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First Drive

PT Cruiser From Chrysler: It's a Head-Turner

Eagerly awaited crossover blends car and truck in a nifty package. What it lacks in power it may make up for in panache.

March 15, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

America's other luxury car brand, best known for its lumbering minivans and yacht-sized sedans, is rolling out the long-awaited 2001 PT Cruiser later this month, and the automotive world may never be the same.

Chrysler certainly won't: For the first time in memory, it has a mass-production model that has customers standing in line and dealers demanding premium prices.

The U.S. division of transatlantic giant DaimlerChrysler also has a car that will carry the Chrysler nameplate around the world. As much as 20% of the PT Cruiser's eventual annual production of 185,000 units is destined for Europe and Asia. That contrasts with just 6% of Chrysler's minivans and its Jeep division's sport-utility vehicles.

Though some may call it a truck (see accompanying story), the PT Cruiser is Chrysler's first "international small car," to use the term preferred by Tom Gale, chief of design and product planning for all of DaimlerChrysler's North American operations.

More than that, though, is the "PT" in the Cruiser's name. It stands for "personal transportation," and the vehicle creates an entirely new segment in the automotive market: a crossover that doesn't pretend to be an SUV; a car-truck blend that offers plenty of utility but still manages to ooze personality.

During a drive through San Diego County last week in a pre-production model, other motorists blocked intersections and swerved dangerously close at freeway speeds to get a look. Several pedestrians stumbled off sidewalks as their heads swung around to follow the vehicle down the street.

In upscale La Jolla--where luxury BMWs, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes easily outnumber economy cars--an elegantly dressed woman in a $75,000 Mercedes S-Class sedan frantically motioned for us to roll down our window as her preteen son bounced in the back seat, grinning at the Cruiser and giving us a vigorous thumbs-up.

"How do you like it?" the woman shouted above the traffic noise. "It looks so nice."

We didn't have the heart to tell her that she could have three fully loaded Cruisers and $10,000 or so in change for about what her new Benz had cost.

*

The Cruiser is a vehicle that proves form and function don't have to be consigned to separate platforms, with impressive interior flexibility and zippy performance with the standard five-speed transmission, all wrapped inside one of the niftiest body styles to hit the market since Ford introduced the Mustang in 1964.

By Chrysler's count, the seats can be configured 26 ways, to enable owners to pack in a huge variety of passenger and cargo combinations.

Although it is a full 5 inches shorter than a Dodge Neon, the Cruiser, with its removable rear seats stowed in the garage, has more cargo capacity than the Lexus RX 300.

With the rear seats folded flat and the front passenger seat in optional flipped-down mode, you could stow an 8-foot stepladder inside. Indeed, the Cruiser's total interior volume of 120.2 cubic feet meets the government's minimum for a large car.

Think 1937 Ford or Plymouth delivery van as interpreted by a contemporary hot-rod stylist and shrunk by 20% to fit on a small-car platform.

"The exterior will draw customers to the dealerships, but it's the interior that will sell it," says Tony Richards, Chrysler's vice president for small-car operations.

Good luck finding a base model when the cars start arriving at dealerships from the factory in Toluca, Mexico (see story, G1). But if you do, that base sticker of $16,000 plus taxes and license fees will fetch a five-passenger vehicle with a 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower, four-cylinder engine mated to a sporty five-speed manual transmission.

A four-speed automatic transmission is optional across the line, though it can't take advantage of the engine's torque curve and turns an otherwise peppy PT into a Pretty Torpid Cruiser indeed. It will still get you to 90 mph on the freeway (the speedo is calibrated to 120), but it takes forever to get there, and on steep hills your best bet is to row through the automatic's range settings as if it were a manual.

Perhaps Chrysler's powertrain engineers can fine-tune the automatic--or come up with a new one--for second-year cars.

While the Cruiser's performance and handling aren't a match for the Mitsubishi Eclipse or Toyota Celica, it behooves potential customers--and critics--to remember that this Chrysler wasn't designed to be a car for the street racer, as design chief Gale frequently reminds. "It is a vehicle for everyone," he insists.

That aside, there are plenty of hints from the Chrysler camp that a GT Cruiser model, featuring either a performance-tuned V-6 or a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, is in the works. Which would give Chrysler a car for the twentysomethings who demand to be different: a cure for the all-too-common Civic.

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