Curbside Classics: Plymouth Reliant And Chrysler PT Cruiser – The Past Meets The Future

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(first posted 11/22/2015)     The last Dodge Aries was built in December 1989. The PT Cruiser was launched in April of 2000. In that span of just over ten years, a lot of change took place, obviously. These two almost perfectly represent the old and new, design-wise: One is low and boxy; the other is tall and curvaceous.  If the PT Cruiser had been available with AWD, it would have been a CUV and a real trailblazer. But even as it was, it represented a clean break with the Iaccoca-mobiles of the past. And although it sold well, the PT Cruiser never succeeded in its intended role.

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As much as the K-cars broke new ground for Chrysler, design-wise, they were still thinking inside the box, literally. They were slightly updated versions of the appliance-school of design as so successfully employed by the late 60s and early 70s Valiant and Dart sedans. Chrysler didn’t want to risk scaring its traditional buyers any more than necessary, given the all-new FWD architecture underneath. Chevy took a more adventurous route with its hatchback Citation, and buyers couldn’t get enough of them, until it bit back. Is that why mid-sized hatchbacks died along with the Citation? The very safely-styled A-Bodies based on the X-Body made folks feel it was ok to head back to their GM dealer; well, the more loyal or masochistic ones, anyway.

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Cars like the K-cars and the GM A-Bodies were built for so long without any major changes that they inevitably became associated with older folks, who tend to like familiar shapes. That continuity also made for much more reliable cars than average, for American cars, and the later years of these K cars are veritable Cockroaches of the Roads™, along with those A-Bodies.

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I wouldn’t be too surprised to see an actual roach in this car. That’s quite the hole in the seat. Speaking of, this later version has bucket seats, but the early versions came with a genuine bench seat, ostensibly to be able to seat six. As if.

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The rear seat is intact, and three Great Depression-Era adults would probably have been quite happy there, as it’s substantially wider than the cars of the thirties.

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This is a 1985 or later refresh vintage Reliant. Starting in 1986, the optional Mitsubishi 2.6 four was gone, replaced by Chrysler’s own 2.5 four, along with the base 2.2, upon which it was of course based. They were humble engines in their natural aspirations, and mostly durable ones, although not without their faults in the early years.

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I mostly shot the Reliant, as I have a hard time thinking about PT Cruisers as CCs yet. In fact, we’ve never done a full CC on one, and today is not the day. But let’s give it a few moments of consideration.

Plymouth pronto

The PT Cruiser was heavily inspirde by the Plymouth Pronto concept of 1997. It was part of an ambitious plan to revive Plymouth with a fresh new face as well as new products. The Prowler gave a cue as to the direction stylistically, but the Pronto was more significant in terms of its package. It was decidedly tall, likely influenced by the Japanese “tall boy” phenomena. Chrysler’s CCV from 1997 also pointed to this direction upwards, one seen as a critical component of the Pronto’s appeal to younger buyer, who was not about to buy grandma’s low-rider Reliant.

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The production PT Cruiser’s design is credited to Brian Nesbitt, who later did the Chevy HHR. It was supposed to be a Plymouth, but after the ill-fated “merger of equals” with Daimler, Plymouth was not considered a safe bet for investment/resuscitation. So somewhat oddly, the PT Cruiser became a Chrysler. But it was a big hit, and some 1.35 million were built world-wide, including in Austria at the Steyr-Magna plant that built a number of Chrysler and Jeep products. The Euro PT Cruiser was available with a 2.2 L Mercedes diesel. 1.6 and 2.0 L gas fours were also used on oversees versions. The US Cruisers came with the 2.4 L engine from the new family of Chrysler fours that replaced the K-Car family fours. Turbo versions were also available, with a variety of ratings from 180 – 235 hp.

The PT Cruiser was classified as a van, so that its EPA fuel economy ratings could lift the low ratings of Chrysler’s large vans.

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While the PT Cruiser sold well, ironically it tended to sell best with an older demographic. Once they tried getting into one with their aging joints, the realized what suckers they had been, buying into Detroit’s “longer, lower” mantra for all those decades. I tried to get my dad to buy one for my mom, unsuccessfully. She would have loved it, especially getting in and out, compared the challenges of doing so in her low Saturn Ion.

My brother, who very mechanically inclined, had a used PT Cruiser for a while. One day it died while on a trip, and it took him quite a while to diagnose the problem, given the inconsistent symptoms in different cylinders. It turned out to be a broken camshaft; it just snapped in two.

The PT Cruiser was the first popular American car to go tall (other than trucks, SUVs and vans), and as such was a trail blazer. If Chrylser had morphed it into a CUV, it might well still be with us today.



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