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PT Cruiser Lovers Play a Waiting Game

Car culture * DaimlerChrysler can't make the retro-look crossover vehicle fast enough to satisfy demand. 'It's a stroke of genius,' one observer says.

August 30, 2000|JEFF YIP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A blood-curdling shriek from the kitchen shattered the summer evening calm. Was the roast on fire? Nope, just a fortysomething professional reacting like a teenager to the special guest coming to dinner.

The 2001 PT Cruiser.

Nancy Fong, San Jose-based regional business director for a pharmaceutical company, had just found out that one of her guests was going to be getting his hands on Chrysler's car-truck crossover, easily the most-talked-about new automobile of the year. She flew out of the kitchen and peppered him with questions: What color? When will you have it? Will you take me for a drive?

"I like the PT because of the lines, its retro yet cutting-edge style," says Fong, who drives a 1999 Chrysler Concorde and counts among her favorite cars the Mercedes-Benz CLK320 and the Audi TT.

Four months after the PT first hit showrooms, consumers like Fong can only watch and wait, and wait, and wait some more for their chance to buy one, as the DaimlerChrysler factory in Mexico struggles to keep up with demand and some dealers continue to command $5,000 or more above sticker.

But despite such hurdles, and the PT's mixed crash-test results, buyers can't seem to say enough about its styling, versatility and relative affordability (a factory sticker of $16,500 to $21,000).

Debbie Klaasen, 50, of San Clemente was among the early adopters. She joined the national PT Cruiser Club in January, placed her order with an Irvine dealer Feb. 8 and took delivery April 20, trading in a Toyota RAV4 compact sport-utility vehicle.

"The PT Cruiser is 10 times nicer and more fun to drive than the RAV4," she says. "I hadn't considered any other car. I wasn't in need of a new vehicle; I was in want of a PT Cruiser."

Manley Bland, a 49-year-old software executive, bought one too. "I'm having the time of my life," he says. "I bought a PT Cruiser hat, half a dozen Hawaiian shirts and a black leather jacket. . . . My wife loves the car, [but] she says I'm going through my midlife crisis. I told her, 'Hey, at least it's not another woman.' "

Bland, who lives in Vista in San Diego County, has received so many thumbs-ups on his 80-mile daily commute that he started logging them. "My record is 22, one way," he says.

Indeed, turning heads is just part of the fun, according to a preteen PT aficionado and his grandfather, who pulled their "Inferno Red" model alongside Highway 1's similarly hued test Cruiser recently to compare notes.

"A bus driver got up and out of his seat to look us over, and pretty soon everybody on that side of the bus was checking us out, getting excited," says David Hecht, 12, grinning as he recounted the stoplight encounter he and grandfather Allen Hecht had in April, when the PTs were just beginning to appear on the street.

The attention is "almost not safe," says the elder Hecht, a Granada Hills systems designer. "Drivers will catch up to you on the freeway and they'll sort of circle you. On the way up to Vallejo, we caught up to a yellow New Beetle and they started taking pictures of us."

*

Volkswagen's New Beetle, introduced in 1998, was the last car to generate such a commotion in the new-vehicle marketplace, notes Jim Spoonhower, research director at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., a Diamond Bar trade group representing the hundreds of aftermarket parts firms.

In the aftermarket, plans have gone way beyond fuzzy dice and ooga horns. The Cruiser has captivating looks, but that only makes it an even more attractive canvas, Spoonhower says.

Already several companies are marketing faux-wood paneling kits to turn the steel-sided Cruiser into a modern version of the famed wood-sided wagons of the 1930s and '40s that Southern California surfers rediscovered in the '60s.

Other firms are turning out fiberglass aerodynamic or "ground effects" kits.

And though Chrysler won't say so publicly, it does have a solution coming for those who demand more oomph than the stock 150-horsepower PT can deliver: a turbocharged model due out as early as the 2002 model year. But the aftermarket isn't waiting: Several companies are marketing turbocharger and supercharger kits that add 50 to 75 horsepower.

But stock or custom, the Cruiser has won DaimlerChrysler plaudits for breaking new ground--and not just from drivers but from longtime industry observers as well.

The PT is a "spot-on response to a very important niche market," says Ron Hill, head of transportation design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "We're turning more and more to mining the fields of nostalgia. The PT Cruiser is very adroitly done. It's very clever."

"We knew it would definitely be a hit but not to this magnitude," says Jeff Schuster, senior manager of forecasting at J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura Hills. "This sends a message to auto companies that consumers are looking for new, fresh product design."

Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, calls the PT Cruiser "everybody's affordable head-turner."

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