• Sep 2, 2009
2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser – Click above for high-res image gallery

It wasn't so many years ago that Chrysler's design department was considered among the best in the industry. Attractive, innovative shapes came one after another, then they took a sharp detour into the crash test building and the rest is Sebring/Compass/Caliber history. In the late Nineties when Chrysler design was still on a roll, one of the highlights was the debut of the PT Cruiser.

As insolvency fast approached, CEO Bob Nardelli and his staff were scrambling to find cars to kill and, unsurprisingly, the nearly decade-old PT wound up on that list. Surprisingly, after exiting bankruptcy court in July, Chrysler decided to keep the PT alive through the end of 2010 when new models start arriving. After perusing our review list and realizing that, like the S2000, we've never tested the PT, we called Chrysler to get one last go-'round in the retro-hatch.



Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.


Chrysler's PT Cruiser first debuted in 2000 as an evolution from a pair of earlier concept cars, the 1997 Plymouth Pronto and 1999 Pronto Cruizer. As is often the way with hardcore retromobiles, the PT's design has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. When it was minted, the Cruiser was instantly recognizable and couldn't be confused with anything else on the street – and things stayed that way until the Chevrolet HHR made a belated arrival to the party in 2005.



Unfortunately, the Bryan Nesbitt-penned paddywagon's heavy reliance on historical pastiche has made it difficult to update – perhaps not as much as a more literal exhumation like the Volkswagen New Beetle, but it remains tough to re-recreate an already familiar form. For the most part, Chrysler was stumped about how to evolve the PT, and as a result, today's edition doesn't look much different than the very first example that rolled off the line nearly a decade ago.

Over the intervening years, Chrysler created a gaggle of limited-edition PT variants – notably the Dream Cruiser series created in conjunction with Detroit's annual Woodward Dream Cruise. In fact, the tester you see here is a Series 5 Dream Cruiser – a trim job that doesn't feature any notable mechanical upgrades.



Aside from the addition of an optional turbocharged engine and a very mild facelift in 2006, almost nothing of significance has changed about the Cruiser since its debut. From a packaging and functionality standpoint, though, that's not an entirely bad thing. The PT was one of the original tall wagons, a genre recently popularized in the form of space-minded economy cars like the Scion xB, Kia Soul and Nissan Cube.

Like other econoboxes, our Cruiser has a more upright stance than most traditional hatchbacks and sedans of similar size. That verticality extends to the PT's driving position as well – it has the sort of formal, tall hip-point seating that crossover drivers celebrate. As it happens, the PT was also something of a pioneer in flexible packaging and seating in small vehicles. Along with the rear seats, the front passenger seatback also folds flat to accommodate long objects, and in the cargo area, Chrysler provides a sturdy parcel shelf/cargo cover that can be erected at two different heights or removed entirely. With the back seat up, the PT has 21.6 cubic feet of space ahead of the tailgate.



Unlike newer machines from other automakers, there are some oddly archaic details about the Cruiser, some – like the prominent push-button door handles – that are part of the vehicle's intentional nostalgic flavor, but it's hard not to notice the dated dashboard expanse. From the driver's seat, the PT's basic ergonomics remain sound (save perhaps the high center-mounted window switches), but Chrysler's lack of investment over the past decade shines through loud and clear in the materials and switchgear on duty. Further, assembly quality and panel gaps are noticeably subpar. When you grasp the spherically knobbed shift lever, you can feel the parting line around the center, and the button on top is ill-fitting and wobbly. Similarly, lifting the armrest reveals untrimmed flashing around the edge of the bin.

Another place where our PT Cruiser lags behind the competition is in powertrain refinement. Its 2.4-liter turbo four makes 180 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque. Considering its competitors, that's not a bad sum, but it's not particularly more powerful than the less expensive, normally aspirated competitors of similar displacement. In the case of our tester, that lack of power and comportment was hampered by a lethargic four-speed automatic. Predictably, acceleration isn't glacial, but it's also less than enthusiastic.



The PT's suspension tuning, on the other hand, remains significantly better than the powertrain it supports. As you may recall, the Cruiser was derived from the platform of the long-gone Dodge Neon, albeit with a beam rear axle replacing the independent configuration of the sedan.Yet even with its aging architecture, the ride quality exhibited over some of the worst pavement we could find was still very acceptable. The body's vertical motions remained fairly well-controlled and the suspension consistently did a commendable job of absorbing surface disturbances.

If there's a glaring flaw in the PT's suspension portfolio, it's insufficient roll control. Compared to the rest of the MPVs and hatchbacks on the market, the PT rides on a narrow track, something that's exacerbated by its relatively tall body form. As a result, the Cruiser leans rather heavily when cornering hard – not quite to the levels of a vintage cartoon paddywagon, but certainly more than what we're accustomed to experiencing.

Thankfully, the utility quotient of the PT Cruiser remains excellent thanks to its flexible seating, but given its compact dimensions and modest performance, the fuel economy we experienced was disappointing. After a week in our evaluator, we barely managed 19 mpg. The EPA has rated the turbocharged PT at 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, so our figure isn't an aberration. For comparison's sake, the base, normally-aspirated engine clocks in at 21/26 with a five-speed manual or 19/24 with the auto-box.



So, a milquetoast experience with an aging car. No surprises here, right? Hang on - there was one truly jarring moment we encountered with the PT – looking at our tester's sticker price. Chrysler charges $18,720 (including delivery) for a plain-jane Cruiser. The well-equipped Touring model starts at $20,530, landing on the wrong side of pricy for our tastes and our fully loaded Dream Cruiser came with a hang-on-to-your-wallet sticker price of $26,120.

Of course, given that sales for this senior citizen have fallen off precipitously from its salad days back at the dawn of the decade (not to mention Chrysler has long since paid for the PT's tooling) actual dealership transaction prices are significantly lower. Chrysler has been offering huge rebates on the PT for eons now, so if you are still charmed by the PT's relentlessly retro looks after all these years, you're in luck – not only have Chrysler's new Fiat overlords given the Cruiser a longer lifespan, you can actually get some pretty amazing deals.



Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 81 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      The Cruiser was a wonderful car that Daimler-Benz screwed up. We still love our 205,000 mile '01, but Daimler-Benz screwed up the "update" and then allowed the model to languish.

      To those who don't "get" the car - don't try. It's all about nostalgia. You'll never undertand. But please hold your bashing just because YOU don't get it.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Working at an auto auction I can also say that the acceleration is horrendous. I also would be wary of long term reliability. In fact I would be wary of any Chryler/Dodge car.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I first posted this on the AB story about the PT staying in production for one more year, but I thought it was worth reposting here so some would understand the history behind this car and why it turned out the way it did:

      --

      A little explanation is in order (as well as a little history).

      The PT was developed in the late '90's when Chrylser was planning on giving Plymouth a distinct look and feel from Chrylser and Dodge. Then the Germans took over in late '98 and early '99. Before they FUBARE'd Chrysler's great product development process (as well as everything else but THAT'S a story for another time) they made it clear in no uncertain terms that they hated this new car that was about to be introduced. Hated it. They didn't understand it; what it was about, what it was for. So they held up the introduction of the car to make "improvements". One of them was safety. Now the car met all the safety regs of the day but the Germans decreed that all Chrysler's had to be 5 star rated (wonder why Chrysler's today look so heavy and get piss-poor gas mileage? All that weight is great for $60,000 luxury sedan but not so good for a an entry level "fun" Plymouth). So they added weight and the mileage today "blows", especially when you consider the Neon, which it is based off of got great mileage.

      Then they had the brilliant idea that getting rid of Plymouth would be a great idea. So the PT was sold as a Chrysler, which didn't make any sense, since it was to retail for 20k. But it sold well at the beginning. People dug the retro styling, and even paid a premium for it. The designer left to work for GM and gave them the HHR (copycat!) and is now in charge of Cadillac.

      Even though it was a sales success the Germans didn't care for it (did I mention that they hated it?) and did nothing to improve it. But sales were steady and there were all kinds of "special editions" the marketing boys could come up with. So they kept making it but they started to decontent it as the years went, using cheaper materials on the interior (like today's Toyota Camry) and making NO improvements to the drivetrain.

      By the time Cerberus came along the car was too stale and too long in the tooth to do anything about it. It's time had passed. It could have been updated and a new generation developed but it's too late now. And it never had the identity it really should have had as an inexpensive, fun, stylish Plymouth.
      • 5 Years Ago
      On your road maybe.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The interior was re-designed in 2006, and was made worse than the original. Yet another gift from the teutonic overlords.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I agree as well. I had an '01 and liked the odd interior. The update looked like some 70's designer home disaster.

        If they had only dropped a diesel in there instead of doing a silly unnecessary interior update...
      • 5 Years Ago
      Chrysler has sold over 1.3 Million PT's. While they may have lacked in the refinement/update department, it can never be said that the PT wasn't the right car at the right time.

      Love it hate it, 1.3 million is a commendable feat.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The way things are going Chrysler wants out of the sales business altogether.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Thats only 130K average a year. Thats not that great. Not that bad, but not that great, especially when you considor how many end up as rental cars.

        A friend of mine sold her beloved Ford Aerostar and bought one of these things a few years ago ('06 or '07 model). I talked to her one day about it and she said she wished that she would have kept the Aerostar. For the amount of gas she saved in the PT, it was not worth the problems. She said they had major problems with the car since day one, it has spent more time in the Chrysler service bay than in her drive way. She had driven the Aerostar for 10 years and it had only asked for regular maintenance. Its no wonder they recently traded the PT Loser in on a new Taurus X. Arguably not Ford's greatest achievement, but she loves it a lot more than the Loser.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Of course, at the very least 60% of those 1.3mil sales went to fleets. I say the last couple of years 90% went to rental fleets.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I just love the exaggerated critques of the autoblog/Chrysler haters. The PT is one of the most sucsessfull and original cars to roll out of any car company, foreign or domestic.Almost all of the negative comments. as always, come from one area. It's,"A CHRYSLER PRODUCT"! The PT has a timeless design that will for the most part never be equaled by the mostly alway forgettable Toyota's, Nissan's and Honda's.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This was really a highlight of their design? Really?
      • 5 Years Ago
      looks like they pinched the rims from my beloved SRT4 neon!

        • 5 Years Ago
        This a classic example of typical Chrysler bean counters hard at work. We're more than half way through 2009 and they nicked wheels off a car they stopped making in 2005. Unbelievable.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Good eye. Those absolutely look like SRT4 wheels.
        • 5 Years Ago
        That's because they have these wheels laying around in storage and this is the best way to get rid of them. I see a lot of fake SRT-4 Neons with hood scoops and tall wings but with the base motor. The beancounters are just clearing out the beans before production ceases.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I noticed that too, and I think they look out of place on the PT. Combined with the chintzy cheese grater grill and mismatched roof and spoiler, it makes me wonder why anyone would pay extra for this package. I always kinda liked the PT, just wish they could have kept it competitive while maintaining it's polarizing style.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I bought the Diesel version (U.K.) in 2002. The Mercedes 2.2 CRD unit was sqeezed in. It carried a £1500 ($2500) premium, but it was worth it for sheer driveability and fuel economy, 41mpg (approx 33US). Also services were only required every 12000 miles (or annually). I have now covered 93000 miles and the better fuel economy has saved me over £2000 ($3000) at the prices of our fuel!
      • 5 Years Ago
      True a PT Cruiser SRT4 would have been cool.
      • 5 Years Ago
      It looks like a hearse
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