Attention was drawn to a young designer named Bryan Nesbitt in 1998, when Chrysler turned a Nesbitt sketch into the Pronto-Cruizer concept car. It met with an enthusiastic reception and Nesbitt went to work on a production model. In 2001, the world saw the result: the PT Cruiser. And the rest is history; a major success for DaimlerChrysler which has spawned pricier models since its mid-teens introduction. Prices: US $19,170; as tested, $21,865. Warranty: 7 years/70,000 miles powertrain.
Even before the stunning PT Cruiser hit the market, Chrysler was known for periodic groundbreaking designs. It had given the world the Viper, the Prowler, sleek minivans. But one segment failed - represented by the Neon. Cute, yes? A huge success? No. So when Nesbitt's Pronto-Cruizer concept was well-received, it was no accident that the production vehicle would use Neon and minivan parts. Right from the start, the PT Cruiser was attractive and functional. Its retro theme carried over from the 40-ish body style to an interior complete with cue-ball shifter. And it turned heads as only the New Beetle had done. But it was hardly a hot rod. A small four-cylinder engine couldn't back up its looks. So a turbocharged engine was a no-brainer. The turbocharged 2.4-liter four pumps out 180 horsepower, plenty for front-wheel drive to handle. It corners well on a sport suspension and still has the functional interior that helped make it appealing in 2001. Prices have risen, however. In 2001, a $16,000 PT could be purchased. The tested 2004 PT Cruiser Touring Edition topped out at $21,865 with only two options; an $825 automatic transmission and a $1,280 package that includes the turbocharged engine.
It was retro design that made the PT Cruiser so desirable in 2001. DaimlerChrysler thought the design would appeal to young people, but, strangely, that hasn't proven the case. You see PT Cruisers everywhere today, and behind the wheel you'll most likely see a middle-aged person, often a woman. But no styling update has been done and only colors have been changed in successive model years. Today, the PT Cruiser is no longer a novelty and is growing a bit long in the tooth. Still, it is the very model of doing it right. Nesbitt brought back the old Chrysler emblem, he created old-looking but completely acceptable exterior door handles, even ordered the cue ball atop the shifter on the manual transmission. But at first, a leather-wrapped shifter from a Dodge Intrepid was used on the automatic -- and it was discordant, to say the least. Now, even the automatic on the 2004 PT Cruiser Touring Edition has that metal cue ball. And take a close look at the tail lights. There's a little purple circle in there, just like the old days. The one remaining sour note is the modern radio. It's woefully out of place. How much better it would be to have an old style radio, with a twist knob for volume and another for station selection.
On the Road
The 2004 PT Cruiser Touring Edition enjoys a subtle boost from a 2.4-liter turbocharged four pumping out 180 horsepower. But a buyer will shell out an additional $1,280 and enjoy no increase in fuel efficiency. That's the Achilles Heel of the Cruiser. The EPA estimate is 19 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. Ours did worse -- 22 mpg in mostly highway cruising. But any PT Cruiser is a delight to drive. It turns, accelerates and parks easily. Brakes modulate well. Visibility is good in almost all directions. Front air bags are standard; side bags and anti-lock brakes are options. In crash tests, the PT Cruiser earned a 4-star rating. This is a noisy car, with an atrocious 0.38 coefficient of drag. That makes for louder-than-necessary wind noise. The seats can be configured 25 ways and a Cruiser can become a roomy station wagon with a flat floor. The worst flaw is the location of the power window switches. Crank windows would have been fine in a retro car, but power was essential, so switches ended up in the middle of the console and on the floor in the rear. The only way to operate the rear switches is with a toe - and they aren't designed for that. Entry and exit are easy. Head and foot room are exceptionally good.
The 2004 PT Cruiser Touring Edition remains a desirable vehicle at around $20,000. Unless 30 additional horsepower is needed for your daily commute, however, it doesn't make much sense to pop $1,280 extra for this engine. The base model will suit you fine. And the head-turner today is the Dream Cruiser at about $30,000, with a paint job making it look even more like a London taxi. The convertible will indeed turn heads again and sell for just under $20,000. DaimlerChrysler has been taking advance orders for the first ones. Designer Nesbitt was the hottest designer in autodom after the PT Cruiser made its debut, and General Motors hired him away from Chrysler. At GM, he would work again with ex-Chrysler guy Bob Lutz. It was rumored Nesbitt would soon head GM design, but in February of 2004 he was assigned to Europe, to lead Opel design. That's a new beginning, not an end, for him. And he replaces the man who designed the stunning Audi TT and has now joined Ford. So look for the Nesbitt-PT Cruiser touch down the road as General Motors puts his visions in metal. And let's hope Chrysler continues to evolve the practical and good-looking vehicle that the PT Cruiser still is.