Driving Impressions

Chrysler PT Cruiser - Get One if You Can
David Cipolloni
May 22, 2000

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Click to enlargeIntroduction
Everyone seems to be asking the same question. Is the PT Cruiser a car, truck or minivan? Chrysler says PT stands for personal transportation but that of course applies to most vehicles. We tend to think if it were a single passenger vehicle it would be more of a personal transportation vehicle.  After spending a few days tooling around the Princeton NJ  and Bucks County PA area and asking curious onlookers what they thought the vehicle was, we find ourselves asking the same question. 

One thing is for sure though, people are excited and pleased to see the little retro looking wagon. At first we wanted to strap a couple surfboards on the roof and head for a photo shoot at the Jersey shore but then we thought maybe it really would be best to deliver milk with it. Trying to decide what this vehicle should be was the most confusing part of our road test. We decided the best test would be to use the vehicle as we would our own and see for ourselves what role it was best suited.

click to enlargeWith Chrysler building approximately 180,000 PT Cruisers one would think they would be readily available. This is not the case as dealers are struggling to fill all the orders. The demand appears to be causing a price frenzy, with some dealers and resellers charging well over sticker price. We believe Chrysler made a smart move by marketing the vehicle as a cruiser and not a performance vehicle. The low MSRP, functional interior and exotic look of the vehicle coupled with low cost of ownership have hit a cord with consumers in America. 

The Cruiser is also slated for sale in Japan and Europe, further increasing the demand for the vehicle. A new plant was established in Graz, Austria to handle the over-seas demand. Only time will tell if the vehicle receives the same warm reception in other countries. We tend to think it will due to it's small size, good ride quality and functionality.

How will you feel about the vehicle when the novelty wears off? Let's take a look at how well our Limited Edition Cruiser did when we actually had our staff do daily chores using the vehicle as they would their own. 

Entering the vehicle was relatively easy due to the wide door openings and low entry. Our Cruiser was the limited edition model so it was equipped with the power height adjustable drivers seat. Once inside even the tallest drivers found it easy to adjust the seat and steering column to find a comfortable driving position. The only complaint we had was from some of the shorter drivers that found their right knee hitting the center dashboard pod when the seat was moved forward. We wondered if this would be a problem in crash testing. 

click to enlargeThe leather wrapped steering wheel on our Limited felt good and provided comfortable grip in all driving positions. The cruise control stalk is positioned and easily reached using your right hand and also rotates with the steering wheel. The off/on and other functions are all controlled by the one stalk. When switched on there is an indicator that illuminated in the center speedometer cluster. This is a small thing but other vehicles we have tested did not have an indicator and thought it would be best to know if the system had power to it. This became an issue several years back when another car manufacturer had alleged runaway problems due to a cruise control system that was powered up at all times. 

When we reached toward the door panel for the window lift switches we found we had to look elsewhere. The switches for the front windows are mounted in the center of the dashboard between the center air ducts. The switches for the rear windows are mounted on the rear of the center console. The driver and front passenger will need to reach back and down to operate the rear windows. The rear seat passengers must lean forward to reach the switches. That seemed rather odd to us but nobody complained about it. One plus was the express down feature for both front windows. 

The door lock buttons are located forward of the inside door release handles as would be expected. The controls for the power outside mirrors are located on the left side of the dash and provide the usual functions. Because our cruiser was a Limited the outside mirrors are also heated. The controls for HVAC are located midway down the center dash pod and are standard Chrysler fare with decent feel and function. Our Limited came equipped with the standard six speaker am/fm cassette stereo and optional CD player. This was also standard Chrysler fare but did provide better than average sound quality. 

The switches for rear window defroster and traction control are located below the radio along with a 12volt power outlet. The center console houses the shifter, cup holders, coin holders and emergency brake lever. The console itself is a rather mundane, injection molded, chunk of plastic that does little to enhance the appearance of quality in the interior. With the exception of the center console we found the other materials used for the interior to be of very good quality for a vehicle in this price range.

 The leather seating surfaces have suede inserts but one tester thought the suede would not weather well and would prefer straight leather surfaces. Front headrests on the Limited have 4-way adjustments but one tester complained the headrests were positioned too far forward. The folding armrest on the drivers seat appears to be a minivan part and provides good support in position to allow right hand grip of the steering wheel. We would prefer that both front seats were equipped with the armrest. Seat cushions were firm but provided little lateral support.

click to enlargeThe remainder of the interior is very functional but in no way has the cargo capacity of even the small Chrysler minivans. With the rear seats in the upright position the storage space behind the seats is only what you would expect in a small compact car. The only advantage over the compact is the height of the cargo area and the many ways of configuring the interior. We thought we would put the interior to the test by taking the Trek mountain bikes out for a ride. We removed the rear shelf, folded and flipped the rear seats and loaded up the bikes. Well that didn't work.  The next step was to remove the front wheels of the Trek's and we were on our way.  We are learning the Cruiser is not the cargo hauler of the larger minivan. If we folded the front passenger seat to accommodate the bikes we would have left the passenger behind. 

The rear seats can be completely removed by releasing small tabs once the seats are flipped forward. The rear package shelf (tray) can be positioned behind the rear seats in several different configurations including a small table that can be adjusted to protrude from the back of the vehicle when the tailgate is open. We stood around thinking what use we may have for the little table but felt it was more of a novelty item (too small for tailgate parties).  For the most part we left the shelf in the uppermost position when the rear seats were used. This is the factory installed position and conceals valuables in the rear cargo area.

Driving Impression
After driving the Cruiser we found it hard to find much fault with it's ride or handling. That in itself is probably a complement to the design and build quality of the vehicle. We never found the vehicle to be annoying at highway speeds, driving on rough roads or driving the country roads of Bucks County PA. In fact the overall driving experience was rather pleasant if you keep in mind the PT is not a high performance sports car. Our Limited had the optional disc brake package which includes four wheel disc and anti-lock brakes plus low speed traction control. The low speed traction control is not to be confused with any type of active handling package but is a good feature when attempting to start out on a rain or snow slick road surface. It can be very annoying when roads are wet and you attempt to pull out into traffic only to find yourself sitting there spinning wheels. In this regard the traction control does its job and will be a welcome option when the white stuff starts falling. It should be mentioned the traction control can be switched off but it's not likely you will be spinning the wheels on dry road surface anyway. 

The suspension is very compliant and the watts linkage setup in the rear does a good job of keeping the rear wheels firmly planted when cornering. This is not an independent rear suspension but does get the most out of the twist beam rear axle. We were pleased with the slick engineering without the cost of an independent setup. The independent suspension may also  have sacrificed interior volume in the rear cargo area.  The front suspension employs the typical Chrysler strut and coil spring setup. It's difficult to find fault with how the Cruiser rides and drives with the exception of the engine.  

click to enlargeStuffed in the tiny engine compartment is Chryslers run of the mill 2.4 litre twin cam 4 cylinder. After recently testing a new Honda Accord we were a little disappointed with the PT Cruisers engine. Even though on paper the two engines look very similar they really have little in common in execution. While the Honda was smooth, quiet and revved easily we found the Chrysler engine almost tractor like. It gets the job done moving the vehicle around during normal driving but gets harsh when pushed in the upper regions. There is adequate passing power at most speeds and commuters probably won't get frustrated with the engine. When the opportunity presented itself to throw all the boilers on-line we ran out of highway before we could crack  triple digits on the speedo. That's not to say the vehicle won't go that fast but we wouldn't suggest trying to outrun the highway patrol without some performance mods.  

Chrysler did  a good job in the NVH department as everyone commented on how quiet and smooth the ride was for a vehicle in this price range. Another point we felt worth mentioning was the good directional stability the vehicle exhibited at highway speeds. There are far too many domestic vehicles that do not track properly on the highway. Having to make constant steering corrections on a long trip can cause fatigue. If all the Cruisers drive as well as our tester the driving public should be pleased with the vehicle. click to enlarge

Now it's important to mention a few details that will make potential buyers better understand what life with the Cruiser would be like. 

Stuff We Liked

  • Glove compartment door doesn't wack you in the knee when you open it.

  • Glove compartment has a holder for pen and tire pressure gauge.

  • Front and rear doors open wide for easy entry/exit.

  • Four speed automatic has decent shift programming.

  • Theater dimming interior lights add a flair of luxury.

  • Express down feature for both front windows.

  • Rigid uni-body structure provides for excellent ride quality

  • Overall interior and exterior fit and finish are good

  • Power height adjustable drivers seat (although some complained it pitched them forward).

  • Versatility of the interior.

  • Outside temp and direction indicator (not on base models).

  • Isolation of road noise. 

  • One touch operation of power moonroof (not on base models)

  • Tie-downs located around the interior for securing things like mountain bikes. 

  • Adjustable rear shelf and 12volt power outlet.

  • Base price of $16,000, fully loaded price of $20,995 (way cool car for the money).

  • Watts Linkage on rear suspension provides for good handling.

  • Front and side air bags

  • At 3200 Lbs the vehicle feels heavy and solid on the road

  • EPA 20mpg city and 25mpg highway (although we never managed the 25hwy).

Stuff We Didn't Like

  • 2.4 litre Engine 150HP@ 5600 RPM's 162lb-ft@ 4000 RPM's (looks ok on paper but is just adequate in execution. Engine is also too noisy for our liking).

  • Front passenger seat needs an armrest.

  • Dark tinted rear windows help control interior temperature and look cool but make seeing out at night difficult.

  • Shorter drivers complained about their right knee hitting the center dash pod at times. 

  • Not enough engine compartment space to accommodate a V-6.

Overall Impression
The folks at Chrysler are to be commended for building such an intriguing vehicle at the price they are offering it. We don't expect many will be disappointed with their purchase if they decide to buy the PT Cruiser. As we were standing there one last time with the hood of the cruiser propped open someone wondered if the V-Tech drivetrain would fit, Hmmm.

Comments can be sent to the author at contacts@autoracing1.com.

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