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Eight Days in a Chrysler PT Cruiser

This was written in 2000, when we first drove a 2001 PT Cruiser. We did more recently drive a 2002 PT Cruiser, in a review published by allpar.com. We've also included Dan Gallagher's impressions at the end.

Day One

Within five minutes of receiving a PT Cruiser from our friendly Chrysler rep, we had four people ask us about it. One woman ran out of her shop to dive into the Cruizer.

People continually turn their heads to watch, at traffic intersections, in parking lots, on sidewalks. At least one person nearly walked into a telephone pole. People gawk.

The first thing you notice when you get in is the old-fashioned door handles, the kind where you push the button in with your thumb. Then you're inside, and it looks nice. The steering wheel, door handles, glove panel, and eight-ball gear-shift are nice touches. I'm six feet tall, and I could have worn a hat without touching the roof.

There is no underseat drawer on my Touring Edition, though there seems to be a place for one. There is no covered console to put spare cash or gadgets. There are, however, capacious map pockets on the doors and a place for sunglasses.

I was surprised by the Neon-style air conditioning controls. Turn counter clockwise for air conditioning, clockwise for vent. Nobody else does it, as far as I know, because it leads customers to drive around with the a/c on all the time, which leads to disparaging remarks about power and fuel economy.

Acceleration is sprightly with the five-speed, and handling is quite good. The Cruiser stays composed and steady on sharp turns. Lovely.

People are astonished that the Cruiser starts at $17,000. Ours had a touring package, CD, antilock brakes, traction control, and other goodies.

To compare prices, a Sebring will easily cost more. A loaded Hyundai Tiburon is about $17,000, and can't match the handling or quiet ride.

The handling is truly amazing. It does not feel at all top heavy, despite the very high ceiling. Around turns, there is no hint of tire squeal.

At highway speeds, the PT Cruiser is fairly quiet. The engine is practically silent. There is plenty of power - not quite V8 or turbo power, but still sufficient for most of the time.

Day Two

There's no engine vibration to speak of, and the engine is quieter at higher rpms, but the ride and handling are similar to our 1995 Neon Sport. The interior is unique, and I think perhaps the power window switches were deliberately moved to the center to make it so.

When people start to open the doors, they just pull - people forget that all cars used to make you use your thumb. (Myself included). But it's a nice way to open it.

Climbing in is easy, and the seat belts are within easy reach. The rear doors open wide. Ergonomically, this car is very well designed, though the front passenger seat could use an armrest - the driver has one. There's good room in the back seat, not up to minivan standards, but can a minivan park in spaces too small for an Accord?

The rear trunk opens when you pull up on a Chrysler logo, which feels perhaps less solid than it should. There's decent trunk space, considering the length of the vehicle, and I finally figured out how to use the picnic table feature of the rear cargo cover. There are pictures showing each way it can be configured. I haven't taken the seats out yet, but the handles are pretty clear.

On the highway, the PT Cruiser is nice and stable, more so than the Toyota Corolla. Handling remains good, with no hint of top-heaviness. Acceleration starts off slow but quickly builds on the highway, especially with judicious downshifting. Third gear is sweet, as one would expect. There's a bit of wind noise, but no more than other cars in this price class, including the much-praised Corolla (which overlaps the Cruiser in price).

People are still looking. If I had been clever, I would have gotten magnetic PTCRUIZER.COM signs for the sides!

People at work noticed the car on the way in. My import-buying co-workers asked who made it - twice - then fell silent when I told them. I don't think they can deal with the idea of such a cool car being made by an American company. (Whenever my Spirit R/T was in the shop, it was because it was an American car...not because it was a 1991 performance car with a turbo-four producing 225 hp [stock] out of 2.2 liters...with 100,000 miles on the clock. But that's another story).

There are, incidentally, slots for the under-seat storage bins under both the driver's seat and the passenger's seat!

There are many clever styling touches, besides the obvious door handles and trunk latch. The mold for the sculpted interior door handles was originally carved from wood. The instrument panel matches the interior color - light brown - which, incidentally, makes it hard to read the tiny speedometer and tachometer. There are painted metal surfaces in the cab which on some PTs are painted to match the exterior (on this one, they were light brown, because the exterior is black). Wherever possible, old-fangled fittings were used - chrome keyways, pull-up interior locks, etc.

So far, my main complaints are the lack of a covered storage bin by the driver's seat, the lack of an Infinity stereo, and the understandably small instrument panel. But in general, I love this car.

Day Three

At the end of Day Two, I filled the tank and discovered that the Cruiser had been getting 30 miles to the gallon. That's about what I would expect (4 mpg less than our Neon), but it's also well above the EPA estimate.

We put the PT Cruiser to work, taking out one of the rear seats and replacing it with cardboard and paper for the recycling dump. Removing the rear seat took about one minute, no instructions, and very little guesswork or effort. The Cruizer holds a decent amount of cargo.

We also discovered that there is nothing in the manual about what to do if you accidentally trip the alarm.

We are surprised by the flimsiness of the hood prop rod, a tiny little thing. We guess it does the trick, but it doesn't feel very sturdy.

At the dump, the cop had more questions about the Cruiser than about our Michigan plates. He had two main questions about the Cruizer other than "what's it like" - is it really underpowered? And is it too small inside? We promised him a look inside on the way out, and he held us to it.

50% of the people at the dump volunteered that it was a "cool car."

To clarify the engine/power situation: this is not a high-torque, low-rpm force engine, as one would expect from the look of the car. It's more like a typical Neon or Japanese four-cylinder engine - yes, it's fast, but only after it gets revving.

The Cruizer went with us to a Popeye's chicken restaurant. People kept standing around the car, staring through the window, looking at it, arguing among themselves about whether it was a customized Volkswagen, a real vintage car, a Prowler, or that new PT Cruiser. One man came into the restaurant and kept asking who owned the PT Cruiser until we owned up to it. He expressed, eloquently, his love for the shape of this car. He seemed very happy.

Day Four

We started out the day by putting the removable car seat back in. This turned out to be very easy - without reading the instructions or damaging our backs, we got the smaller car seat into place in about thirty seconds. The process is intuitive, and there are instructions on the seat for those who need them.

We also used the optional cargo net. Not sure of where to put the hooks, we settled on the child seat tether strap bars.

The driving position is relatively high, especially compared with cars like the Neon, and visibility is very good except for a small blind spot on the right hand side, towards the back. The windshield is large and gives a feeling of space.

The rear windows can only be controlled by two buttons on the back of the center console. This turned out to be less inconvenient than we would have thought. Both the driver's side and passenger's side windows have an express down mode.

By moving the key ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON, we were able to display the computer's fault codes - there were none, so the odometer lit up with the word "Done" only. If there had been problems, they would have shown up as two-digit codes.

A quick read of the instruction manual showed us that, as we suspected, the Cruizer takes 5W30 oil in most climates.

People are still waving to us, and at the local supermarket, a woman asked if she could look inside - another New Beetle owner who wishes she had waited. The PT Cruiser has both style and function, a nice combination.

Day Five.

Every time we go anywhere, we are asked about the car. Indeed, a guy in an Acura slowed down alongside me, motioned my window down - we were both moving at the time - and asked me how I liked it. People are also asking where you can get them. Some people think it's a restored 1940s car. Everywhere we go, we get the thumbs up or a wave. It's amazing.

The consensus of bystanders is - they want one. Otherwise, they are divided between "this is the first Chrysler I'd ever consider" and "I've been a Mopar fan from way back." Chrysler has an amazing opportunity here to regain lost customers - and get a whole new generation of people used to the idea of owning a Chrysler.

Backing up is rather difficult, since my method of backing up is to look over my shoulder, and the view is not especially good. Opening up the window and peering out of the window helps a lot. It is hard to get used to the short length of the Cruiser, and I tend to leave two or three extra feet behind it when backing up. Still, it's a very small car on the outside, so one can get away with sloppy parking.

The engine is very quiet, which is more insulation than engine design. The radiator fan is quite noisy from the outside, but you cannot really hear it inside. The vent fan is extremely quiet. Today, with the outside air over 90 degrees, the air conditioner proved itself to be much better than average - about as capable as the excellent Neon air conditioning.

The PT Cruiser handles broken roads relatively well. You feel the bumps in cement roads but they are not jarring and do not cause queasiness. The handling is excellent, but unlike many cars, there is no sacrifice of ride comfort, even with 205/55 tires.

Day 6.

In response to questions posted on the PT Cruiser forum, we would like to note:

The instrument panel can be dark. One gets used to the small size after a while. We are still reaching for the window switches on the door.

The spare tire is underneath the car, which can be inconvenient though it saves room inside.

Attaching a child seat is not easy, despite the tether strap anchors.

Our gas mileage seems to be holding up; we don't know why. The air conditioning is still strong, and doesn't seem to affect power as much as we would expect.

Steering is precise and easy to control. The turning radius is fairly tight.

It is easy to get into the Cruiser, and easy to leave it. It's just the right height - not so high you have to climb in, now so low you have to climb out. The seats are very comfortable.

Day 7

Today we tested the PT Cruizer's six-position change tray (or, more accurately, its six small change trays). These are rubbery, designed to hold coins in place even over bumps, so there's no jangling of cash. It's a nice touch.

We purposely drove at slower speeds than usual to test out the fifth gear, especially under acceleration and up grades. We found that downshifting was very handy for acceleration, but that, if you're willing to accelerate more slowly, it is not needed most of the time. The PT Cruiser also maintains its speed on moderate grades with no problems, and can hold its own on (reasonably) steeper grades without downshifting.

In heavy traffic, a week's experience with the clutch came in handy. The Cruiser was easy to drive in stop and go conditions.

The center console turned out to be quite handy for holding cell-phones, EZ-Passes, sunglasses, and other standard parapheralia. It was surprisingly handy, considering it has no cover. The glove compartment can hold relatively large items, such as our sound meter.

Handling still continues to surprise us, as we go around sharper turns, faster.

There are small cubbies in the rear for storage of small objects. We found out that the extra power outlets are part of an option package, as are some of the lights, the cargo net, and some other options.

Day Eight

We discovered another way to test for computer fault codes today. We held in the trip odometer button while moving the key to the RUN position. First, counted to 999999, as usual - then the odometer read out the last six numbers of the vehicle ID number. Then it read "no faults" (big surprise!). Finally, it moved each instrument panel needle through its paces, turned on all the lights and indicators, and finished its test sequence. Pretty cool system - we don't know if it tells you engine codes or not, but if it does, it sure is handy. (For a list of what the computer codes mean, click here.)

As far as we can tell, everyone who drives a PT Cruiser likes it. We suspect there will be exceptions, but we have not seen one yet. The five-speed gets the most out of the engine, and makes it easy to downshift when needed. The interior is, for the most part, very well executed, though not everyone likes the rear power window controls, and the remote mirror control is a little hard to find at night.

The stalk-based cruise control is an improvement over past Chrysler systems, which were mounted on the steering wheel itself. We suspect Chrysler grabbed the cruise control out of Toyota's parts bins at the last second, when they discovered that the Neon steering wheel just didn't look right. (Which is why the steering column is larger, and a different size, than the steering wheel). We are grateful to the designers for acceeding to the demands of style rather than their tight budget where they could - the steering wheel, the gearshift, etc.

We especially like the painted sections of the dashboard, which in our car, unlike some others, did not match the exterior (Chrysler matches the paint where it would not look bad). Fit and finish are very good throughout the car. There do not seem to be any "gotchas." The stereo is very good for a car in this price class, though more demanding listeners would probably prefer the Infiniti system or an aftermarket option.

The controls are mostly logical and easy to understand. Headlights are controlled from a stalk, with a flash-to-pass feature. The rear wiper and washer are handled from a switch in the center console, along with the rear defroster and heated mirrors (which are on the same switch). All the vent controls, except for the air conditioning compressor, make sense and are easy to move. The vent control is continuous, which means you can go between the middle vents and bi-level mode if you like.

Capacious map pockets in the doors make up for storage deficiencies in the console. There are holes in the pockets, though we do not know whether they are there for style, to save weight, or to save petroleum and energy.

The interior strikes a nice blend between cost savings and appearance. At least with the beige color scheme, it avoids looking cheap, as so many cars in this price class do. The seats are comfortable, even over long stretches, though the passenger really should have their own armrest (as the driver does). A clever design prevents the seat belt receptables from dropping below the seat.

Oddly, given the Chrysler label, the cup holders are primitive, with no adjustable latches. They are simply round indentations in the center console. On the other hand, they do work, though there are only three of them (and one is taken by the optional ashtray.)

The innovative vent system goes a long way toward reducing interior noise. Indeed, our only noise complaint is minor - Chrysler could reduce the wind noise around the front pillars. Wind noise still seems to be lower than in other cars of this price class.

Probably our largest concern is rear visibility. Parking can be difficult when backing up because it is hard to see behind the car. The rear headrests do not help - we raised ours to so we could see more of the critical behind-car area. That goes with the territory of the "tall car," SUV, and minivan. The rear pillars are also wider than we would like, for visibility.

The PT Cruiser came from out of nowhere, with incredible style that did not give up any functionality - unlike, say, the Jetta-based New Beetle. It is very reasonably priced, seems well made, is based on well-tested components, and looks great. It is no surprise that Chrysler can't make enough of them. After driving one of these, who would pay more for a Taurus or Accord?

Dan Gallagher's notes

I just received my 2002 PT Cruiser a week ago. Someone's got to hear me. I love this car. This is my first new car ever and what a choice I made. I can't believe how cool this car is. It's loaded with quality, functionality and great looks at such a cheap price. Mine is a base model stone white with moonroof group and speed control. It was way under 20k. I just can't believe how great this car is.

I've been reading as much as I can about this and even the production environment is awesome. I did lengthy research before deciding on this car. I originally wanted a new beetle since I was driving a restored 73 super beetle at the time. But after reading about the new beetles and all the negative reviews I quickly decided against it.

I always thought the pt was neat but never actually considered buying one. So after being disappointed by the new beetle I then considered the PT. I heavily researched it before actually buying one and was totally impressed by everything I read. The only negative reviews said it could get better mileage and have better power. I knew I could get around those negatives with a K&N filter, a chip, exhaust, manual trans. etc. Straight from the factory my manual trans PT moves. It is quite impressive in performance.

I just did my first oil & filter change at 500 miles. It's the easiest car I've EVER changed the oil of (and I've changed a lot of oil).

I am so incredibly glad I bought this excellent vehicle. It is the best car I've ever driven.

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