PT Cruiser, RIP
By Roger Boylan
When it came out in late 1999 as a 2000 model, the Chrysler PT Cruiser PT was, love it or hate it, sui generis. It kicked off the retro revolution. Two years after the furor of the New Beetle, American car design was back where it belonged, out in front of the pack, and Chrysler was once again taking chances…and dividing public opinion. I can remember no other vehicle—not the Mini, not the New Beetle, not the Chevy HHR–that aroused such passions, pro and con, at its inception. A few years later, of course, feelings had cooled, and after a couple of minimal cyclical touch-ups and a spate of spinoff submodels such as the Dream Cruiser, the GT Turbo, and the misbegotten convertible, Chrysler wound down its investment in the Cruiser.
By 2007, after a half-hearted attempt to refresh the aging design, the company, by then heading rapidly down the tubes itself, had essentially condemned the PT to death. It limped on for another three years. Then the former “it” car, the hottest of hot sellers, the paradigm of cutting-edge design, was no more. The last one rolled off the line on July 9. The plant that produced it in Toluca, Mexico, is being retooled for Fiat 500 production.
The first PT Cruiser I remember seeing was a black one heading west on 12th Street in Austin, Texas, sometime in, I believe, late 2000. I was tooling along in the other direction in my Nissan Pathfinder, going I can’t remember where–probably looking for another job, one of my perennial pastimes–when my internal car-buff alert system went off and I pulled over to the side of the road to have a look. The PT went by slowly and majestically, its driver no doubt aware of the effect the car was having on the gaping doofus across the street. Actually, I was surprised by the car’s smallness–the ads had made it appear SUV-like–and the slightly anachronistic chrome accents everywhere, but overall I was won over by the design. It was based, as the promo literature said, on the Ford panel vans of the 1930s. Yes, I could see that influence, but I also saw something entirely fresh and original. Indeed, I thought with some relief that, on the evidence of the PT Cruiser, news of the demise of automotive design, and of Chrysler, had been greatly exaggerated.
Not long after that first sighting I went out and acquired a PT Cruiser for my wife, who had also been smitten at first sight. It sits in our garage yet, her favorite car of all the cars she’s owned. Perfect? Hardly. Its reliability has been, shall we say, episodic. Fortunately, such episodes (an oil leak, a recalcitrant window regulator, mysterious electrical problems) have occurred only rarely. The car performs fine most of the time. It’s nearly eight years old now, after all, and my wife simply can’t find another car that suits her so well. (A Honda Fit or Insight, or a Mini, might be on the distant horizon.) The ride is smooth and pleasant. Cargo capacity is a cavernous 76 cubic feet and the interior allows for 26 seating/cargo space configurations. The seats are upright, minivan-style, with well-positioned armrests, and the dashboard is color-coded with the exterior, a nice retro touch. (Not any more; in the ’07 refresh, the original interior, seats and all, was gutted and replaced with a generic rental-car ambience of blanched plastic and faux aluminum.) The second-row seats are also removable, albeit with some effort. All of which is ideal for transporting groceries, dogs, coolers, bags, mattresses, etc.
Down sides? Personally, I never liked the Peterbilt-wide turning circle. The fuel economy (20 mpg average) is piss-poor for a small car. The transmission is balky, and some of the bits and pieces are flimsy. But the Cruiser is more than the sum of its parts, like all true originals. I’m glad we still have one in our garage. It’s still one of the most evocative and stylish designs on the road. I welcome the Cinquecento, but I mourn the Cruiser’s passing. Ciao, PT. It was fun while it lasted.