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Chrysler PT Cruiser - and PT Cruiser GT Turbo car reviews

Review Notes: Chrysler PT Cruiser Limited Edition (Automatic) PT Cruiser GT Turbo (Manual)
Personality Fun retrocar with modern conveniences and comfort Fun retro sports car with modern conveniences and comfort
Quirks No power memory in this day and age!
Unusual features Styling, short size makes it easy to park
Above Average: Interior space for size, handling, style, comfort, stereo quality, ergonomics Same plus acceleration, gas mileage
Needs Work In: Rubbery automatic transmission, gas mileage, a/c controls a/c controls, cheesy dash panels (with some colors)
Gas Mileage: 19 city, 25 highway (EPA) 21 city, 27 highway (EPA)
Scrape test Passed easily Passed
Reviewed by David Zatz

The PT Cruiser was a success from the moment it hit the streets, at times beating the sales of the Neon, though it was only meant to be a limited run. Though the original exclusitivity has faded, and the trend-chasers have since moved on to the Mini on their way to who-knows-what, the PT still appeals to many, partly for its style, and partly because it's simply an outstanding vehicle.

The quality of the original PT was very high, rated by some to be better than the Honda Civic - by a wide margin - and nearly up to the Toyota Corolla. 2002 saw 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. The cab was adjusted a bit, with the power window controls moved up to the dashboard (a second set for rear passengers is between the front seats).

We tested two PT Cruisers at opposite ends of the spectrum. The first was a Limited Edition with an automatic transmission that quietly and politely sapped a great deal of power, and made us feel like a great rubber band was stretched between the engine and axle. The second was the PT Cruiser GT, a turbocharged version with a five-speed Getrag-built stick that had a much firmer suspension, more than enough power, and a nice firm link between driver and engine.

The terrific handling and parkability of the PT Cruiser is always surprising, given its competitors in both the mini-SUV and small car market. 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. The Limited Edition insulates the passengers nicely from bumps and road imperfections, while still affording good road feel. The GT is much firmer and may be too stiff for some people, but it is still far more comfortable than most vehicles that handle and accelerate this well - at least, on this side of $30,000.

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 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).

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 GT and 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 base 2.4 liter 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 (this may have been adjusted in the 2003 models). The turbocharger should compensate for deficiencies in the automatic transmission, much as the 300M's powerful V6 overcomes the inefficiency of its automatic, but if you can get a stick, do so. It's certainly more fun in a car like this, and it's easy to operate.

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 Mini and then for the next big thing, and you can do it for less than a loaded and relatively uncomfortable Honda Civic.

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.

PT Cruiser GT Turbo notes 

PT Cruiser fans waited a long time for the turbocharged version, but, to be fair, nowhere near as long as Neon fans - who first started hearing rumors in 1993, and had to wait ten years for the SRT-4. In both cases, the wait was worth it. The turbo 2.4 engine is quiet, smooth, and fast.

The PT Cruiser GT - for some reason, the GT Cruiser name was ignored - is available with either an automatic or a Getrag manual transmission. Getrag has made manual transmissions for most past Chrysler turbos, so this resumes a relationship which ended with the last of the 2.2 turbos in the 1990s.

As with the base engines, the stick has a chrome rod ending in an 8-ball shifter. The shift pattern is a little different, with reverse starting to the left of first, in the German (Getrag in this case) pattern rather than the "reverse-in-sixth" Japanese pattern. It's nearly always easy to find the right gear, though sometimes reverse can be tricky (presumably this gets easier with time). The shifter is smooth without losing its pleasant mechanical feel. The clutch is also easy to operate smoothly.

The engine itself is generally quiet, despite a performance-tuned exhaust that emits a deep, power-evoking note. As the four is revved, a low turbocharger whistle can barely be heard under the sound of advancing revs. The engine speed limiter breaks in all too quickly, and rather suddenly, just after hitting the red one in the tachometer - which, perversely, goes about 2,000 rpm higher than the engine itself. We have to wonder what the actual vehicle speed is limited to, with a 140 mph speedometer.

As one might imagine, plenty of power is available from the turbocharged engine, giving the PT speed to match its looks. There are no dead spots, with the relatively large engine giving good torque and power right off idle, and surging forward at higher speeds. The turbo cuts in smoothly, making it seem more like a V6 than a turbo-four, helping the PT to rocket forward. There is just a bit of a surge, accompanied by a very slight whistle, to provide that great turbocharger feeling. Low-end muscle is good enough to get the heavy little car moving nicely until the turbo can kick in.

Many people will find it hard to find enough opportunities to sprint. We found it all too easy to jackrabbit away from stop signs and traffic lights, with the front wheels squealing just a little, often invoking the traction control when there was dirt or water on the streets. 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, with enough speed and handling for 99% of the population.

Power normally comes at a price, but economy is still decent for the category, at about 21 city, 27 highway. The main cost is up front, in the price. The base price is $23,005, with destination charge. That includes antilock brakes and traction control, rear defroster and wiper/washer, fog lights, air, tilt steering, six-speaker CD stereo, floor mats, cruise control, power locks, windows, and mirrors, overhead compass and thermometer, Sentry Key, keyless entry, and an interior lighting package. That's one well-outfitted vehicle for the price, compared with entries from Toyota and Honda.

Although the suspension was modified for the turbo, with low 205/50R17 tires and such, the ride is still pleasant, if not as well-insulated as base models. Handling is excellent, with the compact SUV feeling more like a sports 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.

That brings up an interesting packaging choice: it is actually hard to know the PT has a turbo just from looking at the outside. The legend "2.4 Turbo" is printed on the tachometer (there is no boost gauge) and is on the rear gate, in small chrome letters. The only other indication, other than the low stance, is the large GT on the opposite side of the gate. It must be easy to sneak up on unsuspecting "souped-Civic," Celica, and Matrix MRS drivers at the light for those who get into embarassing those who made less intelligent choices.

On the down-side, premium gas is recommended, and the amount of power combines with front wheel drive to produce no inconsiderable amount of torque steer.

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 PT GT is, in short, what PT Cruiser fans have been waiting for: a more powerful version of their friendly, fun PT. For a lot of us, it's time to buy.

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