The cars we loved.
No single vehicle had a larger impact on Chrysler’s bottom line than the PT Cruiser. After almost single handedly ushering in the age of retro styling in the US (after the New Beetle of course), the PT Cruiser became one of Chrysler’s most successful cars – ever. Launched in 1999 as a 00 model, it was originally planned as a Plymouth. As such, it was intended to be an entry level car on par with the Neon, if not a step up from it. With the Plymouth brand being dissolved, the Chrysler PT cruiser would have an even broader range to fill.
The PT Cruiser was not quite a truck, car or mini van, but it had attributes of each. Despite its Hurst/Model A gangster wagon appearance, it was just a redressed tall Neon. Speaking of the Neon, much of the PT Cruiser’s parts came from it. The chassis as well a many of the interior components and much of the drive train came from Chrysler’s humble compact sedan.
The PT Cruiser seemed to offer something for everyone. The tall doors and roof line made it easy to get in and out for the elderly, while the rear seats in some models were user configurable offering small families and the adventure set plenty of options. PT Cruisers could be seen in everything from gangster rap videos, to small town Fourth of July parades. Actual transactions at the low MSRP starting price of around $15,500 was rare, as dealers reacted to low supply and high demand with markups in the beginning. The fact that the NHTSA classified the PT Cruiser as a light truck did wonders for Chrysler’s CAFE average, allowing the sale of more powerful gas guzzling Ram Trucks.
There were a vast number of variations of the PT Cruiser, yet over the 11 or so years of production there were very few major visual differences save for various graphics and trim options. It did not seem to matter. In the early years of production, there were waiting lists as the two world-wide factories struggled to keep up with demand. North American PT Cruisers were built in Mexico (the highest number produced), while output for the rest of the world was centered in Austria. There were 2.2 l diesel versions sold in Europe with engines built by Mercedes-Benz. The cruiser was sold in four trim levels at first and eventually would come in no less than 12 over the years, with final variations mixing features from others for a simplified options list.
Most PT Cruisers in North America came with the Neon’s 150 hp 2.4 L 4 cylinder engine. Later turbocharged versions good for 180-215 hp would appear in better equipped and sportier versions. The ultimate PT Cruisers was the GT with the High Output 230 hp engine from the Dodge SRT4. Equipped with the 5-speed Getrag manual, a 0 to 60 time in the high 6 second range and a top speed of 125 mph could be achieved. GT Cruiser was no ordinary retromobile. Except for its alloy rims, larger tires and turbo decal, it would easily blend in with lesser models. The motoring press liked the PT Cruiser as much as the buying public, with Motor Trend bestowing it with the North American Car of the Year in 2001 and Car and Driver placing it on the Ten Best list in 2001 .
As PT mania spread through the 00’s, dealers responded to the rush at customization by offering some of their own with stuck on chrome and fake wood grain bits, turning the PT Cruiser to everything from ghetto bus to flamed-out hot rod. Chrysler, seeing the vast proliferation of customizations, got in on the act too with a few limited edition models of its own like the 2006 only Walter P. Edition. Although not as expressive as third party customs, they did come with the comfort of full warranty coverage. A 2-door convertible launched in 2005 renewed interest in line up and came in a simplified range of three models.
As the public’s imagination was caught by a growing wave of copycat competitor vehicles one of which (Chevy HHR) was designed by Bryan Nesbitt, the PT’s own designer. The PTs popularity slowly began to wane. Chrysler reduced production and simplified the model range as sales slowed and quietly ended production in 2010 after a gradual phase out. The PT Cruiser has secured its place as one of Chrysler’s most successful vehicles, starting a long period of successful sales based on interesting designs while creating a new niche at the same time.