Cruiser

“It might just be that Chrysler has created, in the context of the year 2000, the new Volkswagen Beetle—the car that captured the heart of an entire generation. This time it’s called the PT Cruiser.” That’s how we introduced our May 2000 road test of what was then Chrysler’s hottest new product. And despite how public opinion has changed since then, we were right.

The story of the PT Cruiser is too often told in hindsight and jest. Viewed from today’s vantage, the car’s retro styling has aged poorly, making the whole project look like absurd vanity. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that the comparison to the original Volkswagen Beetle is apt. Volkswagen’s New Beetle may have kicked off the retro-modern design craze upon its release in 1998, but the practical, affordable Chrysler stood to be an honest spiritual successor to the People’s Car. Until it all went wrong.

Welcome to Unconventional Wisdom, a look in the rearview mirror at misconceptions, misrepresentations, and misstatements that sunk into popular automotive consciousness.

Photo credit: Chrysler
Photo credit: Chrysler

The automotive industry is built around the inherent assumption that more is better. Decades of marketing and a constant march of new products has made this seem like the natural state. Next year’s car will always be measurably better than last year’s, even if those measurements are irrelevant to most people’s needs. The desire for more means no matter what you have, you’ll never stop chasing what’s next.

Designing for desire inevitably leads to bloated, expensive cars. This unwinnable arms race defines the car market. Absurdity takes root because desire can never be satisfied by sensibility. A market defined only by want cannot produce a lasting legend. Today’s solution will always be superseded by the better thing that comes next year.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Mayer/Getty Images
Photo credit: Jeffrey Mayer/Getty Images

The cars that really define their eras are the ones that make you want what you need—practical, reliable machines that capture the public’s imagination through styling, cleverness, or reputation. This was the magic of the original Beetle, the Mk 1 Golf, the Austin Mini, cars that transcended their humble utilitarian roots to become genuine objects of desire, even among people who could afford to buy them by the dozen. This, amazingly, was the magic of the Chrysler PT Cruiser when it debuted: a car that recaptured the allure of a stylish but utilitarian machine, even as the modern interpretation of the Beetle and Mini seemed to stray from that formula.

The PT Cruiser took the simple and proven Dodge Neon platform and reworked it with a modern-retro body. It adopted an upright wagon look not seen in a mainstream car since World War II, with a backdated dashboard and vaulted ceiling. It capitalized on its roomy utility with folding seats and a stylized but sturdy interior.

Photo credit: Chrysler
Photo credit: Chrysler

Removable rear seats and a flat cargo floor also allowed Chrysler to classify the u">>PT Cruiser as a light truck with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Neon-based PT Cruiser’s u">>20/26 mpg city/highway rating (using the 2001 method) counterbalanced Chrysler’s far thirstier pickup trucks and SUVs, helping to keep the automaker on the right side of the 20.7-mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy target for light trucks. Focus groups generated a split decision on the PT Cruiser’s styling—drawing a true love-it-or-hate-it bifurcation—but that strong reaction, coupled with the light-truck CAFE loophole, helped convince Chrysler to build it.

And when it hit showrooms in April 2000, the PT Cruiser became an honest-to-god phenomenon. Dealers set up waiting lists (u">>and applied hefty markups). Chrysler sold u">>144,717 PT Cruisers in 2001. That capacity-constrained figure topped Honda CR-V sales that year and far outstrips the entire Chrysler brand’s sales in 2019. We gave it rave reviews; Car and Driver named it u">>one of 2001’s 10Best cars; and MotorTend dubbed it u">>Car of the Year, that title’s highest honor.

Photo credit: Chrysler
Photo credit: Chrysler

Those accolades inspired this column. From a distance, I thought the buying public and automotive media of 2001 were unduly obsessed with the PT Cruiser. Here was a bizarrely proportioned domestic compact, absent any real technological advances or notable performance numbers, instantly achieving blockbuster sales figures. This bread van with a carryover 2.4-liter engine and econo-car underpinnings somehow snatched up accolades from just about every member of the motoring press. I assumed it was blind hysteria, bizarre early aughts sensibilities gone off the deep end. Pointing out how foolish they all were seemed like easy column fodder.

Yet in search of quotes to dunk on, I stumbled across a litany of reasons why the PT Cruiser was a sensation. It had true SUV utility with acres of passenger space in a compact body. Early models had just 150 hp but ran to 60 mph quicker than a Lexus RX300. That Neon engine also proved reliable, providing 50,000 miles of fault-free motoring during our long-term test. With the rear seats folded, cargo space fell a bit shy of the larger Honda CR-V or Ford Escape, but in the Chrysler you could flat-fold the front passenger seat.

Photo credit: Chrysler
Photo credit: Chrysler

All of that utility came in a package no more unwieldy than a Neon. Despite a simple twist-beam rear suspension (chosen to provide a flat cargo floor), it was still composed in cornering and comfortable when loaded up with passengers. It made no attempts to be a sports car and had no ultra-luxury pretensions. It was a simple car to meet a family’s needs, packaged in a design that people wanted.

That design defined the PT Cruiser. It arrived as the retro craze was taking off, inspired by the 1998 New Beetle. This was the period that saw the return of the Mini Cooper in 2000 as a cheeky modern hatchback with throwback styling. Ford got in the game big-time with the vintage-inspired 2002 Ford Thunderbird, followed by the similarly retro 2005 Mustang and Le Mans-tribute GT. Even General Motors picked up the fad, poaching Bryan Nesbitt—lead designer of the PT Cruiser—and having him whip up the exceedingly similar Chevy HHR for 2006 (itself a retro follow-on to the outrageous SSR hardtop-convertible pickup truck that landed in 2003).

Photo credit: Chevy
Photo credit: Chevy

When the PT Cruiser debuted, it was one of the first cars on American showroom floors to capture this moment. In a sea of late-Nineties blandness, the Cruiser offered something new and bold.

It was, as our original review called it, a car that captured the heart of a generation. Just not the one Chrysler targeted. Despite being aimed at young, budget-minded buyers, the PT Cruiser became a hit among Baby Boomers. The hot-rod proportions appealed to them, and launched a whole catalog of retro accessories: faux wood paneling, flame decals, and Thirties-style chrome tack-ons.

Photo credit: Ken R Morris Jr/Getty Images
Photo credit: Ken R Morris Jr/Getty Images

But Chrysler made a big misstep, assuming the PT Cruiser could hold onto its runaway success. The automaker ramped up production to satisfy initial demand. When the newness faded, Chrysler found itself with far too much inventory of a niche vehicle.

Dealer markups quickly transitioned to heavy incentives, aggravating early buyers and cheapening the vehicle’s once-hot image. Then, when the economy collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis, the slumping sales came nearly to a halt. No one wanted a thirsty (for a compact), dated, retro hot rod in the midst of a national economic depression. PT Cruiser sales halved between 2007 and 2008. Fewer than 18,000 of them found homes in 2009, damned by changing tastes, rising fuel costs, and tumultuous circumstances that pushed buyers toward more conventional vehicles. Its final model year was 2010.

Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images
Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images

That period of spectacular decline is when the modern view on the PT Cruiser crystalized. What was an innovative, clever, of-the-moment car became a symbol of early-aughts delusion, a hokey automotive embarrassment. The PT Cruiser lived by its design. As America turned a corner, that styling became a liability.

What we now think of as a goofy-looking relic was, for its moment, the absolute right car. One that became a hit not through over-the-top marketing or eye-popping stats but by competently handling day-to-day life in a fun, zany package. A car that people wanted, defined by what they needed.

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