Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chrysler PT Cruiser: Saying Goodbye to the Retro Icon

In today's market, ten years is a solid run for any model vehicle. With only a minor facelift on exterior design and interior trim, the Chrysler PT Cruiser ends its reign as the number one retro-styled vehicle in America this year.

Introduced for the 2000 model-year, the PT Cruiser was Chrysler's answer to the popularity of the retro-styled Ford Mustang. Taking design cues from Art Deco-inspired Plymouths and Chrysler Air Flows of the 1930s, the PT stood apart from the generic, bubble-ish cars of the late 90s with accentuated fenders, a waterfall grill, and a rounded "Touring Sedan" profile common in the pre-war era. The raked-back look, Frenched-in head and tail lights, old-school chrome door handles and five-spoke alloy wheels gave the car a custom, hot rod style that became an immediate hit with retro design lovers. This also led very quickly to a large aftermarket of custom and performance parts, making the PT Cruiser one of the most easily and extensively customizable vehicles on the market. Chrysler marketed this vehicle to both the retro crowd and everyday people, calling it "the small car alternative".

The first PTs had a four cylinder, 2.4 liter engine that topped out at about 150 horsepower. That was the major complaint for many buyers who dreaded the zero-to-sixty time of nearly ten seconds in a car that looked like a hot rod. The fact that the vehicle got less than twenty miles per gallon city didn't help. Even though the public loved the styling, that wimpy engine was responsible for the first couple of years of soccer moms and rental companies buying the car...until 2003, when the GT Turbo version was released.

The 2003 PT Cruiser GT Turbo (sometimes referred to as the GT Cruiser or PT Bruiser) boosted the horsepower to 215, giving the retro-rod the fast kick it needed. Combined with the "Four on the Floor" manual transmission, the little car could now rocket from zero to sixty in around 6 1/2 seconds from the factory. An AutoStick automatic transmission was also available, allowing the driver to choose between manual (clutchless) mode or auto. A lowered, stiffer suspension, wide performance tires and traction control added to the GT's handling and hot rod looks.

2005 saw the next, and probably most important step in the PT's evolution. Designed by Daimler-Benz, the PT Cruiser convertible debuted to a much appreciative public. The car was reinforced to accommodate the convertible top, and a stylish yet functional roll bar was incorporated to add stability and rollover protection. The top-of-the-line model was the GT Turbo High-Output, a car capable of reaching horsepower in the 215 to 225 range stock. A sporty leather interior with chrome accents, factory navigation, chrome grill and special GT Turbo High-Output badging distinguished it from the flock. Unfortunately the car carried a hefty price tag - over $30k for a decked-out GT-HO version - which prohibited sales, making the GT ragtop a rare bird.
2006 saw the first and only design change for the Cruiser. A slightly modified front end and back bumper, along with a newly designed dash and center console was all that was done to update the PT's appearance. The engine was modified to give a little better performance. The Turbo could now churn out 230 horses, but the gas mileage remained woefully low at a time when gas prices were climbing to $4.00 per gallon, and competitive small cars were getting upwards of 35 mpg. By 2007, the novelty was wearing off, and Chrysler found themselves selling a lot of Cruisers as fleet vehicles for rental car agencies. The recession and Chrysler's merge with Fiat doomed the PT Cruiser from evolving any further, and in 2008 it was announced that production of the then-dated car would cease by 2010, to be replaced with a Fiat-based, more economical vehicle.

Today, a handful of 2010 Sedans are still available from Chrysler as "classic" PT Cruisers, but when they're gone, they're gone. Remaining vehicles are basically base models, without an option for the turbo or the convertible. An optional "Couture Edition" features a two-tone paint job, red leather seats and a much higher price tag. The Couture production is limited to 500, meaning a few die-hard PT lovers will buy them and store them as future classic investments. But without that Turbo, there's little hope for much interest by the future collector market. If anything, the 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible stands out as the first PT ragtop, and the only year with the original styling. The '05 GT-HO Turbo version should be the one to watch.

So we say goodbye to ten years of the much-loved retro rod, just as retro-styled vehicles like the Chevy Camaro and HHR are gaining popularity, along with the Dodge Challenger and continuation of the Ford Mustang. Today, even vehicles like the Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300 and Infiniti G37 are utilizing a considerable amount of classic retro styling. Designers are incorporating some of the greatest styling elements of the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s into today's vehicle...And so though the little PT Cruiser may be gone, it's certain its influence will be around for a very long time.

Christopher Pinto, Creative Director