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The Chrysler PT Cruiser car review

Review Notes: 2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser "Woodie" Automatic; 2006 GT Cruiser Automatic (Turbo)
Personality Looks like a retro wagon, handles like a sports car; feels almost like a muscle car with the 2006 "high output" turbocharger
Quirks A/C control
Unusual features Cool retro look - nostalgic yet modern, cool yet not ugly
Above Average: Handling, interior space for the size, style, comfort, stereo quality, ergonomics, acceleration (high output turbo)
Needs Work In: Automatic transmission (2001-2005), gas mileage (OK for SUVs, low for wagons)
Gas mileage 19/25 (first-gen automatic); 19/26 (GT manual; second-gen GT automatic)

Overview: first generation (second generation, GT follow)

Recently, we had the opportunity to try out a PT Cruiser once again (our first cruise is on the ptcruizer.com site) - this time, a Limited Edition with the "Woody" treatment. The plastic wood sides seemed perfectly natural on the Cruiser, despite its diminutive size - another styling triumph, admittedly at a price of over $800, more than we could justify if we actually had to pay the bill. The payback is in stares from passers-by and many unsolicited "nice car!" comments from people in the high school age range, pretty good for a car that's been out for well over a year, and costs only $16,000 (base). To be fair, the faux wood sides probably had a lot to do with those comments and stares, and that costs an extra $900 or so.

There were several differences between this seven-day cruise and our last test. First, of course, the PT Cruiser has been out for over a year, and there are three examples sitting on the curb within five blocks of our house - so exclusitivity is hardly an issue, though ours is the only one with the Woody treatment (we do hear that people still stop and stare at PTs). Second, this model has had the benefit of a number of running changes, including a new feature which provides the serial number during the computer self-test and a standard passenger seat storage bin. Third, the cab seems to have been adjusted a bit, with the power window controls moved up to the dashboard (a second set for rear passengers is between the front seats). Fourth, and perhaps most important, it came equipped with an automatic transmission which quietly and politely sapped a great deal of power, and made us feel like a great rubber band stretched between the engine and axle.

The terrific handling and parkability of the PT Cruiser was as good as we remembered, if not better - keeping in mind that we've driven about fifty different cars since the last ride in the Cruiser, including a Volkswagen Jetta and GTI, Chevy Corvette and Camaro, Honda Civic and Accord, Toyota Celica, and just about every small SUV. No, the PT Cruiser won't outhandle a Corvette, but it certainly whips around the turns with undue speed and composure, more like a sports car than a tall wagon. The combination of ride and handling is incredible for a car of this price, and we think journalists would rave about it if the BMW logo was plastered to the back. As it is, the Chrysler emblem seems to bring only a focus on its outward appearance and when the "fad" will end - something not often mentioned when, say, the Mini is discussed. (The Mini sells for roughly the same price, and base models have fairly low acceleration. Interior room is certainly far better in the PT. On the other hand, the Mini Cooper S has great acceleration and is available now - in very limited quantities - while the GT Cruiser seems to have taken forever to get approved, and then to actually get produced).

Getting back to the point, the PT Cruiser remains a great deal, even without rebates or other discounts, and the new seven year - 100,000 mile powertrain warranty only helps, alleviating any fears of head gasket failure (which has been relativey rare on the 2.4). Quality has been high, with a large consumer reporting magazine ranking the PT Cruiser as the second best bet in small car reliability after the less-than-desirable Toyota Echo, a car whose capabilities are even smaller than its price. The PT ranked far, far above the "high quality" Honda Civic, as well as pretty much any Mercedes, in those reports.

Interior space is quite good, with lots of room for front and rear passengers, and decent cargo space. The hatchback/wagon design means that the cargo area, while not very long, is very deep, a more useful configuration. (We've owned in succession a car with a long, shallow trunk and a hatchback with a short, deep trunk - both of similar area - and found the hatchback more useful overall). The rear seats fold down, with a 10/20 split so you can hold four passengers and one moderately long object. What's truly a triumph of packaging is the fact that, even with the generous interior room, the PT fits easily into any parking space you can find, being both narrow and short - smaller than Dodge's smallest car, the Neon. Parking is incredibly easy.

The seats are comfortable and supportive, with your choice of a manual or power height control on the driver's seat. Given that the power height control costs about $800, we recommend the manual version. Neither comes with driver memory, and in both cases the fore-aft and back angle adjustment is manual.

Hidden features abound, and not just in the usual areas of flexible seats, clever storage compartments, and that sort of thing. We discovered, through a quick read of the manual, that we could shut off the horn-honking that normally accompanies locking the door with the key fob; could shut off the automatic door locks that take affect when you hit 15 mph; and, it seemed, alter other functions of the Cruiser without visiting a dealer. We'll miss those attributes when Chrysler moves over to less-friendly Mercedes systems in the next decade.

Our Touring Edition included a compass and temperature gauge built into a small overhead console, which also housed two map lights and the controls for the optional moonroof. This control included an automatic open button (one press opens the moonroof completely, so the driver doesn't need to keep their hand away from the controls) and a "V" button which opens the moonroof vertically to vent air without having the wind rush in, or leaves fall in. Pressing "V" again does not, however, lower the roof.

We were once again pleased with the ease of having this car. The height is just right for easy exit and entry, not to mention dealing with child seats. We like the retro door handles and locks, with the practical chrome rings around the locks - there to avoid scratching of the paint, but replaced long ago on most cars with painted body-color trim - and chromed door handles which you grab and then push with your thumb to open (once again, avoiding paint scratching and discoloration from use). Our model had unpainted bumpers, which also helps longevity of the appearance. Even the faux-wood trim seemed resistant to age and abuse, though only time will tell.

One interesting feature of Chrysler cars, often ignored by other reviewers - though to be fair, it's hardly obvious - is the way that anyone can get the computer fault codes from the engine. Every modern car is constantly monitoring its systems to detect possible problems, from misfiring to sensor failure, even a loose gas cap. In the PT Cruiser, accessing these codes is particularly easy. Just put the key into the ignition, then push in the odometer reset button while turning the key to RUN. You will first see the car's serial number (the last six digits of the VIN), then fault codes (which now start with the letter P) in the odometer. For a complete list of codes, you can visit allpar.com or ptcruizer.com.

Armed with that information, you can prevent abuse by Chryler dealers and, once the warranty is over, troubleshoot your own repairs (saving thousands of dollars, in some cases), or make sure your own mechanic is not pulling a fast one. And, if your mechanic does not use the computer's fault codes with his own scanner or this method - get another mechanic. (This feature is common to all Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth cars and minivans, with trucks and Jeeps using a moderately different system designed more by the AMC/Jeep people). Again, the entire system is due to be junked by Mercedes, which has insisted that Chrysler convert to its own electronic architecture - but we can enjoy it now.

The odometer panel also includes warnings for things like open doors and whether the cruise control is activated.

Another cool feature is the adjustable roof rack, which is a terribly overpriced option. However, it allows you to easily slide the roofrack supports so that, when not in use, it looks like a rear spoiler and not a roofrack. That also makes it more adjustable to carry different size loads.

One feature often overlooked in reviews is the vent system, which turns out to be very important in day to day driving. The Cruiser's innovative circular vents are very easy to aim and shut off, and allow for a quiet, strong fan with minimal use of space. The stereo, another important area for many drivers, is also very good, with strong, clear sound and good stereo separation.

Handling with the Touring Edition is surprisingly good, making the tall Cruiser handle more like a sports car than a, well, whatever it is. The Limited Edition provides a smoother ride, but the Touring Edition still insulates the passengers from nasty shocks and bumps, quietly taking rough surfaces and minimizing their impact. The suspension is world-class in its ability to provide both handling and ride, without any expensive electronic stability aids.

Acceleration is interesting, often giving the feel of having a giant rubber band between the engine and the road. The manual transmission got the most out of the engine, even at low rpms, making acceleration good compared with other cars of this price class, but the automatic is a hindrance. Acceleration is still acceptable with the automatic, but one gets the idea that the engine is not the weak point. The automatic also tends to shift early, even under full throttle.

We liked the door handles and locks, which, being made of chrome, don't scratch easily and end up with a poor appearance after a couple of years.

Normally, reviews of Toyotas and Hondas are almost required to mention that the controls all had a feel of quality missing from American vehicles. We are happy to say that the PT Cruiser's controls feel as solid and satisfying as anything coming from Japan, and, indeed, seem to be the same ones used by Toyota in some cases. That includes the cruise control, which is the extremely convenient "dedicated stalk" system - push a button on the end to activate, move up to resume or accelerate, down to coast or set, and pull to temporarily cancel. It feels good and works well.

When all is said and done, the PT Cruiser is still a bargain, even though the options push the price up and Cruiser-mania has been superceded by the latest two or three fad cars. Unlike, say, the Volkswagen Beetle, the PT Cruiser's style hides a remarkably practical car, one which seats four in roomy comfort or five in a pinch, can haul their baggage, and take a sharp turn, for a reasonable price and in reasonable comfort. A large number of comfort and convenience features will help you to keep your Cruiser long after your friends have traded their Beetle for a Thunderbird for an SSR for the next big thing, and you can do it for less than a loaded and relatively uncomfortable Honda Civic. If that large consumer magazine is accurate, the PT Cruiser is also the second most reliable small car you can get, after the Toyota Echo - surely not a desirable vehicle! - and far ahead of the aforementioned Civic, so you can buy with reasonable confidence. Chrysler also intends on continuing to produce special editions with flames, chrome treatments, a turbocharger, and other special effects, to fan the flames of PT lovers and keep rebates away.

So if you like the PT Cruiser, try one out, and see if it's something you'd like to live with. Even if you don't particularly like it, add it to your list of cars to test drive. You'll be glad you did - even if it only means experiencing the PT for yourself.

First generation - turbocharged manual transmission (GT)

With the manual transmission and turbocharger, you get just about the same gas mileage as with the automatic and standard engine (albeit with midgrade fuel, or premium if you want that extra bit of power), but you also get considerably more speed. The turbocharger doesn't really make itself known most of the time, even though it almost invisibly provides an assist in normal acceleration; but when you really need it, that is when you mosh the pedal down to the floor, the turbo kicks in and the PT leaps forward quickly enough. Expect 0-60 times of just over 7 seconds with this setup - about the same as the second-generation, automatic-equipped turbo (the second generation engine was retuned for its exclusive use in the PT Cruiser, now that the SRT-4 has a different powerplant). The nice aspect of the PT - GT, other than getting both great cornering and good forward movement, is that the extra power normally doesn't intrude; you can drive around the city perfectly normally, and only get that turbo kick on demand. That makes it much easier on the driver than, say, certain Volvos that seem to be on a hair trigger.

There are downsides of the turbo. First, it comes with a much stiffer suspension, which is still on this side of comfort but transmits more bumps and jiggles than the base suspension; it needs that extra firmness to reduce torque steer and keep the front wheels firmly on the road when full power is applied. Second, the Getrag manual transmission has a fairly heavy clutch, which can be wearing on some drivers and takes a little getting used to. Third, the high-output turbo comes with a bevy of options that cannot be removed from the checklist, including cheesy fake carbon fiber panels inside, leather seats, and other, less objectionable features. And, finally, as previously noted, you have to switch up to 89 octane (91 preferred). It's all worth it, we think - but it should come into your thoughts as you make your decision.

Second generation: 2006 and onwards

The PT Cruiser itself

The PT Cruiser has undergone a number of changes for 2006, mostly dealing with making it look more like a Chrysler and saving money. The most obvious changes are cosmetic, and, indeed, that is probably where most of the action took place, except for the turbo model.

The teardrop headlights have been modified so that dual headlights could be integrated into the design; the new “scalloped design” is not complimentary, but the current thinking at the Chrysler design studios is that cars of a certain caliber must have dual headlights, and so there we go. The dual headlights are, if anything, even brighter than in the first generation, which were already quite good.

The underbumper area redesign is harder to fathom, as it breaks up the general theme of the front end, and we'd assume cost-cutting or turbo cooling is the impetus there. The center stack, though, once again is the result of making the PT into more of a Chrysler and less of, well, a Plymouth Truck, along with (presumably) the need to fit in the new corporate stereo unit; now, the PT has the "Chrysler center clock" to lend an air of elegance and fit in with the rest of the brand’s lineup. The oddball addition is the "towel bar" grab-rail by the glove compartment, whose utility is questionable and whose appearance is generally disliked.

The other changes include extra sound insulation, but that only helps if the air conditioner or heater fan is off; rerouting the hoses to compensate for the center stack redesign seems to have greatly increased the noise of the fan, easily overwhelming any noise reductions from extra insulation (the use of cheaper louvers doesn't help). At higher speeds, the difference between generations is not obvious.

On the lighter side, the new dashboard has much larger, more readable, and more elegant black-on-white gauges; the GT model has more tasteful body-colored inserts, with a finer and generally more attractive crosshatch pattern on the imitation carbon fiber. The typeface on the instruments is more in keeping with Chrysler's desired market position, and lends a more upscale appearance; both day and night, it's easier to read. On the other hand, one cannot help but get the idea that the scheme is not very well thought out, overall. There is the noisy-vent situation, the odd blend of white backlighting for the instrument panel and green backlighting for the rest of the dashboard, and the general lack of design cohesion in the interior, a sort of “we didn’t work as hard on this as the Plymouth Truck version.” Perhaps, because sales of this version were known to be much higher than the last one, cost-cutting took precedence over appearance; or perhaps it was seen as being too important to leave to hobby-type decisions, like having old-fashioned outside pushbutton door handles and inside door handles that were originally hand-carved in wood. On the whole, though the instrument panel itself is a big improvement, the dashboard as a whole is more questionable. (We realized later that the dashboard also seems to have moved up, somewhat reducing the air feeling of the original PT.)

Other interior elements were also mixed. The big steering wheel with the chrome inserts seemed more elegant and stylish, and the deep two-layer center console was both functional and convenient, as were the dual-sized cupholders. On the other hand, we really missed the underseat drawer from the previous generation, despite its often finicky nature; it was a good place to dump all the clutter from the glove compartment, which was then free for, well, gloves. In addition, while the seats felt more solid and now have electric fore-aft adjusters, we missed the minivan-style fold-down armrests that were on both driver and passenger front seats.

Our test car had a rather nice chrome package, including popular features such as chrome door ferrules (the grippable lock things) and a chrome gas cap cover that looks just like the aftermarket one on our 2003 GT; the chrome on the exterior is also a nice touch, flashy but not overstated.

The new stereo is a step down from the older ones, in both sound quality and ease of use; by no means a bad-audio unit, it is only an issue in comparison to the superior Infinity optional in past PTs, which had very clear sound. The ease of use is mainly in the use of electronic push-and-turn audio controls, replacing balance and fade knobs and bass and treble sliders which made rapid changes easy. On the other hand, the optional Sirius Satellite Radio is a nice alternative to the commercial-laden, repetitive music stations or the hate-filled talk stations of the standard airwaves; and, oddly, the stereo seemed noticeably higher-fidelity when receiving satellite radio than playing CDs. The PT also offers UConnect (for hands-free communications using Bluetooth cellphones).

In other ways, the 2006 is very similar to the 2001 PT, including the convenient seating, ease of entry, flexible interior and removable seats, moveable package shelf, easy to reach jack and harder to reach spare tire, surprising interior space and useable cargo space, easy parking (thanks to the very short length), good view of the road (height), wide-opening doors, insanely large turning circle, and surprising convenience.

For more on our driving impressions of the 2006 PT, see the following GT Cruiser car review.

The second-generation (2006+) GT Cruiser

The PT Cruiser GT, with a high-output 230 hp turbocharged engine, really feels and sounds more like a V8 than a turbo-four. Unfortunately, it also drinks gasoline like a V8, at least with the optional four-speed automatic.

While power has increased only a little on paper since the first generation, the engine feels as though the entire operating range has had a serious torque boost. From the start, the automatic-transmission GT is full of power, ready to test the traction control at a moment's notice. There is good torque and power right off idle, without the previous generation's obvious turbo kick-in (and turbo whine). The engine has a performance-tuned exhaust that emits a deep, power-evoking note at idle and at speed. The turbo takes a car that is already fun to drive and adds a new element of excitement. It's not an SRT-4, but it is amazingly practical, fun to drive, and sporty.

Chrysler boosted the engine with a new cylinder block and head design changes, as well as a stronger crank and piston cooling by oil jets. The turbocharger, which could tend to overheat in the first generation GT, is now both oil and water cooled; it is integrated into the exhaust manifold.

There are, surprisingly, no dead spots in full-out sprints, with the apparently better tuned to the engine (or vice versa); the main limit to acceleration seems to be traction from the front tires, with full-out launches restricted by the traction control. 0-60 acceleration appears to be about 7 seconds with the automatic - good but not supercar; on the other hand, on the highway, you get about the same punch as you do from the stoplight. This engine doesn't need to be wound to 6,000 rpm to get power.

The automatic was usually gentle and well-behaved, though sometimes it could get caught by surprise on acceleration or deceleration and lurch around a little. This is probably not an issue to be concerned about, because the automatic learns as it goes along, and this type generally gets confused by being in the press fleet, whether made by Chrysler or Toyota.

The suspension has been greatly improved, with cornering seeming as capable, if not more so, than the prior GT model, but with better cushioning and less of a stiff feeling. Although the suspension was modified for the turbo, the ride is pleasant, if not as well-insulated as base models. Handling is excellent, with the compact SUV feeling like a car when whipped around sharp turns. It's far easier to break the wheels free (for a moment) with acceleration than with cornering. Where other cars give a punishing ride for similar performance, the PT stays pleasant. Drive it with restraint, and your passengers need never know about the tiger under the hood (well, unless they aren't deaf — that exhaust does make itself known).

Torque steer is present, especially at launch, but is easily controlled, with only mild understeer. Under full throttle it wants to go straight, an admirable tendency.

Power normally comes at a price, and in this case, it's both initial cost (the turbo option adds quite a bit to the price, raising it to $23,000) and gasoline. The GT with automatic is supposed to get 19 city, 26 highway, according to the EPA; according to the on-board computer, we never beat 16 mpg in the city, and got about 18 highway. Of course, our car was a press fleet model that probably was flogged badly during its break-in period, and only had 2,400 miles on it; based on our past experience with recent Chrysler engines, gas mileage should go up. It's also possible that our trip computer was simply dead wrong, since we didn't go through that much gas. The turbo requires higher octane fuel.

The GT includes four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, and all-season performance tires on large chromed wheels, not to mention side airbags, a power sunroof, leather, and a number of other options — including of course the turbo and accompanying heavy-duty sport suspension. We found the overall package surprisingly pleasant and fun. The engine provides both low end get-up-and-go and high-end woof!, the handling is very good, the ride is not punishing by any means, the interior is quiet, usable, and attractive, and the seating comfortable and user-friendly. The GT is expensive, but you can get many less appealing packages for much more money; and the 2006 takes a bit of the edge off the suspension and adds to the power, making it more attractive (if you can afford the gasoline).

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