. That's 3.6 inches more than in the back seat of a Neon sedan.

The PT Cruiser's rear-seat legroom is commendable, too, and side windows back there are big, so there's an overall sense of spaciousness. Yes, there's actually room for three in the back seat, and there are three shoulder belts. But the PT Cruiser only has two rear-seat head restraints—at the outboard seat positions. And hip room of 46.8 inches in back isn't anything to brag about. There are 52 inches of hip room in the Neon.

DamlerChrysler handled the high roof quite cleverly to design in all that headroom. Take a look at how well integrated the tall roofline is with the proportions of the overall vehicle and you may find the other new, tall small vehicles out there—the Toyota Echo and Ford Focus—looking sort of gangly all of a sudden.

Functionality is key
Much has been written about the umpteen ways to configure the PT Cruiser's interior.

Let me just say there are at least 25 known configurations for the seats alone—the back seats are removable altogether and the front seatback can be folded flat forward. And you can load and carry an 8-foot-long ladder with the hatch closed, as long as you put the ladder diagonally into the cargo area. How's that for versatility?

As John Critzer, senior product planner of passenger car operations at DaimlerChrysler, put it; "This is anything but a base vehicle. It's the exterior that draws you in . . . but the real delight and surprise factors are the functionality and versatility."

I liked the way the liftgate latch is smoothly hidden and integrated into the rear Chrysler badging on the PT Cruiser, keeping the back end looking clean and unfettered.

If only there were more power . . .
Now, how to convince DaimlerChrysler to give this hot rod-styled vehicle a bit more power. I've heard talk that a conventional company V6 won't fit in the PT Cruiser's engine compartment.

But maybe the automaker already is thinking about another option. At auto shows in late 1999 and early 2000, the company was showing a more powerful GT Cruiser concept vehicle. It has a turbocharged four cylinder capable of 200 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque.

Bring it on!

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BB01 - 7/28/2014 6:42:12 PM