Curbside Classic: 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser – Retro-Grade or Retro-Chic?

Upon its introduction as a 2001 model, few could deny that the Chrysler PT Cruiser was an undeniably “cool” car, at least from afar. In a world where affordable compact cars were relatively boring and easily fit into the standard sedan, coupe, hatchback, or wagon bodystyle classification, the PT Cruiser shook up the industry with its expressive retro styling inside and out, high level of available content and personalization, and its rather ambiguous crossover designation. Warmly received by the general public and praised by most critics in its early years, the Chrysler PT Cruiser was an instant success. Unfortunately, it was also largely an anomaly for Chrysler, lacking any true predecessor and more importantly a successor, making it a very much a dead-end vehicle.

Chrysler, undisputedly more so than any other automaker in the 1990s had a way with very effectively translating a large majority of its radical concept cars into production models with limited concessions. As most enthusiasts know, the PT Cruiser was originally developed with the intent it would be sold as a Plymouth — hence the “PT” designation for “Plymouth Truck”. The ultimate production vehicle was the culmination of a series of retro looking Prowler-inspired concept cars beginning with the 1997 Plymouth Pronto (above, left). The Pronto soon spawned the Pronto Spyder roadster concept, as well as the Pronto Cruizer (above, right) — the latter shown with Chrysler badging and closely previewing the design of the production PT Cruiser.

Following years of neglect and relying entirely on badge-engineered models (minus the low-production Prowler), Plymouth’s future most certainly would have been brighter, and possibly longer-lasting, with the PT Cruiser in it. Boasting dramatic and captivating “hot rod” styling reminiscent of cars of the 1930s and early-1940s, the PT Cruiser was far from any corporate “badge engineered” vehicle. Alas, Plymouth’s fatal fate was effectively sealed with Daimler-Chrysler merger in 1998. With Daimler-Benz calling the shots, Plymouth’s heritage had little meaning and it was more or less dead weight. The brand’s discontinuation was soon announced in November 1999 with a swift time table of its exit.

Nonetheless, development on the PT Cruiser continued, and the model was instead launched as a Chrysler, making it the brand’s first compact vehicle since the 1988 K-platform LeBaron. Going on sale in March 2000 and starting at less than $16,000 (≈$24,000 in February 2020), the 2001 PT Cruiser proved an instant success, selling over 90,000 units for the remainder of the 2000 calendar year alone, with overwhelming demand resulting in supply shortages and dealers reportedly charging well above MSRP for available examples. In its first full year of sales during 2001, Chrysler sold an astonishing 144,717 PT Cruisers.

This number was not only more than the similarly-sized yet traditional sedan-bodied and significantly less expensive Dodge/Plymouth Neon combined, it was more than any other Chrysler-branded vehicle sold during 2001. Furthermore, the PT Cruiser was the best-selling Mopar “car” and vehicle in 2001 behind only the Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan, Dodge Dakota, Dodge Ram, and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

From a technical standpoint, Chrysler treated the PT Cruiser to an exclusive platform, aptly designated the Chrysler PT platform. Riding on a 103-inch wheelbase, 168.8 inches in overall length, and 67.1 inches in width, the PT Cruiser was in fact the smallest Chrysler-branded vehicle by measurable length and width ever sold in the United States.

Despite its small external size, the PT Cruiser boasted a very generous interior volume of 120.2 cubic feet, theoretically making it a full-size car in the eyes of the EPA. Interestingly, the PT Cruiser was technically classified as a “truck”, as Chrysler designed it to comply with NHSTA standards for light trucks in order to bring the average fuel economy of the automaker’s truck fleet within CAFE standards. Nevertheless, Chrysler referred to the PT Cruiser as a “car” in promotional material, and the vehicle was most commonly compared to other compact sedans, wagons, and multi-purpose vehicles.

As for cargo volume of that 120.2 cubic feet, the PT Cruiser offered over 19 cubic feet of cargo volume with all seats in place and over 64 cubic feet of cargo with the standard 65/35 split rear seat folded and the available flat-folding front passenger seat increasing this volume even more. Further maximizing versatility, the rear seats could even be completely removed, featuring easy unlatching and tiny roller wheels, much like the rear seats in Chrysler’s minivans. Numerous thoughtful storage solutions included a rear-quarter panel storage cubby, center console coin and letter holders, and storage drawer underneath the front passenger seat.

The PT Cruiser’s seating was for five passengers, though its maximum weight load was rated at 865 pounds, technically reducing its people carrying capacity to four or even three if said passengers were on the heavier side. Nonetheless, its tall roofline allowed for favorably high H-point seating with minivan-like front buckets and over 40 inches of legroom for both front and rear passengers. A 5-position adjustable rear parcel shelf offered further utility and a level load space, able to accommodate up to 100 pounds of cargo or Long Island Iced Teas and a cheese board as illustrated by the 2001 brochure.

Visually, the PT Cruiser boasted expressive, retro-inspired styling inside to match its exterior, featuring a symmetrical — and cost-saving, as in some markets the PT Cruiser was also sold in right-hand drive as seen above — “dual cockpit” dash complete with available body-color-coordinated painted dashboard accents. Some bits were carried over from the Neon, such as HVAC controls and stereo head, but most components were unique to the PT Cruiser, from the seats to the steering wheel to the interior door panels and handles, to the HVAC vents to the exterior color-coordinated retro-style manual transmission gearshift, all enhancing its more special feel.

Unfortunately, like other Chrysler products of the era, material quality abhorrently cheap with lots of coarse, grainy, and hollow-feeling plastic surfaces, plus mouse-fur cloth upholsteries and panel gaps galore. More inviting were the heated leather seats with Preferred Suede® (a registered trademark of Milliken & Company) inserts, which were standard on the PT Cruiser Limited Edition model. Between the very base model and Limited, were two trim packages adding additional content, the Touring Group and Luxury Touring Group.

An interior facelift for 2006, complete with a restyled dash and redesigned seats, did little to improve the PT Cruiser’s economy class ambiance, nor did somber interior colors like Dark Taupe, Pebble Beige, and Dark Slate. Also likely a cost-saving method of standardization for all markets, standard power window controls were placed atop the dash for the front and in the back of the center console for the rear. Early-2001 models curiously and inconveniently did not feature rear auxiliary switches for the driver, requiring a very awkward reach.

Despite its unique looks, underneath its skin the PT Cruiser was mechanically very similar to a handful of other Chrysler products. Its sole engine at the time of its introduction was the naturally-aspirated SOHC 2.4-liter EDZ inline-4. Although the same engine found in Mopars including the Cloud Cars, Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, and Jeep Liberty, in the specialty-oriented PT Cruiser, most agreed its 150 horsepower and 162 lb-ft torque were inadequate for anything more spirited beyond everyday around town driving.

Not until 2003 did the PT Cruiser receive a turbocharged version of this engine, available only on the new PT Cruiser GT model. Codenamed the EDV/EDT and also found in the Dodge SRT4, this related 2.4-liter produced a peppier 215 horsepower and 245 lb-ft. torque. Both aforementioned engines featured a 5-speed manual as standard equipment, with a 4-speed Ultradrive automatic optional. 2004 finally saw Touring and Limited models gain the option of a turbo, in form of a detuned EDV/EDT, making 180 horsepower and 210 lb-ft torque, and available in automatic guise only.

Standard suspension consisted of independent MacPherson strut front suspension and a semi-independent twist-beam rear axle with coil springs and Watt’s linkage in the rear (versus the Neon’s more advanced independent multi-link rear setup). A firmer “touring-tuned” suspension was standard on all Touring and Limited models. Front disc/rear drum brakes were standard equipment, while four-wheel disc antilock brakes were curiously extra-cost on all models at a time when many competitors included them as standard at least on higher-spec models. Unlike many competitors, front seat-mounted side airbags were standard on the top-tier Limited, and optional on other trims.

Nonetheless, the PT Cruiser offered a lot of car — in style, versatility, available comfort and convenience features, and high level of personalization — for the money. As aforementioned, in its early years, the PT Cruiser quickly became a fan favorite, drawing high praise and high sales. Popularity remained high for most of its decade-long run, but despite all its initial hype and success, as time would soon tell, the PT Cruiser was largely a fad.

For a vehicle with such unique styling and overall market positioning, PT Cruiser sales held quite strong through 2006, dipping slightly to just over 107K units in 2003, but rebounding to over 138K units in 2004 and again in 2006. Despite the addition of a convertible bodystyle, sold from 2005-2008, along with a minor exterior facelift and aforementioned interior refresh for the 2006 model year, it was clear that the PT Cruiser was becoming stale, with little obvious direction to go in.

Furthermore, the PT Cruiser’s once hip image and captivating styling also began suffering, as by this point the industry’s retro craze was in full-swing. With the market flooded with other retro-styled vehicles, the PT Cruiser no longer was a novelty. Furthermore, its quality woes and growing image as an old lady’s car diminished its appeal. While sales stayed at respectable levels for the remainder of its life, PT Cruisers were increasingly sold to rental fleets as the “fun” compact option.

It may be a stretch to call the PT Cruiser “Cordoba 2.0”, but I can’t help but notice the striking similarities between the two. Like the PT Cruiser, the Cordoba was originally destined to be a Plymouth, and it subsequently was a massive surprise hit for Chrysler. Both vehicles quickly became Chrysler’s best selling models in their first several years. Likewise, the PT Cruiser and Cordoba were each Chrysler’s smallest North American market cars to date when introduced, externally-wise. Furthermore, both were “dead-end” vehicles. Despite seeing a high level of popularity in their early years, they each faced declining sales and diminished importance in Chrysler’s lineup in their later years, and ultimate discontinuation with no direct successor for either.

Ultimately, the PT Cruiser’s lasting legacy really depends on one’s own personal opinion of the vehicle. On one hand it unquestionably made a huge impact on both the market and the industry, defying conventional wisdom of what an American compact could be, bringing with it iconic styling, and generating genuine excitement over both a hatchback/small wagon bodystyle and small American car for the first time in ages. Indeed the PT Cruiser was quite a popular vehicle too. Yet it’s hard to view the PT Cruiser with superfluous admiration, as it’s difficult to overlook its abhorrent fit-and-finish, awkward ergonomics, and Chrysler’s relative lack of attention towards it, simply letting it wither before killing it off. In retrospect, regardless of one’s opinion of it, there’s no denying the PT Cruiser will remain one of the least forgettable cars of the early-2000s, and that’s an impressive feat.

Photographed in Whitman, Massachusetts – December 2015

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