Saturday, April 17, 2004

Topless PT Cruiser turns heads

'Mom, I feel self-conscious when everyone stares at us'
By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

PT Cruiser

Forget trying to be inconspicuous, behind the wheel of a PT Cruiser convertible. This is a car to see and be seen in.

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Fun and functional retro cruiser

What I drove: 2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible GT, two-door, four- passenger soft-top with a 220-hp turbocharged engine

Base price: $27,565

Price as tested: $28,795

Options on test vehicle: AutoStick, 4-speed automatic transmission, AM/FM stereo with in-dash 6-disc CD player

Summary: Fun and functional retro cruiser

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive

Engine: 2.4-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder

Transmission: 4-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick

Wheelbase: 103 inches

Length: 168.8 inches

Width: 67.1 inches

Height: 60.6 inches

Weight: 3,426 pounds EPA mpg, city/highway: 19/26

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; powertrain: 7 years/70,000 miles; roadside assist: 3 years/36,000 miles

Assembled in: Toluca, Mexico

Safety: Dual front air bags, front side-impact air bags, LATCH child-seat anchors, antilock brakes and traction control

Cool: Great top-down looks, available 220-hp engine, easy handling, flexible interior, roomy rear seat

Uncool: Awkward trunk lid, poor rear visibility with top up, GT model no bargain

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With 640,000 units built since its spring 2000 introduction, the once groundbreaking PT Cruiser doesn't seem so novel anymore. The retro-style wagon has become such a familiar sight it barely draws a second glance. And while it remains Chrysler's best-selling model, U.S. sales of the PT Cruiser slipped by more than 20 percent last year.

To the rescue comes the PT Cruiser convertible.

First revealed as a concept vehicle at the 2001 New York auto show, the PT Cruiser convertible took a bit longer than expected to appear in street-ready form. But finally it's here.

And heads are turning again.

Whether or not you like the PT Cruiser's hot-rod styling, there's no denying its roominess and versatility. At 84.3 cubic feet, the PT Cruiser convertible has more interior volume than its two main competitors: the VW Beetle convertible (79.6 cubic feet) and the Ford Mustang convertible (79.0 cubic feet).

The split rear seats fold and tumble and, when used in conjunction with the pass-through trunk, can expand luggage capacity to 13.3 cubic feet. The back seats are raised, theater-style, and provide passengers with 10 more inches of legroom than the Beetle convertible.

Whole new vehicle

The PT's gangster styling looks less sinister in soft-top trim. The convertible has the same front-end as the hardtop, but everything from the windshield back is new (except for the taillights). The convertible seats four passengers instead of five, has two doors instead of four, a trunk instead of a lift-gate, and a huge "sport bar" arching over the passenger compartment.

The sport bar serves to improve body rigidity and act as a mounting point for the front seat-belt loops and two overhead lights. Chrysler says the sport bar also reduces wind turbulence in the rear seats, but that wasn't our experience. (We're still untangling my daughter's hair.)

With the roof affixed, the PT convertible has a lower roofline than the hardtop. Its rear end features a larger and taller expanse of sheet metal, which makes it look like a box from behind. The soft top's glass rear window is so dinky, it all but eliminates rear visibility.

The trunk opening is tiny, too, and its lid swings up at such an angle that you have to stand back when opening it or you'll break your nose. Accessing the trunk's contents requires crouching awkwardly beneath the lid.

Attractive price

The PT Cruiser drop-top comes in three flavors: standard, Touring and GT.

With a $19,405 sticker price, the standard model is the least expensive four-passenger drop-top car on the market today. The trouble is that the standard 150-horsepower engine also makes it one of the most underpowered for its weight. This engine is barely strong enough to propel the hardtop PT Cruiser, let alone the convertible model, which weighs 280 pounds more. Aside from its power deficiency, the entry-level PT convertible comes with almost all of the goodies, including the easy-to-use power-folding top, stylish sport bar and functional pass-through trunk.

Things get peppier when you move up to the Touring model ($22,990) with the available 180-hp turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. This power plant is better suited to the PT's size and heft, and is well worth its $1,280 price. The Touring model adds such standard features as cruise control, a CD player, 16-inch wheels and a cumbersome boot cover.

The top-of-the-line GT is powered by a 220-hp high-output turbocharged engine. It's the quickest PT Cruiser convertible, but with a starting price of $27,565, it's no longer cheap. The extra $8,000 buys you a performance-tuned suspension, antilock brakes and traction control, 17-inch cast aluminum wheels, all-season performance tires, a chrome-plated stainless-steel exhaust tip, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather seats, a higher-end stereo/CD player and front side-impact air bags.

What was old is new again

Forget trying to be inconspicuous behind the wheel of a PT Cruiser convertible. During my week driving a silver GT model, I attracted as many stares, hoots and unsolicited comments as I would have had I been driving a fluorescent-yellow Rolls Royce Phantom. This is a car to see and be seen in.

It's PT Cruiser mania all over again.

"Wow, that car looks great. When did it come out?" said a guy in a Camaro stopped beside me at a red light.

"How do you like that ... ugly thing?" asked my neighbor.

"Mom, I feel self-conscious when everyone stares at us," said my daughter when I dropped her off at school.

"May I see your license and registration, please?" asked the motorcycle cop, whose radar gun had clocked me doing 15 ticks over the speed limit.

I couldn't help it, officer. This thing is deceptively fast.

Now I try to view that speeding ticket, which hangs before me on my bulletin board, as a happy souvenir of my 300 miles with the PT convertible.

As I told the officer, the GT really scoots. The turbocharged engine delivers power in seamless streams, and is well-matched to the four-speed automatic transmission, which is especially effective in manual-shift mode.

The suspension is capable and sporty, and the ride is smooth. Top up or top down, the car feels solid, exhibiting no body flex or cowl quiver. With the top up, there is some tire roar, but wind noise is subdued.

Fun and functional

In its 2004 car issue, Consumer Reports magazine blessed the PT Cruiser hardtop with its "Recommended" stamp of approval, based largely on its versatility, handling and above-average reliability.

Chances are the PT convertible will fare just as well. It's a fun, functional and stylish drop-top, one that should send PT sales soaring again.

I enjoyed it so much, I didn't want to let it go and may have to frame that speeding ticket to preserve the memory.


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