2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser Expert Review:Autoblog
It wasn't so many years ago that Chrysler's design department was considered among the best in the industry. Attractive, innovative shapes came one after another, then they took a sharp detour into the crash test building and the rest is Sebring/Compass/Caliber history. In the late Nineties when Chrysler design was still on a roll, one of the highlights was the debut of the PT Cruiser.
As insolvency fast approached, CEO Bob Nardelli and his staff were scrambling to find cars to kill and, unsurprisingly, the nearly decade-old PT wound up on that list. Surprisingly, after exiting bankruptcy court in July, Chrysler decided to keep the PT alive through the end of 2010 when new models start arriving. After perusing our review list and realizing that, like the S2000, we've never tested the PT, we called Chrysler to get one last go-'round in the retro-hatch.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
Chrysler's PT Cruiser first debuted in 2000 as an evolution from a pair of earlier concept cars, the 1997 Plymouth Pronto and 1999 Pronto Cruizer. As is often the way with hardcore retromobiles, the PT's design has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. When it was minted, the Cruiser was instantly recognizable and couldn't be confused with anything else on the street – and things stayed that way until the Chevrolet HHR made a belated arrival to the party in 2005.
Unfortunately, the Bryan Nesbitt-penned paddywagon's heavy reliance on historical pastiche has made it difficult to update – perhaps not as much as a more literal exhumation like the Volkswagen New Beetle, but it remains tough to re-recreate an already familiar form. For the most part, Chrysler was stumped about how to evolve the PT, and as a result, today's edition doesn't look much different than the very first example that rolled off the line nearly a decade ago.
Over the intervening years, Chrysler created a gaggle of limited-edition PT variants – notably the Dream Cruiser series created in conjunction with Detroit's annual Woodward Dream Cruise. In fact, the tester you see here is a Series 5 Dream Cruiser – a trim job that doesn't feature any notable mechanical upgrades.
Aside from the addition of an optional turbocharged engine and a very mild facelift in 2006, almost nothing of significance has changed about the Cruiser since its debut. From a packaging and functionality standpoint, though, that's not an entirely bad thing. The PT was one of the original tall wagons, a genre recently popularized in the form of space-minded economy cars like the Scion xB, Kia Soul and Nissan Cube.
Like other econoboxes, our Cruiser has a more upright stance than most traditional hatchbacks and sedans of similar size. That verticality extends to the PT's driving position as well – it has the sort of formal, tall hip-point seating that crossover drivers celebrate. As it happens, the PT was also something of a pioneer in flexible packaging and seating in small vehicles. Along with the rear seats, the front passenger seatback also folds flat to accommodate long objects, and in the cargo area, Chrysler provides a sturdy parcel shelf/cargo cover that can be erected at two different heights or removed entirely. With the back seat up, the PT has 21.6 cubic feet of space ahead of the tailgate.
Unlike newer machines from other automakers, there are some oddly archaic details about the Cruiser, some – like the prominent push-button door handles – that are part of the vehicle's intentional nostalgic flavor, but it's hard not to notice the dated dashboard expanse. From the driver's seat, the PT's basic ergonomics remain sound (save perhaps the high center-mounted window switches), but Chrysler's lack of investment over the past decade shines through loud and clear in the materials and switchgear on duty. Further, assembly quality and panel gaps are noticeably subpar. When you grasp the spherically knobbed shift lever, you can feel the parting line around the center, and the button on top is ill-fitting and wobbly. Similarly, lifting the armrest reveals untrimmed flashing around the edge of the bin.
Another place where our PT Cruiser lags behind the competition is in powertrain refinement. Its 2.4-liter turbo four makes 180 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque. Considering its competitors, that's not a bad sum, but it's not particularly more powerful than the less expensive, normally aspirated competitors of similar displacement. In the case of our tester, that lack of power and comportment was hampered by a lethargic four-speed automatic. Predictably, acceleration isn't glacial, but it's also less than enthusiastic.
The PT's suspension tuning, on the other hand, remains significantly better than the powertrain it supports. As you may recall, the Cruiser was derived from the platform of the long-gone Dodge Neon, albeit with a beam rear axle replacing the independent configuration of the sedan.Yet even with its aging architecture, the ride quality exhibited over some of the worst pavement we could find was still very acceptable. The body's vertical motions remained fairly well-controlled and the suspension consistently did a commendable job of absorbing surface disturbances.
If there's a glaring flaw in the PT's suspension portfolio, it's insufficient roll control. Compared to the rest of the MPVs and hatchbacks on the market, the PT rides on a narrow track, something that's exacerbated by its relatively tall body form. As a result, the Cruiser leans rather heavily when cornering hard – not quite to the levels of a vintage cartoon paddywagon, but certainly more than what we're accustomed to experiencing.
Thankfully, the utility quotient of the PT Cruiser remains excellent thanks to its flexible seating, but given its compact dimensions and modest performance, the fuel economy we experienced was disappointing. After a week in our evaluator, we barely managed 19 mpg. The EPA has rated the turbocharged PT at 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, so our figure isn't an aberration. For comparison's sake, the base, normally-aspirated engine clocks in at 21/26 with a five-speed manual or 19/24 with the auto-box.
So, a milquetoast experience with an aging car. No surprises here, right? Hang on - there was one truly jarring moment we encountered with the PT – looking at our tester's sticker price. Chrysler charges $18,720 (including delivery) for a plain-jane Cruiser. The well-equipped Touring model starts at $20,530, landing on the wrong side of pricy for our tastes and our fully loaded Dream Cruiser came with a hang-on-to-your-wallet sticker price of $26,120.
Of course, given that sales for this senior citizen have fallen off precipitously from its salad days back at the dawn of the decade (not to mention Chrysler has long since paid for the PT's tooling) actual dealership transaction prices are significantly lower. Chrysler has been offering huge rebates on the PT for eons now, so if you are still charmed by the PT's relentlessly retro looks after all these years, you're in luck – not only have Chrysler's new Fiat overlords given the Cruiser a longer lifespan, you can actually get some pretty amazing deals.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Retrowagon, and gangster convertible.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser combines the retro look of late-'30s American iron with modern performance, efficiency and features. The PT Cruiser comes in two body styles, a versatile five-door wagon and a not-so-versatile two-door convertible.
The five-door model's tall body boasts lots of room for people and cargo. In fact, its interior volume and versatility compare well to a small SUV. Fold the seats down and you can carry an eight-foot ladder. Pull the rear seats out and you can haul a load of building materials or a big-screen TV. Yet the PT Cruiser is small and easy to park.
It's also easy on gas. The lower-level models are competitively priced, and we think they make the most sense.
The PT Cruiser convertible is one of the least expensive convertibles on the market. It looks like a chopped-top gangster-mobile with the top up and puts the wind in your hair with the top down. Roomy seats make it great for four passengers. Its trunk is tiny and awkward, however; in fact, we can't think of a trunk that's less convenient than the one on the Cruiser convertible.
The PT Cruiser doesn't fit within existing automotive marketing segments, but competes on some levels with the Chevy HHR, the Scion xB, and the Mini Cooper. Like them, it is essentially a car: The PT Cruiser is based on the Dodge Neon, a compact car noted for sprightly performance. So it drives like a car, though the handling is not as good. Cruiser is an appropriate name.
Chrysler has dropped the high-performance GT models for 2008. Frankly, we thought they were over-priced and favored the standard model that is still available.
New for 2008, a tire-pressure monitor and front side air bags are now standard on all models and the base wagon is now called LX. In addition, the Touring model gets a standard automatic transmission and 16-inch wheels. The 2008 Limited model now has 17-inch wheels, the 2.4-liter turbocharged engine, ABS and traction control as standard equipment.
The 2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser comes in two body styles: a five-door hatchback/wagon Chrysler calls a sedan; and a two-door convertible. The wagon is available in three trim levels: base LX, Touring and Limited. The convertible comes as a single model.
All PT Cruisers are powered by a 2.4-liter, twin-cam four-cylinder engine. In all but the Limited model the standard engine is tuned to deliver 150 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and a four-speed automatic is optional ($825). A 180-horsepower turbocharged version of this engine is standard in Limited wagons and optional ($1905) in Touring wagons and the convertible. The price includes antilock four-wheel disc brakes and traction control. (The 230-horsepower High Output turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder is no longer available.)
The base PT Cruiser wagon ($14,940) comes with AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo; fabric bucket seats and floor console; tilt steering wheel; power windows; speed-sensitive power locks; remote keyless entry; engine immobilizer; tinted glass; rear window defroster, wiper and washer; 65/35 split folding and removable rear seat; trip computer; theft-deterrent system; rear spoiler; and P195/65R15 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.
The Touring wagon ($18,930) adds air conditioning; cruise control; YES Essentials cloth upholstery that Chrysler says is odor, stain, and static resistant; a six-way power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment; power mirrors; fog lights; and P205/55R16 tires on alloy wheels.
The convertible ($18,530) adds all the same equipment as the Touring wagon, plus a firmer touring suspension, a power convertible top with soft boot cover, and a 50/50 split rear seat.
The Limited model ($22,660) is well equipped with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a sunroof, a universal garage door opener, Sirius satellite radio, the touring suspension, and P205/50R17 tires. (Yes, you read that right; the Touring suspension comes on the Limited, not on the Touring model.)
A Street Cruiser Sunset Boulevard Edition ($845) for the base wagon includes a sunroof, illuminated visor mirrors, map lights, rear privacy glass, P205/55R16 tires on chromed alloy wheels, chrome interior and exterior trim, and Street Cruiser and Sunset Boulevard Edition badges.
Options include a 368-watt Boston Acoustics premium sound system ($695) that comes with Sirius satellite radio and is also available with a six-disc CD changer ($750 convertible, $800 Touring and Limited); a sunroof for Touring wagons ($795); heated front seats for the convertible and Touring wagon ($250); Sirius satellite radio for the base wagon ($195, including a one-year subscription); and Chrysler's UConnect hands-free cell phone link ($360) for Limited. Many of the standard features on higher-line models are also available as options on the less expensive models.
Safety features include dual front airbags; torso-protecting front side-impact airbags; and a tire-pressure monitor. The front belts have pyrotechnically charged tensioners, just like in luxury cars, to tighten the belts for the initial stages of an impact. The rear bench is equipped with child-seat tethers. Antilock brakes and traction control are standard on Limited. They are also included with the optional turbocharged engine and are available as a $625 option for other models.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser blends the retro look of a late-1930s or early 1940s American sedan with new-age styling cues such as dual-beam flush headlights and teardrop-shaped taillight lenses.
The look was refined beginning with the 2006 models, but not drastically changed. The horizontal-themed grille does not extend below the bumper as on older models and it's topped by a prominent Chrysler eagle and flanked by gently scalloped headlamps. Round foglights frame a horizontal slot in the bumper. Around back, a body-color spoiler on the liftgate is said to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
Exterior dimensions indicate the PT Cruiser is quite compact. It's shorter in overall length than most compact sedans, but it's relatively tall. Measuring 63 inches from the pavement to the highest point of its roof, it's nearly as tall as a minivan. That height is a crucial element of the PT Cruiser's design.
The design of the convertible is quite a bit different from that of the wagon. For starters, it's a two-door rather than a four-door. The convertible looks shorter than the wagon, but it isn't. Maybe it's the single long door on each side that creates this illusion. It's lower, however, by almost three inches, which certainly alters the looks. But there's a lot more to it than that: close examination reveals that the windshield is raked more radically and uses a different A-pillar design.
With the top up, the convertible looks like a custom chopped-top hot rod. And it looks pretty cool. Drop the top and the gangstermobile turns into a chick car. With its top down, the PT Cruiser convertible's high tail and integrated sport bar remind us of the old Volkswagen Cabrio. But where the VW's side windows sealed against its sport bar, the Chrysler's windows seal against each other for a more modern convertible profile. Its slightly narrower and color-keyed sport bar sits behind the windows, inside the car, and is aerodynamically designed to minimize wind noise. A nice boot is provided that dresses up the appearance with the top down.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser pulls its exterior styling themes into the cabin, although here, too, the retro theme is tempered by a modern-looking center stack that visually splits the vintage-styled dashboard.
The driver faces three white-faced gauges set in individual cylinders, with speedometer center, tachometer right, and fuel and water temperature left. Accessory switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials at the bottom. Window switches are high in the center stack, inconvenient for quick operation, forcing the driver to search for them. The door levers have a nice action, and the switches operate with good tactile feel, though they're not world class. The standard stereo sounds tinny; we haven't tried the Boston Accoustics system. Also, there's a separate Set button for the station presets. It's fussier than simply holding the preset down.
A bonus of the Cruiser's tall profile is its upright seating position, with a fairly high view ahead, somewhat like a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. The front seats have a reasonable amount of bolstering to keep driver and passenger from sliding side to side. The leather package offers a rich appearance given the Cruiser's price, with suede inserts in the doors and along the lower cushion edges.
The center console incorporates a sliding armrest. The PT's console also includes a covered tray for concealing small items, a storage bin that holds six CDs, a coin holder and fold-out cupholders for rear-seat coffee consumers.
Roominess is a virtue in the Cruiser. The wagon's 120.5 cubic feet of interior volume is comparable to that of large cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lincoln Town Car, though it certainly doesn't have the ambience of those cars. Much of that space is a function of the Cruiser's height.
To take advantage of this, the rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front. This theater seating, as it's called, affords the back-seat passengers a better view forward. Rear passengers also can stretch their legs underneath the front seats, which are mounted on tall boxes. A 6-foot, 9-inch passenger can fit comfortably in the front or rear seats.
The cabin of the PT Cruiser wagon can be configured 26 different ways. This flexibility stems from three features: a 65/35 split rear bench that can be folded flat, tumbled forward or removed, a movable parcel shelf in the cargo bay, and an available front passenger seat that folds flat. The rear seats are anchored with quick-release attachments for easy removal. Suitcase handles and steel wheels make it easy to stash the rear seats in the garage and move them about. The smaller portion of the rear seat weighs 35 pounds, but the larger section weighs a hefty 65 pounds.
With both rear seats out, the Cruiser provides 62.7 cubic feet of cargo volume. A mountain bike fits with the rear seats removed; take the front wheel off the bike and you can leave the rear seats in place. The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheelwells, not wide enough for four-foot building materials, but still enormously useful. Folding the front passenger seatback flat forms a table next to the driver, or makes room for an eight-foot stepladder or a load of two-by-fours.
The convertible doesn't stand as tall as the wagon. It offers just 84.3 cubic feet of interior volume (compared with 120.5 for the wagon). Head room and hip room are significantly reduced, front and rear. It's fine up front, though. The convertibles get sportier seats with more side bolstering. The chair-like rear seats in the convertible have lots of leg room making them very comfortable, though it's tight around the hips and shoulders. The convertible's seats can be configured nine different ways, suggesting practicality. Trying to load something into the back seat is annoying, however. You have to set down whatever you're trying to load, use both hands to.
The PT Cruiser is fun to drive, but it's not a sports car. In essence, it's a tall, practical economy car that goes relatively quickly. The standard engine is rated 150 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the Cruiser from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds and down the quarter-mile drag strip in about 16.7 seconds. We call that peppy, but the base engine makes its best power at higher rpm, so you have to really get on it to get that type of performance. Big four-cylinder engines have a natural tendency to idle roughly, so Chrysler's 2.4-liter engine uses a counter-rotating balance shaft to smooth things out.
The PT Cruiser offers both a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission. The manual gearbox is surprisingly precise, not sports-car grade, but not bad for a unit with a longer-throw gate and foot-long shifter. Working the gears to get the most from the base engine is enjoyable.
The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the base Cruiser cruising, because 'automatics tend to keep an engine in lower rev ranges and the 2.4-liter's' peak torque is reached at a relatively high 4,000 rpm. (Torque is the force that propels the car from intersections and up steep hills). On the other hand, kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough power for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads. In short, we like the manual better than the automatic. With the manual transmission, the base engine is EPA rated at 21 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. With the automatic, the ratings are 19/24.
The 180-horsepower turbocharged engine that's standard on Limited and optional otherwise produces a healthy 210 pound-feet of torque, starting at 2800 rpm and holding steady to 4000. That improves performance with the automatic considerably, and makes it eaiser to make that pass, accelerate ahead of traffic, or fill that hole in traffic. The turbo is relatively devoid of turbo lag, so the extra power makes the PT Cruiser easier to live with on a daily basis. And the fuel economy hit is not that larger. With the manual, the turbo 2.4 gets 20 mpg city and 25 highway; with the automatic, it is rated at 18 city and 24 highway.
Even the base PT Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan, maintaining its composure in the corners. With its big 17-inch wheels and tires, the Limited is sportier, though it lacks precision. Though it is noticeable in all models, body lean is much better controlled than in any SUV and is good for an economy car. The rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the twist-beam rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement and the chassis does not feel rigid. In quick, hard, slalom-type maneuvers any PT Cruiser starts to feel top heavy'. You can almost feel the high mass of the car try to continue in one direction as the front wheels turn in the other. It feels tentative when turning in for high-speed corners and does not inspire confidence. It's more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan in sudden lane-change maneuvers, but it really is more of a cruiser than a sports machine.
In spite of its height, we did not find the Cruiser to be particularly susceptible to cross winds at high speeds. There is little wind noise, almost no tire or road noise, and a just-audible whine from the drivetrain.
The ride quality is generally absorbent in all models. The suspension feels better controlled with the Limited's 17-inch wheels and touring suspension, but these is little if any price to pay in ride quality. The convertible is less rigid and exhibits some cowl shake but is satisfylingly well controlled. Suprisingly, some convertible coupes have more cowl shake.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser appeals to people of all ages and lifestyles with its whimsical, retro design. Its affordability increases its appeal. It's also practical, with a roomy, versatile interior. It isn't particularly refined, however. The convertible offers genuine open-air fun and is great for carrying four people, but there's no place for cargo. The lower-priced models offer the best value and we think they make the most sense.
NewCarTestDrive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino and Phil Berg reporting from Detroit and Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.
Chrysler PT Cruiser LX wagon ($14,940); convertible ($18,530); Touring wagon ($18,930); Limited wagon ($22,660).
Options As Tested
2.4-liter turbocharged engine with antilock four wheel disc brakes and traction control ($1905); four-speed automatic transmission; sunroof ($795); Sound Group II with 368-watt Boston Acoustics audio system, Sirius satellite radio with one-year subscription and 6-disc CD changer ($800).
Chrysler PT Cruiser Touring ($18,930).
More on the PT Cruiser
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