Backtrack: Chysler PT Cruiser

From time to time, we look through the archives to find interesting road tests from our archives. This time, it’s a look back at that retro looking cruiser from the USA, the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

With its “retro” looks, its bright purple paintwork and big shiny chrome wheels, the Chrysler PT Cruiser looked like it should be parked outside a 1950s diner on the side of the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. Instead, here I was parking it was finding its space on a very British High Street.

Chrysler PT Cruiser

The extrovert looks might convince you that this car is aimed at some narrow, style-conscious market. But, in actual fact, the American motor giant is aiming it mainly at the family market, as a smaller alternative to the MPV.

I was interested, therefore, when a young family walked past. Lingering to gauge their reactions, I saw them walk around the PT cruiser, then crane their necks to look inside. “I think it’s a lovely car,” was the mother’s verdict as the family headed on their way.

Reactions are the one thing you will not be short of when you drive a PT Cruiser. I remember driving one soon after they first came into the country and watching as road workers fell off their shove handles in amazement!

Even though there are quite a few of them on North-east roads now, as you pass through towns and villages you will still see the swivelling heads, the open mouths, the smiles, and get to lip-read the occasional (usually complimentary) comment!

Admittedly there are people who will sneer and categorise this as a caricature of motoring history. These are usually the same people who will look down their noses at the new Volkswagen Beetle and lecture you on why the new MINI is not a true successor to the Alec Issigonis original.

Personally I believe cars are more interesting if they have style and character. If you are a shrinking violet, however, you may wish a vehicle with a little less of it than the PT Cruiser!

The retro looks continue inside. The upright seating position makes efficient use of the space and also eases access for all ages. Painted panels, big round dials and a period-style steering wheel (with a neatly integrated airbag) complete the impression.

There is a hint of the “sit-up-and-beg” driving position epitomised by the Ford Popular of the 1950s. When first I drove the PT Cruiser, I feared that, along with this vintage seating position, it might have inherited vague steering, sloppy suspension and a soft ride.

I was very pleasantly surprised. The PT Cruiser is thoroughly modern in its dynamics.

The handling is as good as a modern car should be, but being quite tall, it does roll more than you might wish. This is made all the more noticeable because the seats lack a little in lateral support, making a series of twisty bends a little tiresome. The ride, while not outstanding, is generally good and comfortable. But, it can feel a little fidgety on poor surfaces.

The steering is a revelation. Given that US manufacturers are not known for providing sharpness of response and good feedback, the PT Cruiser is much better than you might expect.

In aiming for the family market Chrysler has also made sure that the seating and load combinations are as flexible as possible. In addition to the usual options to fold the rear seats, you can also slide them back and forwards to provide more rear seat legroom or more load area.

This flexibility is enhanced with a big-opening rear tailgate and a parcel shelf, which has six possible permutations, including use as a family picnic table.
Although cars on the American domestic market do not always have as high a specification as we expect in the UK, Chrysler has established something of a reputation for providing a good level of equipment on the cars they import into the UK.

Even in its £14,995 Classic base model form, the PT Cruiser has a full complement of front and side airbags, air conditioning and all-round electric windows.

In its £17,195 road test “Limited” top-of-the-range specification (which, ironically, is anything but limited), the PT Cruiser comes with electrically-heated seats that I accidentally turned on during a heat wave and had to wait some miles before I could park and turn off the ignition to cancel them!

Chrysler PT Cruiser

I reached for the air-conditioning to keep me cool, but on the test car it proved strangely ineffective. I expected the usual Arctic blast you expect from cars that may have to endure the 50-degree temperatures of Death Valley.

The one bit of equipment I would not choose is the optional automatic transmission. The auto box on the test car never seemed to be in tune with my intentions as a driver, kicking down when I least expected it and labouring in high gear when I wanted more “go” from the two-litre engine.

So, choose the manual version and you could find you quite enjoy having a little bit of style in a life of bland practicality. But I can’t promise that it will change the trunk roads of Britain into Route 66, or convert the local chipper into a glamorous 50s diner!
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