It's been over a decade since the Chrysler PT Cruiser kicked off a wave of retro design that looked fresh and hip at the turn of the millennium. So when Chrysler announced that 2010 would be the last model year for the PT, I decided to take one last look at the five-door wagon. Is this modern-day classic still worth buying? Read on. $18,275 base, $20,445 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway.
First Glance: Same as it ever was
Chrysler takes a hands-off approach to its vehicles. Once they hit the market, that's it. No changes, no upgrades, no marketing. If it sells, it sells. If it doesn't, just kill it off in a few years. When a vehicle like the PT Cruiser remains in the lineup for over a decade, it becomes a time machine. When I picked up Aaron Gold for a ride in the PT one evening, he sat in the driver's seat and said, "Hello, 1999." A 2010 PT Cruiser is virtually indistinguishable from the original PT Cruiser of model year 2001, which debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 1999.
Designed by Brian Nesbitt, a graduate of Pasadena's famous Art Center College of Design, the PT Cruiser evokes classic automotive design cues. There's a little bit of Chrysler Airflow from the 1930s, there's a bit of gangster classics from the 1920s, a little bit of bread truck from the 1940s, all remixed with a hot-rodder's casual iconoclasm. PT Cruiser was a hit, garnering design awards upon its debut. It has even spawned a cult following, PT Cruiser fanatics who personalize their PTs with bolt-on accessories and designer color schemes. It's the ideal collector car for non-car people -- affordable, drivable, and cute.
The PT looks smaller in person than it does in photos. The long hood makes a nice counterpoint to the rounded-box shape of the cabin. Just don't look too closely at the plastic grille (link goes to photo) or any of the gaps or seams, because you'll be ready to replace every part you can from the aftermarket catalogs.
In the Driver's Seat: The thighs have it
The driver's seat is probably the biggest factor that would keep me from buying a PT Cruiser in the first place. PT's perch offers so little thigh support for someone my size (I'm 6'2") that fatigue sets in almost immediately upon driving. Even the aforementioned Aaron Gold, who can't be much over 5'5" [Ed. note: I'm 5'6!! 5'6!! -- Aaron] noted that his thighs felt like they were hanging out in the wind during his brief drive.
PT's dashboard is a study in minimalism ruined by a few cheap touches. The biggest problem is that the power window controls are right smack dab in the middle at the top of the center stack, just below the analog clock. Clustering the window controls there saves money by simplifying wiring and manufacturing and eliminating redundant parts. What it doesn't do is simplify operation.
The thin steering wheel looks like a round peg going into a square hole, because the base of the steering column is so obviously a parts bin item that is totally mismatched to the wheel. Ugly and cheap.
The PT's back seat is flat and functional. It does fold down in a 65/35 split, and it tumbles forward and can be removed entirely with the flick of a lever and a healthy heave. In terms of pure functionality, PT's cargo area is its best feature with 21.6 cubic feet with the rear seats in place and 62.7 cubic feet with them removed. The useless package shelf would get a quick toss in the garage, but the spacious, easily accessible hold is great.
On the Road: Cruising for a cure
PT Cruiser's performance fits its name -- cruising is about the best match for the 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that is the only choice under the hood. Chrysler used to offer a more potent turbo engine, but they dropped it in 2007. The current 2.4 (which Chrysler describes as "time-tested") puts out 150 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque, perfectly adequate to move the 3,222 lb. PT. The 4-speed automatic transmission sends power to the front wheels only. Stomping on the gas results in thrashy noise from under the hood, not at all pleasant for you or the PT. Go easy on the gas, and PT floats along quietly and happily.
Steering feel can best be called "vague," as the PT's power rack-and-pinion setup requires a lot of correction to hold its course on the road. A wide 40.2' turning circle is a surprise with a vehicle of such compact dimensions, so check to make sure that you'll be able to navigate your regular parking lot haunts without multiple passes. PT's standard 16" x 6" wheels reveal the vehicle's age -- bigger, wider wheels are all the rage these days. The narrow hoops don't do PT much of a favor, but combined with independent MacPherson strut suspension in the front and a simple twist-beam axle in the rear, they're probably getting the most out of the steel unibody chassis.
Journey's End: Classic or dinosaur?
Back in 2004, the last time that the PT Cruiser was covered on this site, reviewer Robert Bowden noted that "Today, the PT Cruiser is no longer a novelty and is growing a bit long in the tooth." That was six years ago. The PT Cruiser of today is, technologically speaking, practically a dinosaur. You can't get a factory navigation system installed. There are no side-curtain airbags, so you don't get much protection in case of a rollover. You can't get the latest and the greatest features like adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, or even electronic stability control. What you do get is a functional time capsule of a vehicle, a pure survivor from Y2K.
If you're considering a PT Cruiser, I probably won't be able to talk you out of it; this is, after all, the last year it will be made. You might be swayed by the Chevrolet HHR, PT's closest competitor. I'd suggest that you take a look at the Scion xB, the Kia Soul, the Nissan Cube, the MINI Cooper Clubman, and even the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. There's plenty of eclectic competition in the field.
Is the PT Cruiser Classic a true classic? I think that if you're making a film about the 2000s in the year 2100, a PT Cruiser will definitely roll through the frame. But would I want to live with one? I think that time has passed by this time capsule. -- Jason Fogelson