Misunderstood and derided by many, the Chrysler PT Cruiser was a brave if misconceived attempt to bring something different to the automotive landscape.
The PT Cruiser should have been a Plymouth, had that failing marque not been put out of its misery by Daimler-Chrysler in 2001 following the 1998 Merger of Equals of the US and German automakers. Chrysler’s traditional entry-level brand had fallen into a serious decline in the last decade of the 20th Century. Its limited range largely comprised badge-engineered variants of other Chrysler group products, including the Voyager and Grand Voyager minivans, and the Neon compact and Breeze mid-size saloons, all of which were comfortably outsold by their Chrysler or Dodge branded stablemates.
The only distinctive and unique model marketed under the Plymouth brand was the Prowler, a wildly styled retro two-seater convertible harking back to the 1930’s hot rod era. This was very much a niche offering and only 11,702 were sold over a five-year period from 1997 to 2002. However, its undoubted appeal led Chrysler product planners to wonder if its style could be reprised in a more mainstream offering in order to give Plymouth a much needed stronger identity.
Launched in 2000 as a 2001 model, the PT Cruiser was, in engineering terms, a resolutely conventional FWD five-door hatchback, but its retro styling allowed it to be significantly taller than its competitors, to the benefit of passenger and luggage accommodation. To these eyes at least, the design successfully combines retro elements like the narrow upright grille, V-shaped bonnet and visually (if not actually) separate front and rear wings with a boxy and practical cabin.
Engines were a standard 2.4 litre 150bhp petrol for the North American market and a 2.0 litre 140bhp petrol and Mercedes-Benz 2.2 litre 119bhp diesel for overseas markets. The PT Cruiser was built in Toluca, Mexico for North America and Graz, Austria from 2002 for overseas markets.
A two-door convertible version of the PT Cruiser was offered from late 2003. This had a power operated hood which could be lowered in just 10 seconds (although it had then to be manually covered with a large tonneau cover and took up a lot of boot space). The convertible came with the option of turbocharged versions of the 2.4 litre engine, offering either 180 or 220bhp. These engine options were also now offered on the five-door model.
The 220bhp engine with a five-speed manual gearbox was capable of a 0 to 100kph (62mph) time of 7.6 seconds according to Autocar when it tested the PT Cruiser Convertible GT in February 2004. The reviewers were actually rather impressed by the convertible. It used the cavernous interior space of the five-door to good effect and still had plenty of legroom for rear seat passengers: 254mm (10”) more than the contemporary New Beetle convertible.
A stout rollover hoop was intended to preserve body rigidity and was profiled to improve airflow with the hood down, although rear seat passengers were still buffeted when travelling at speed. The cabin was surprisingly refined when the thick three-layer hood was in place. The car suffered from torque-steer and the stiffened ride on 17” wheels was brittle, but it was still an engaging drive.
Changes during the PT Cruiser’s ten-year life were limited to engine and minor trim upgrades, although it did receive a significant facelift in late 2005. Post-facelift models are easily identifiable by their ‘peanut’ shaped headlamps and a redesigned front valance. This no longer continues the former ‘U’ shaped grille below the bumper and instead has a wide horizontal slot. Later in the model’s life various special edition versions were offered to stimulate interest and sales.
Autocar tested the facelifted PT Cruiser five-door in November 2005. The 2.2 litre diesel engine had been upgraded to produce 148bhp and 221lb/ft of torque and was quiet and refined in operation. The testers commented that the road noise that had previously plagued the car had been improved, but it still suffered from wind noise and lacked any agility on twisty roads because of too much body roll. They summarised it as “much improved, but still lags well behind the class leaders”.
At least one influential individual was sufficiently impressed by the PT Cruiser that he shamelessly copied it: Bob Lutz, who had been Chrysler’s Head of Global Product Development when the model was designed, went on to commission the Chevrolet HHR after rejoining GM in September 2001 as Vice-Chairman for Product Development. The HHR was extraordinarily similar to the PT Cruiser and even shared its 103” (2,600mm) wheelbase. Bryan Nesbitt, who joined GM from Chrysler in April 2001 as Chief Designer for Chevrolet, is credited with the design of both cars. The HHR was launched in 2005 and achieved sales of 526,813 units over seven years.
The PT Cruiser remained on the market for a decade and sold around 1.35 million units, 1.05 million of which were in the US. It was a divisive design, popular with its fans but ridiculed by many others, particularly the convertible version, which was likened to a giant pram. This is somewhat harsh. In some respects, the PT Cruiser was simply ahead of its time. The five-door, with its tall build and capacious interior was a proto-Crossover before that term had been coined. The convertible anticipated the Evoque and T-Roc convertibles by well over a decade, whether you love or hate the latter.
Did Chrysler miss a major opportunity by going so heavily retro with the PT Cruiser? The 1997 Plymouth Pronto concept, on which the PT Cruiser was based, was a rather more sophisticated mix of modernist design with retro elements. That style might have had more potential to develop into a broader range of cars. As it was, the PT Cruiser’s style was never used again (not by Chrysler, at least!) and, weirdly, a certain online encyclopaedia records its successor as being the Fiat 500L.