Car reviews - Chrysler - PT Cruiser - Limited 5-dr wagon
Outrageous looks, packaging
Room for improvement
Would be better with a V6, quite pricey
10 Jan 2001
THE Chrysler PT Cruiser is probably the most outrageous styling job popularised on the Australian market in at least the last 10 years. Nothing - not even VW's cute New Beetle or Audi's audacious TT - comes near it as an attention-getter.
Age, political persuasion, sex, colour - it makes no difference. People notice this car. And they like it.
When Chrysler took the plunge and committed to building this recreation of the 1940s American styling ethos, it was able to do so with reasonable confidence. The company had already established a reputation of having the ability to stylistically go places others might fear to tread. If you want to look for adventurous car styling, Chrysler has been one of the best places to start in recent years.
And in many ways the Chrysler works where its only real competitor in terms of visual appeal - the Beetle - does not.
The PT Cruiser is more than just an intriguing car to look at - it also has a practical side. The rear loading area is big enough to hold a couple of mountain bikes when the rear seats are folded forward. And, with those seats in place, it is possible to accommodate two adults comfortably - or three adults for a relatively short trip. None of those things are possible in the Beetle.
There is cleverness in the mechanisms for re-arranging the seating layout that helps justify the fact the PT Cruiser is quite expensive for what it actually is. This is a rationale that can be resorted to if the single most compelling reason for buying a PT Cruiser is that you simply love the way it looks.
The back seats double-fold quickly without need for removing headrests, or can be removed completely without fuss. Simply folding the front passenger's and rear backrests forwards, and relocating the rear parcel shelf on the lower of its two mountings, gives a flat load-through for the entire internal length of the car. The parcel shelf also doubles as a handy "bar".
All very smart - particularly because these functions operate smoothly without straining back muscles or slipping a disc - but still only part of the appeal of the PT Cruiser.
To describe the car as retro is accurate, but to exactly define the influences is difficult.
A first glance might place it among the post-war American cars from GM, Ford - and Chrysler. But the elements are mixed to create a shape that is unique - a composite of the vertical slatted grille, prominent bonnet, mudguards and running boards, with a sloping, flat rear deck giving the impression of a 1940s US car. It is, however, closer to a small people-mover in shape. Line the PT Cruiser up against a 1940s Chev - which happened once as a coincidence on test - and there are no real visual connections.
Dimensionally, the PT Cruiser is well short of the American post-war behemoths with less wheelbase and a slightly shorter body than the Chrysler Neon. The tall-boy body is one of the things that makes the Cruiser stand out in traffic and is accentuated by a slightly crouching stance suggesting the back end has been jacked up, hot-rod style.
But the whole thing works and, although there is no argument it is contrived, it's also reasonable to ask whether cars like the RAV4 or CR-V are equally contrived - and whether they have the same visual appeal.
Considering the PT Cruiser's looks, there are some interesting adjustments to be made as far as driving expectations are concerned.
Contrary to what most people seem to think, the cars from which the Chrysler drew its influences were not hot-rod V8s. Rather, they were usually straight sixes, sometimes side-valve and more oriented towards quietness and comfort than performance - the 1940s version of today's Commodores and Falcons.
So the idea of front-drive, and four cylinders, does not quite fit here if you are talking any level of authenticity. No, we do not necessarily want a straight cast-iron six, rear-drive and a leaf-spring rear axle, but a smooth front-drive V6 would have been nice.
That aside, the PT Cruiser covers its bases adequately on the road with - in manual form at least - sufficient verve from its Neon-based, multi-valve 2.0-litre to remain on an equal footing with other traffic.
The power characteristics are slightly different to the Neon, with more power and more torque coming in at slightly lower rpm. A relatively low-ratio final drive keeps the engine spinning - which it likes to do - so it is usually ready to respond to a touch of the accelerator even if it weighs around 250kg more than the Neon. 100km/h equals around 2800rpm, so it sounds a little busy on the freeway, even moreso if the rear seats are folded. This allows more road noise to filter into the front passengers' consciousness.
The manual transmission is slightly hindered by an unprogressive clutch action and a primitive engine management system that creates an "electronic flywheel" effect on throttle lift-off - meaning smooth shifts only come with experience.
The long shift lever itself, topped by a snooker-ball type knob, offers a slightly vague action but it can be mastered after a little time at the wheel.
The Cruiser's suspension, also Neon-based although it has a torsion beam rather than an independent arrangement at the rear, uses MacPherson struts at the front and a Watts link takes care of lateral movement at the rear. It has been beefed up to cover the extra weight and increase load capacity.
So it rides well, absorbing most bumps and irregularities smoothly, quietly and confidently, but it can be caught out in more extreme situations - such as crossing railway tracks - where the limits of travel result in uncomfortable thumping noises.
And the front spoiler is too low, scraping easily on steep driveways and slightly contradicting the Cruiser's suggestively rugged countenance.
It steers nicely with accurate response to the wheel and a comfortable degree of power-assistance. But the tall body means it can be felt heeling over on tight corners, even though it holds its chosen line well and does not indulge in undue amounts of front-drive understeer.
The brakes are up to the task too, with discs on all four wheels and standard four-channel anti-lock. The system works well without indicating any possible shortcomings if pressed hard. A peculiarity is the warning chime that comes on if you apply the handbrake at the traffic lights - first driver reactions include bewilderment at what the car is trying to say.
Visibility from the driver's seat is generally fine although there is some blind spotting at the rear three-quarter view. Still, it is far better than the small-windowed 1940s American cars.
Overall, the Cruiser acquits itself effectively on the road with adequate performance and a well-sorted, competent chassis.
The ambience inside the Cruiser is an experience in itself. An appropriate reflection of the body styling, it mixes the occasional retro reference with contemporary themes.
Recalling the 1940s are the body-colour instrument surround and the panel concealing the passenger airbag, as well as the steering wheel with its four thin spokes and large centre boss containing the art deco Chrysler motif.
Equipment levels are generally okay but the lack of cruise control in the upmarket Limited model is something of a surprise and it would have been nice if the driver's seat cushion could be adjusted for tilt as well as height.
The steering wheel offers only height adjustment, meaning the driving position can be something of a compromise depending on the driver's stature.
Our Limited version test car also came with leather-trimmed seats, incorporating electric height adjustment on the driver's side. They were comfortable enough but nothing special in terms of lateral support.
An unexpected and unnecessary feature is the traction control system that we would have substituted for cruise control were we part of Chrysler's Australian product planning team.
The four-cylinder engine never really gets the car into situations where traction is a problem. Welcome, on the other hand, is the headlight aimer switch in the centre of the instrument panel.
Safety, primary and secondary, is well catered for in the PT Cruiser Limited with dual front airbags and seat-mounted side airbags standard, as is the anti-lock braking system.
Does the new Chrysler make it as a likely contender?
The answer has to be yes. As we said earlier, the PT Cruiser combines a practical nature with attention-getting design, as well as offering sound dynamics and a comfortable, reasonably commodious interior.
The sheer visual impact of this car is worth the extra dollars.
There is really no clear competitor for such a car and there is only one other vehicle - the New Beetle - that rivals it in terms of looking different to anything else. The PT Cruiser is a car people will want, rather than need, although as we said earlier it has a practical side lacking in the VW.
It is certainly to be applauded for its refreshing approach to niche market motoring and could be part of the scene for some time to come with numerous variants - including a van and a coupe - already among future proposed derivatives.
We would just like to see it with a smooth V6.
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