Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
A car on parade in its own driveway.
The Prowler could only have been created in an atmosphere where car guys called the shots - car guys who could look back with personal affection on the early American hot rods and at the same time look forward to technological advances in the manufacture of the automobile.
Chrysler executive Bob Lutz and Tom Gale, then head of design - car guys extraordinaire (and both now gone from Chrysler) - were uniquely situated in the early '90s to unite those seemingly disparate visions into a sincere homage to the hot rod and at the same time create a test-bed of non-traditional materials. (The Prowler is the most aluminum-intensive car built and puts magnesium, urethane and polymers to work as well.) Lutz and Gale could say, 'build it.' And they did.
One model is made - a two-seat, manual-top convertible with rear-wheel drive and automatic transmission with AutoStick.
First came the concept car that turned slowly under spotlights at the 1993 Detroit auto show, stunning every journalist into statue rigidity - mouth agape, eyes misting. Then three years later the car emerged in its eggplant hue with its eggplant-shaped rear hip line - curvaceous and enorm with 20-inch rear wheels - contrasting in delightful incongruity to the airily light front end with motorcycle fenders capping 17-inch wheels and a brash bumper that admits it wouldn't be there on a real hot rod (but looks fine obeying street rules). This is the car that was to be a halo car for Plymouth - an image-enhancer like the Viper was to Dodge. Unfortunately, Cheshire-cat like, the grin outlasted the body. With Plymouth gone the Prowler is now a Chrysler adoptee.
Image-enhancement is still the car's strong suit - the image of the driver. Prowler remains as eye grabbing as ever. Shouts of 'I love your car' trail it through restaurant parking lots. It evokes thumbs up and smiles from every age group, every gender. (Though it skews heavily male among purchasers.) The Prowler evokes the emotions and entertains the eye at every angle. Its enduring appeal depends on the fact that it is not just a bright idea and a smart design but that it is well executed. Detail is attended to, fit and finish are admirable. Sleekly sophisticated with its flattened wedge shape, voluptuous curves and unique color schemes, the Prowler is nonetheless a most affable machine. Indeed, if you didn't climb into its lap first it might climb into yours.
Colors! In some ways Chrysler is more like the Franklin Mint than a carmaker with this car. Collectability is a real consideration, and the choice and timing of color options is a teaser to craving. The first year's purple (I called it 'aubergine') led to a singing yellow in mid 1999. Then came a lipstick red and a black. (And two-tone red and black for a special Woodward Dream Cruise edition.) For 2000 silver was the new color. That was joined around Halloween with a deep orange, sort of like a Jack O'Lantern flashed with candle fire (the color of our test car). Also new for 2001 is a two-tone black and silver metallic called Black Tie Edition, as entertaining as a lounge magician. A special Mulholland Drive edition is a deep sapphire Pearlcoat blue with light blue hand striping and a dark blue top. Sounds edible, doesn't it? True collectors, of course, want one of each.
The top is made of a substantive padded cloth. It fits solidly and looks good when up, and it goes down with relative ease (aided by a few expletives), storing out of sight behind the rear deck lid. The rear window is real glass with defogger. The side windows are power with one-touch down.
The leather-trimmed bucket seats are handsome things both in appearance and in use, providing good driving support and cruising comfort. The dash is another Chrysler design statement, a body-colored stretched lozenge-shaped cluster with centralized instruments. Never mind, the important thing is the little round tachometer apparently after-thought-mounted smack in front of the driver's nose on the steering column. It reminds us of hot rods with tachs from the J.C. Whitney's catalog.
Prowler has all sorts of comforts that few real rods have: remote keyless entry, air conditioning, 320-watt stereo with six-CD changer, audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel, power locks, windows and mirrors, even a cupholder (singular).
Outward visibility suffers notably. Hot-rod like, the sides of the car rise high, engendering that three-year-old-in-a-bathtub syndrome. The top in place achieves a cocoon-like visual isolation. But even with the top down it is impossible to know exactly where the right-side front tire is. This is more a problem in parking lots than on the road, but care is suggested to avoid damaging or being damaged. (Also be cautious in edging up to low concrete parking space markers lest an unpleasant underside scraping results.) Fortunately for locating other objects in the world the side mirrors are amply sized. (Hint: adjust them so that they take in some of that great swell of the rear fender. This is for aesthetic considerations only.)
The Prowler will teach you to travel light - and flat and soft-sided. The great rear haunches are for transaxle, tires, gas tank and top storage - not your gear. Some garment bags might fit in the shallow area remaining, and a truly skinny brief case behind a seat, but if you carry more than what you wear opt for the small rounded color-matched trailer. It's cute. Fortunately, the center console has a little stuffing space.
People much above the national average in size may find the Prowler's cockpit (and the term is apt) cramped. Seat travel is limited. Certainly anyone who can play above the rim will not find a home in the Prowler. My 6-foot, seven-inch ergonomic tester could sit in the car only with the top stowed. He could drive - sort of - peering over the windshield, knees akimbo around the steering wheel at full tilt. It's not easy to watch an overgrown man cry.
The first-year Prowler drew some carping for being a mere V6. (Many of the Prowler's components are modified LH bits, including the transaxle transplanted to the rear - nice for balance.) Real rods have V8s, detractors said, but the Prowler power was soon improved.
The current 3.5-liter 24-valve V6 offers 253 horsepower at 6400 rpm (and a well-placed 255 pounds-feet of torque at 3950). That power has to whup only 2838 pounds off the line. So wimpy it is not.
Sound, which is what noise is called when it's agreeable, is important in the Prowler: the big rear tires on the road surface, the top-down wind whipping by, the rise and fall of the engine's contralto drone sounding like mammoth bees approaching in intimidating numbers. Don't expect the shriek or fabric rip of a V12 or even the rumble of a V8, but the sound this V6 makes is music. You could dance to it.
Other things to dance to aren't the stuff of traditional hot rods: independent suspension fore and aft and four-wheel disc brakes. With no room for spares, the Prowler is shod with run-flat tires; a cluster light warns when tire pressures are low.
The fun of driving the Prowler is not just in being noticed. The independent suspension is wise to the ways of holding the road. Take a nice sweeping bend and accelerate through it feeling the Gs mount, the tires grip. Play open-wheel race driver watching the front tires work. Zip-zapping through tighter turns and chicane-like corners produces a smile.
Some have decried the automatic transmission in the Prowler. I shrug. This is an excellent four-speed automatic and it has AutoStick, Chrysler's semi-manual shifter. I actually prefer its side-to-side selection motion (rather than fore and aft). The driver can casually backhand it to achieve a gear change. Or hug it inward when it's time to gather the forces for a brisk canter up the green hillside, meandering amidst the trees.
Any no-compromise car will have notable shortcomings. Like most convertibles, which lack a hard top and the rigidity it adds, cowl shake is more than evident. Roughen up the road surface and there's a whole lot of shakin' goin' on. Still, the 2001 Prowler rides notably smoother on proper pavement than the rather nervous original Prowler (which I nonetheless happily piloted from Santa Fe to Monterey and suffered not at all).
The Prowler's brakes are not sterling performers. Discs are all around, but no ABS is available. (Remember your threshold-braking techniques!) The front brakes grabbed now and again, particularly at crawling paces and not consistently. Braking hard from speed takes more territory than you might anticipate so drive accordingly. And the headlights are not up to the best available today. Anyway, the Prowler is a sunshine car. Go forth in daylight and prosper.
In short, the Prowler is delightful. It can parade and it can party. It looks like a real hot rod, but boasts all the creature comforts of modern automobiles. It's fun to drive.
It is to DaimlerChrysler's credit that real hot rodders generally like and admire the Prowler. They recognize it as the tribute to their cars that it was meant to be.
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