As the 21st century dawned and some car makers looked to launching futuristic machines that looked like something out of a sci-fi comic, a curious trend emerged in others to putting out products that played on nostalgia and good feelings; that’s right the retro car had arrived. Well actually, it had arrived in the previous decade as manufacturers like VW and Plymouth launched well received concept cars which then translated into production cars.
The release of the Plymouth Prowler in 1997 was an importantly important moment amongst American manufacturers, as it kick-started a retro trend which is still evident in cars in production today. Indeed the Prowler itself was an incredibly brave product for the then-failing Plymouth brand, and even though it failed to save the company from discontinuation, had the car been launched today then it may well have fared better in terms of sales, especially if it had the throaty V8 HEMI that many enthusiasts felt a true hot-rod needed.
After the Prowler’s launch, Plymouth showed off several concepts of a more wagon-like model which took on it’s retro styling cues and hinted at the launch of a more practical vehicle. Although Plymouth itself was discontinued in 2000, the PT Cruiser was released under the Chrysler brand in 2001 and quickly became a sales success on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s blend of stand-out styling, practical cabin and affordable purchase price made the car popular amongst buyers looking for…well looking for everything above basically.
Critics have not been overly kind to the Cruiser’s style, especially in recent years after the car’s demise, but to my eyes the styling has aged pretty decently considering the model was launched way back over a decade ago. Flared wheel-arches and a bold grille stand out immediately as an American car, as do the chrome alloy wheels which adorn many higher spec models. The side and especially rear are a little bland, but in no way deserve the ‘hearse’ comments which are often flung at the little Chrysler, and whilst the range was facelifted slightly in 2006, I’d argue that the original car’s looks are cleaner and have aged better.
The retro touches extended to the inside of the car too, but not all for the right reasons. Body coloured panels and cowled dials were a nod to the cars of the 1950’s, as was the ball-like gear shifter…but it seems that Chrysler also got their material choices from a few decades previous too. I am not one for being snobbish about plastic choices, and neither have I even sat in a PT Cruiser, but original cars were swamped in scratchy plastics and a dated design shared with many Chrysler products of the time. Facelifted models at least gained easy-to-use controls, but were still blighted by the scratchy and shiny materials which led to the company’s interiors being heavily criticized for several years. Practicality was a mixed bag too; the car’s large-ish dimensions gave it a reasonable boot and the rear seats could be removed like an MPV…judging from pictures the boot floor was also removable and could be fashioned into a shelf for light bags (like the 2007-12 CR-V). But rear space is a little cramped and there are not too many cubbies if you compare the car to the likes of the Renault Scenic or Ford CMax, which some buyers might do.
On the road…well I have not driven the car (obviously) but it is probably a key point that the PT Cruiser was classified in the USA as a light truck. Yes this may have been so it could sneak past emissions regulations, but the point remains that this is a heavy beast and so handling is by no means it’s forte. It’s a bit roll-y too because of it’s height, but ride is meant to be comfortable and I doubt that the majority of owners would have any major issues with driving the Cruiser. US buyers had the option of a 2.4 petrol and a turbo version of the same engine, this lack of a V8 or even a V6 gave many critics cause to moan about the car lacking the go to match it’s show. In Europe though, the 2.2L diesel was poached from Mercedes and was both refined and quite quick-this is by far the best choice of engine and also has the benefit of returning over 40mpg in day-to-day driving. I’ll also add a comment about the car’s safety, which only received 3 stars from Euro NCap when it was tested, apparently this is something to do with knee padding but whatever the case it is worth thinking about if buying as a family car.
Even though the PT Cruiser will likely not be highly regarded in the halls of motoring history it nevertheless plays an interesting part in the fusion of American and European car tastes: here we have a relatively compact model, available with an optional 4-cylinder turbo engine as well as a diesel version for Europeans. With a classier interior, tweaked drive-train and updated styling the car could have been a great success, or with chunkier details it could make a decent crossover. To a certain degree, Chevrolet attempted to do this with their HHR, which was basically a more modern copy of Chrysler’s car, but this was similarly derired and both models were not replaced.
Interestingly there was also a convertible version launched in 2005…whilst this wasn’t available with a diesel it was the only 5 seater convertible available in the UK; it does look pretty retro but the roof bar harks back to the 80’s in a bad way, and it shares all of the 5-doors negatives without any of it’s practicality.
For those looking for an interesting alternative to the normal choices of compact MPV, the PT Cruiser scores well on value, equipment and styling…it may lag behind inside but in all honesty none of it’s contemporary’s are too great, it’s worth a test drive at least!