Introduced at the start of the decade, the PT Cruiser was originally conceived as a Plymouth model based on the well-received Pronto Cruiser concept version, but then elevated to a Chrysler when it became apparent that the Plymouth brand was going to be euthanized. As one of the vehicles that ushered in the retro-based styling craze along with the New Beetle, initially it caught on in a big way with the fashionistas who had to have the car du jour, the Hollywood Elite, and the car customizers. But over its production lifespan it turned into a bad joke in the eyes of many. Was it really as bad as nearly everyone said it was?
The PT Cruiser went on sale during the spring of 2000. The designer responsible for the retro-themed wagon is Bryan Nesbitt (who was recently relieved of his duties at Cadillac). The design is loosely based on historic Chrysler and Plymouth vehicles built during the 30’s and 40’s, with “pontoon” fenders, upright grill, and a basically retro silhouette. Built using components from the then-new Neon (including drive-train and floor-pan) it was a way of producing a new type of vehicle without a great deal of investment. The PT Cruiser team was charged to come up with a way of producing this car profitably with as little as 25,000 units produced annually. Demand was so phenomenal for the first couple of years that Chrysler’s assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico could not keep pace. Dealers were swamped with orders, and there were waiting lists for certain models and colors. Added dealer markups of several thousand dollars were not uncommon. It was one of the most successful car launches in Chrysler’s history. A second assembly plant in Graz, Austria was quickly set up to supply the European market. Major changes to the venerable PT Cruiser were few and far between. A more powerful turbocharged engine was introduced in 2003 with 215-horsepower on tap–there were two turbocharged engines available for a few years–and there were the annual special editions, typically introduced before the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise each year in August. In 2005, a convertible version was finally introduced but with its integrated roll bar and unattractive top it was not as well-received as the original wagon. The final refresh happened during the 2006 model year with a couple of minor cosmetic changes to the outside and a revamp of the instrument cluster inside. Otherwise, during it’s nearly decade long run, it remained practically the same. According to Chrysler, nearly 1.4 million PT Cruisers were produced. Remember, this car was given the green light after the team of planners, engineers, and designers concluded that a profit could be made with a production of 25,000 per year. For the 2008 model year, Chrysler moved over 50,000 units according to Automotive News. Even with the ever-increasing rebates, these cars made money for the company. So how did these cars go from hot-selling media darling to the butt of jokes within a period of a decade? For one, they were never really improved over their life span. They started with economy-car furnishings and a few unique features and never changed. There was no room for a proper V-6, which would have alleviated the lack of power, at least in the base version. The demographics of the people who bought these cars grew older over the car’s lifespan and there was increased competition in the form of the Honda Element, Scion xB, and even GM’s answer to the PT Cruiser, the Chevrolet HHR designed by none other than Bryan Nesbitt. To further compound its deficiencies, the PT Cruiser never did as well in fuel economy as the competitors, lacked important safety features like side curtain airbags, and reliability ratings began to suffer. The Chrysler PT Cruiser is many things. It’s a different design paradigm offered at the beginning of this century that set the tone for retro styling. Over its lifespan it was relatively inexpensive to purchase and maintain as well as being quite utilitarian because of its wagon form, and it helped Chrysler produce more profitable trucks because this vehicle is classified as a truck for CAFE purposes, maintaining their fleet average high enough so as not to incur any penalties. However, its handling is appalling, its turning radius is absurd, and the ergonomics within the cabin are nothing less than haphazard. The PT Cruiser was a good idea that overstayed its welcome. Read more of my Recently Deceased and Retrospective features at Automotive Traveler.