In Retrospect: Chrysler PT Cruiser

The car in my garage last week, a 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser Classic, technically shouldn’t have been there at all. You see, last year, with Chrysler bleeding bad, racing towards bankruptcy and on their knees in front of the US Congress looking for bailout money, promised the slow selling PT Cruiser would be killed. Not so fast. Enter savior Fiat, and the PT Cruiser gets a stay of execution, and lives on for another year.

Before we talk about the initial success of the PT Cruiser, it’s worth noting this car had a rough start from the get-go. In the late 1990’s Chrysler realized they had allowed their Plymouth brand to languish and get stale. The retro hot-rod Plymouth Prowler was the first salvo to revitalize the tired brand, and the follow-up was to be another retro-inspired car, the PT Cruiser. Then came the merger with Daimler. The Germans took one look at the state of Plymouth, and killed it. The PT Cruiser was spared, and debuted as a Chrysler.


When the PT Cruiser arrived as a 2001 model, the response was overwhelming. It made Car and Driver’s 10 Best. It was named the North American Car of the Year. There were waiting lists, and dealer mark-ups. It simply looked like nothing else out there at the time and offered incredible utility and desirability in a simple, affordable package. It was one of Chrysler’s most successful new model introductions in their history. GM so envied the success of the PT Cruiser, they hired its designer, Bryan Nesbitt, to design the Chevy HHR.

The initial success of the PT Cruiser exceeded all expectations, but how do you follow up? Complaints of a lack of power were addressed with the 2003 GT turbo, and in 2005 a convertible two-door joined the PT family. There was active club support, PT’s were customized by their owners, and during its lifetime Chrysler produced no less than 14 factory special editions themselves. In 2006, the PT Cruiser would receive its first “refresh”, but only the most astute PT enthusiast would be able to tell the difference.

My PT Cruiser awaited me after a long day at the New York Auto Show, where I spent eight hours looking at, and sitting in the newest cars out there. Stepping off the train and into the PT, it was as if I was stepping back in time. A turn of the key brought to life a cold, rough 2.4L four, rated at 150hp, coupled to an ancient 4-speed automatic.

My week with the PT Cruiser did nothing to warm me to a car that I had, for all these years, admired for its looks and personality. It was noisy and slow on the highway. The power, heated driver’s seat was uncomfortable, and the stereo sound quality was among the worst I’ve encountered in a new car. Looking around the interior, you find exposed screws and huge panel gaps. Driving the car, all I could think was “after ten years, Chrysler couldn’t figure out how to make a comfortable seat?” The huge, thin-rimmed steering wheel is ridiculous, and bereft and of any controls.

The PT Cruiser is assured a place in Chrysler’s hall of fame-the fact that over 1.3 million PT’s have been sold in 60 countries is a testament to the goodness of the design-ten years ago. To put some numbers into perspective, as of March 31, 2010, Chrysler sold only 2,066 PT Cruisers this year, a 57% drop from 2009. With modern competition from the Kia Soul, Scion xB and Nissan cube, the PT Cruiser looks and drives like an automotive relic in today’s market.

Readers of The Garage know I’ve supported the PT Cruiser, and these words are hard to write, but they are my opinions, and I stand by them. Plymouth, nee Chrysler had a great idea in style and packaging, but with no development over the past decade, this former juggernaut and Car of the Year winner has lost its shine. Perhaps the most telling moment with this car came when I told a friend I was driving a 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser, and his response was simply “Oh, I thought they stopped building that car years ago.”

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