A far more affordable and practical retro-style Chrysler was the new-for-2001 PT Cruiser. Beginning sale in mid-2000 after a cagey 18-month publicity buildup, it was, to quote Road & Track, "part street rod, part minivan, totally unlike anything else." Chrysler called it a "category buster," and the PT ("Personal Transportation") was indeed hard to pigeonhole.
Older folks tended to see a useful compact wagon that looked faintly like a late-'30s Ford. The younger crowd simply saw a way-cool ride. The EPA saw it two ways, classifying the Cruiser as a truck for corporate fuel-economy purposes, a car for safety and emissions standards.
But that was the beauty of it. The PT Cruiser could be most anything to most anyone. Not surprisingly, it sold faster than any Chrysler in history, racking up more than 273,000 orders through the end of 2001, never mind DaimlerChrysler's mounting, well-publicized troubles at the time. Budget-friendly prices helped: about $16,000 to start, $18,000 "nicely equipped."
Still, a good many early Cruisers sold well above sticker, as rabid demand bid up delivered prices by thousands. Chrysler strained to keep up, expanding capacity at the PT plant in Mexico only a few months after sales began.
The PT Cruiser would have been a dandy way to revitalize Plymouth. In fact, its basic concept originated with 1997's Plymouth Pronto show car. A 1998 follow-up, the two-door Pronto Cruzer, previewed the eventual production design, attributed to a young whiz named Brian Nesbitt working with Bill Dayton and John Bucci.
Overseeing the project (begun long before the merger) were Tom Gale, then Chrysler's vice president for product development; John Herlitz, then design director; and design execs Trevor Creed (who later replaced Gale) and Neil Walling. Interior design was supervised by veteran designer and respected auto historian Jeff Godshall. But Nesbitt tended to get all the glory, and the PT's instant sales success largely explains why he was soon recruited by General Motors to work similar magic there.
The PT Cruiser wasn't big on mechanical magic, just sound, modern engineering. For example, the sole powerplant at first was Chrysler's now-familiar 150-bhp 2.4-liter 16-valve twincam four, mated to an optional four-speed automatic transmission or a standard five-speed with the tightest, most-precise linkage yet on a front-drive Mopar. Parts of the floorpan and some chassis components originated with the subcompact Dodge/Plymouth Neon, but the PT ended up sharing very little with other Chrysler Group vehicles.
Offered in base, Touring, and leather-trimmed Limited versions, the Cruiser scored for its high versatility, funky looks, and obvious potential for personalization. Compact sport-utility size afforded fine room for four adults and all manner of stuff. Chrysler claimed 26 possible configurations for the seats and multiposition rear cargo shelf; the latter could even double as a picnic table.
Acceleration was nothing special -- initially around nine seconds 0-60 mph with manual -- but the PT was pleasantly nimble and easy on the bumps. It also belied the notion that Chrysler couldn't deliver quality. Even early examples were solid and well-finished inside and out. Not all people liked the styling, but most did, including a few professional designers.
A more-contemporary look was considered, but likely wouldn't have had as much impact. "Some of what we did was very conscious," Gale told Collectible Automobile magazine, but "we were not consciously trying to be retro…The space and mechanical packages somehow naturally led to the form."
The PT almost begged for hop-up parts and '50s-style customizing, and aftermarket companies obliged with a slew of bolt-on performance and dress-up components. Chrysler joined in for '02, offering a "flame" decal package, a "Woodie" version with simulated timber on the bodysides and liftgate, and a limited-production "Dream Cruiser" with Inca Gold paint, chrome wheels, and a numbered dashboard plaque.
For 2003, Chrysler answered leadfoot pleas with a turbocharged GT Cruiser -- a.k.a. PT Turbo -- packing 215 bhp (later listed at 220) and a mandatory AutoStick transmission. Also on hand were a firmed-up suspension with 17-inch wheels (versus other models' 15s or 16s), four-wheel disc brakes with antilock control (optional for Touring and Limited), street-savvy monochrome exterior, sport front seats, and specific interior trim.
Though the price wasn't unreasonable at a bit over $22,000, the GT was apparently too rich for some buyers. Chrysler responded for '04 with a 180-bhp turbo engine as a $1280 option for Touring and Limited PTs. The quick one-two power play helped liven sales, which went from a low-100,000 plateau to nearly 116,000 for calendar '04.
Included in that total were the first PT Cruiser convertibles, introduced as early '05 models after a concept preview back in 2001. Offered in the same trim levels as wagons, the droptop two-doors boasted a power-folding top with heated glass window, split folding rear seat -- and far less luggage space.
A integrated structural hoop soared overhead behind the front seats; it looked ungainly, but helped make up for slicing off the roof. Rigidity, in fact, was quite good for a modern convertible. Just as nice, this was one of the few ragtops that could seat four without breaking the buyer's bank account, base prices ranging from around $19,500 to $27,600.
For more on the amazing Chrysler, old and new, see:
- Chrysler New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chrysler Used Car Reviews and Prices