Chrysler PT Cruiser Review

Chrysler PT Cruiser Review

The 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser features its first significant facelift in six years. Inside and out, the new look is best described as more modern, but not so much so as to spoil the PT's toy-hot-rod fun.

Chrysler PT Cruiser combines the retro look of late-'30s American iron with modern performance, efficiency and features. It doesn't fit within existing automotive marketing segments.

The PT Cruiser is based on the Dodge Neon, a compact car noted for sprightly performance. It comes in two body styles, a versatile five-door model and a two-door convertible.

The five-door model's tall body boasts lots of room for people and cargo. In fact, its interior volume and versatility compare well to a small SUV. Fold the seats down and you can carry an eight-foot ladder. Pull the rear seats out and you can haul a load of building materials or a big-screen TV. Yet the PT Cruiser is shorter in length than a Neon, making it easy to park. It's easy on gas. The lower-level models are competitively priced, and we think they make the most sense.

Pricier turbocharged models add fire under the hood. For 2006, the fire has been turned up to 230 horsepower in the GT model. A more affordable 180-horsepower turbo is also available.

The convertible is one of the least expensive on the market. It looks like a chopped-top gangster-mobile with the top up and puts the wind in your hair with the top down. Roomy seats make it great for four passengers, but its trunk is tiny and awkward.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser comes in two body styles: a five-door hatchback/wagon, which Chrysler calls a sedan; and a two-door convertible.

The sedan is available in four trim levels: base, Touring, Limited, and GT. The convertible comes in Touring and GT trim only (the base-model convertible has been dropped for '06).

All PT Cruisers are powered by a 2.4-liter, twin-cam four-cylinder engine. In base, Touring, and Limited versions, this engine is tuned to deliver 150 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, a four-speed automatic is optional ($825).

A 180-horsepower turbocharged version of this same engine is optional on Limited sedans ($2,000) and Touring convertibles ($2,105). Both prices include automatic transmission; a manual gearbox is not available with this engine.

A 230-horsepower High Output turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder is standard on the GT. This engine comes with a heavy-duty five-speed manual transaxle made by Getrag; a four-speed automatic is optional ($550).

The base sedan ($13,405) comes with AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo; fabric bucket seats and floor console; tilt steering; power windows; speed-sensitive power locks; engine immobilizer; tinted glass; rear window defroster, wiper, and washer; 65/35 split folding rear seat; and 15-inch steel wheels.

The Touring sedan ($15,530) adds air conditioning, power mirrors, a fold-flat front passenger seat with storage drawer, remote keyless entry, and other interior features. To that list the Touring Convertible ($23,175) adds a power top with soft boot cover, 50/50 split rear seat, fog lamps, and 16-inch painted aluminum wheels. Leather seats are optional on the convertible.

Limited ($17,405), offered only as a sedan, comes with side-impact airbags, cruise control, six-way power seats with upgraded cloth upholstery and manual lumbar adjustment; leather-wrapped steering wheel; security alarm; HomeLink universal garage-door opener; power glass sunroof; and a unique touring suspension on 16-inch aluminum wheels. (Yes, you read that right; the "touring" suspension comes on the Limited, not on the Touring model.)

The GT sedan ($23,030) adds four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a performance-tuned suspension, traction control, and all-season performance tires on 17-inch chromed aluminum wheels. The GT also comes with side-impact airbags, a power glass sunroof, and most of the Limited's luxury goodies. Leather sport seats are also standard. The GT convertible ($27,930) comes with all the Limited and GT sedan goodies, and for '06 its 17-inch wheels are chrome-plated, just like the sedan's.

Optional on all convertibles and on Limited and GT sedans is a new Boston Acoustics premium sound system (replacing last year's Infinity system), but retaining the same 368-watt peak output. Other stand-alone options include the glass sunroof for Touring sedans ($1100), heated front seats for Limited and GT ($250), and side-impact airbags for base and Touring ($390). Sirius Satellite Radio is optional on all models this year ($195, including a one-year subscribtion). GPS navigation ($1100) is available on Limited and GT; so is UConnect hands-free, in-vehicle communications ($360), which uses Bluetooth technology to link the user's cellular phone with the Cruiser's stereo speakers. Limited sedans can be ordered with plastic woodgrain exterior accents ($895) for the vintage Town & Country look. Many of the standard features on higher-line models are also available as options on the less expensive models.

Safety features include front side-impact airbags, standard in GT and Limited and optional ($390) on the other models. Seatbelts should always be worn, however, and the PT Cruiser comes with three-point safety harnesses at all positions, including the rear center position. The front belts have pyrotechnically charged tensioners, just like in luxury cars, to tighten the belts for the initial stages of an impact. The rear bench is equipped with child-seat tethers.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser blends the retro look of a late-1930's or early 1940's American sedan with new-age styling cues such as dual-beam flush headlights and teardrop-shaped taillight lenses.

The look has been refined for the 2006 models, but not drastically changed. Chrysler says the PT Cruiser now has the face of Chrysler, which seems to translate into a more horizontal-themed grille that no longer extends down below the bumper, topped by a more prominent Chrysler eagle and flanked by gently scalloped headlamps. Round foglights now frame a horizontal slot in the bumper. Around back, a new body-color spoiler on the liftgate is said to improve aerodynamic efficiency.

In terms of exterior dimensions, the PT Cruiser is quite compact. It's nearly 6 inches shorter than a Neon. Yet with 63 inches from the pavement to the highest point of its roof, the Cruiser sedan is also 7 inches taller than the Neon, and nearly as tall as some minivans. That height is a crucial element of the PT Cruiser's design.

The design of the convertible is quite a bit different from that of the sedan. For starters, it's a two-door rather than a four-door. The convertible looks shorter than the sedan, but isn't; maybe it's the single long door on each side that creates this illusion. It's certainly lower, by almost 3 inches, which certainly alters the looks. But there's a lot more to it than that: Close examination reveals that the windshield is raked more radically and uses a different A-pillar design. With the top up, the convertible looks like a custom chopped-top hot rod. Pretty cool.

Drop the top and the gangstermobile turns into a chick car. With its top down, the PT Cruiser convertible's high tail and integrated sport bar remind us of the old Volkswagen Cabrio. But where the VW's side windows sealed against its sport bar, the Chrysler's windows seal against each other for a more modern convertible profile. Its slightly narrower and color-keyed sport bar sits behind the windows, inside the car, and is aerodynamically designed to minimize wind noise. A nice boot is provided that dresses up the appearance with the top down. Our GT convertible drew many admirers.

The PT Cruiser pulls its exterior styling themes into the cabin, although here, too, the retro theme is tempered a bit for 2006 by a new and very modern-looking center stack that visually splits the vintage-styled dashboard. Less obvious improvements for 2006: All instruments are now bigger, the radio is mounted higher, the glovebox is larger, and the glovebox door is now damped.

The driver still faces three white-faced gauges set in individual cylinders, with speedometer center, tachometer right and fuel and water temperature left. The GT's silver-faced speedometer reads up to 140 mph, while the standard Cruiser's speedo goes to 120. It's unlikely you'll peg either needle, and we recommend against trying.

Accessory switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials at the bottom. Window switches are still high in the center stack, inconvenient for quick operation, forcing the driver to search for them. The door levers have a nice action, and the switches operate with good tactile feel, though they're not world class. The standard stereo sounds tinny; we haven't tried the new Boston Accoustics system. Also, there's a separate Set button for the station presets, fussier than simply holding the preset down.

A bonus of the Cruiser's tall profile is its upright seating position, with a fairly high view ahead, somewhat like a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. The front seats in the three lower-line models have a reasonable amount of bolstering to keep driver and passenger from sliding side to side.

The leather package offers a rich appearance given the Cruiser's price, with suede inserts in the doors and along the lower cushion edges. The GT gets sportier seats with more padding in its side bolsters to hold you firmly in place in corners. The GT also features a leather wrapped steering wheel with satin-silver spokes, and bright accents on the pedals.

A redesigned center console now incorporates a sliding armrest, replacing the seat-mounted armrests provided previously. The new console also includes a covered tray for concealing small items, a storage bin that holds six CDs, a new coin holder and fold-out cup holders for rear-seat coffee consumers. A cell-phone charger is optional.

Roominess is a virtue in the Cruiser. The sedan's 120.5 cubic feet of interior volume is comparable to that of large cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lincoln Town Car, though it certainly doesn't have the ambience of those cars. Much of that space is a function of the Cruiser's height. The roof rises toward the rear like on a chopped-top hot rod.

To take advantage of this, the rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front, resulting in what what the industry calls theater seating. The front seats are mounted on tall boxes, leaving plenty of room for rear passengers to stretch their legs underneath. A six-foot, nine-inch passenger can fit comfortably in the front or rear seats.

Chrysler claims the cabin of the PT Cruiser sedan can be configured 26 different ways. This flexibility stems from three features: a 65/35 split rear bench that can be folded flat, tumbled forward or removed, a movable parcel shelf in the cargo bay, and a front passenger seat that folds flat. The rear seats are anchored with quick-release attachments for easy removal. Suitcase handles and steel wheels make it easier to stash the rear seats in the garage and move them about. The smaller seat weighs 35 pounds, but the larger section weighs a hefty 65 pounds.

With both rear seats out, the Cruiser provides 64 cubic feet of cargo volume. A mountain bike fits with the rear seats removed; take the front wheel of the bike and you can leave the rear seats in place. The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheel wells, not wide enough for four-foot building materials, but still enormously useful. Folding the front passenger seatback flat forms a table next to the driver, or makes room for an eight-foot stepladder or a load of two-by-fours.

The convertible doesn't stand as tall as the sedan. It offers just 84.3 cubic feet of interior volume (compared with 120.5 for the wagon). Head room and hip room are significantly reduced, front and rear. It's fine up front, though. The convertibles get the sport seats from the GT across the board, which is nice. The chair-like rear seats in the convertible have lots of leg room making them very comfortable, though it's tight around the hips and shoulders. The convertible's seats can be configured nine different ways, suggesting practicality. Trying to load something into the back seat is annoying, however. You have to set down whatever you're trying to load, use both hands to flip the front seatback forward, pick it back up and put it inside.

The convertible does not offer the practicality of the wagon. With the rear seats upright, there's a scant 7.4 cubic feet left in the trunk, eliminating one of major compelling features of the Cruiser. Worse, the trunk is exceedingly awkward to access, requiring you to bend down to get at it, and the trunk lid flips out and is right in the way. Loading a 40-pound bag of dog food, for example, is difficult and hard on the back. The 7.4 cubic feet isn't bad by convertible standards (with 48 percent more cargo capacity than the Beetle convertible), but the trunk opening is small. In terms of practicality, it might be the worst trunk on the market. However, the rear seats are split 50/50 and fold and tumble to create a pass-through to the trunk and 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space. The pass-through is tiny, but can really help when trying to haul something larger than a briefcase; we were able to load a pair of eight-foot lighting tracks in through the back, something you can't do in some sedans.

Chrysler calls the hoop behind the PT convertible's front seats a sport bar to distinguish it from a roll bar. It's not a safety feature. The bar features integrated dome lights, an unusual touch in an open car. The convertible's rear window is glass and an electric defogger is standard. Rearward visibility in the convertible is limited whether the top is up or down. The tiny rear window limits sightlines with the top up. The lowered top and boot limit visibility with the top down.

In either model, Bluetooth technology brings hands-free telephone operation to the Cruiser while leaving your cell phone free to travel with you when you get out of the car. The optional UConnect system works when you set your mobile phone down anywhere inside the vehicle, tying it into a microphone and a voice-recognition interface when you press a button housed in the rearview mirror. You can even continue a conversation while entering or exiting, without disrupting your call.

Chrysler knows how to make cup holders, and the Cruiser's are solid and mounted low, easily holding your cappuccino.

Driving Impressions
The PT Cruiser is fun to drive, but it's not a sports car. In essence, it's a tall, practical economy car that goes relatively quickly. The standard engine is rated 150 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the Cruiser from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds and down the quarter-mile drag strip in about 16.7 seconds. We'd describe it as peppy. Big four-cylinder engines like Chrysler's 2.4-liter have a natural tendency to idle roughly, so a counter-rotating balance shaft is used to smooth things out.

The PT Cruiser offers both a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission. The manual gearbox is surprisingly precise, not sports-car grade, but not bad for a unit with a longer-throw gate and foot-long shifter. Working the gears to get the most from the base engine is enjoyable.

The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the base Cruiser cruising, because the engine's power is biased toward higher rpm, which is not where automatics work best. The engine's peak torque is reached at a relatively high 4000 rpm. (Torque is that force that propels the car from intersections and up steep hills.) On the other hand, kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough power for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads. In short, we like the manual better than the automatic.

The 180-horsepower turbocharged engine that's optional on Limited sedans and Touring convertibles produces a healthy 210 pound-feet of torque, starting at 2800 rpm and holding steady to 4000. That improves performance with the automatic considerably.

The quickest Cruiser is the GT, which develops 245 pound-feet of torque at 2400-4500 rpm. That makes the 230-horsepower High Output turbo feel like a bigger engine, even though it isn't. A rumbly exhaust makes the GT sound more like what hot-rodders wanted when the hot-rod body was first introduced. You know it's a turbo because of the telltale whine when it spools up, though chambers in the intake manifold act as sound dampers. The GT can get to 60 mph in about 7 seconds, which is decent but not rocket-like acceleration. Driving the GT around town, you'll likely forget to downshift, since the engine pulls strongly at 2500 rpm in any gear. Once you decide to go quicker, the GT acts a little more like the muscle car its body says it is.

The standard gearbox in the GT is a five-speed manual built by Getrag in Germany. We also drove a GT with Chrysler's AutoStick transmission, an automatic that has a semi-manual shift feature. It works well, with a tall shifter reminiscent of an old-fashioned hot-rod setup. Stand on it at low rpm and there's a little lag as the turbo gets into the boost, but once it spools up it takes off decisively.

Even the base PT Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan, maintaining its composure in the corners. With its big 17-inch wheels and tires, the GT hustles like a sports sedan, though it lacks the precision of one. Body lean is well controlled. The rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the twist-beam rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement and the chassis does not feel rigid. In quick, hard, slalom-type maneuvers the PT Cruiser starts to feel top heavy, even with the GT's stiffer suspension and big wheels. You can almost feel the high mass of the car try to continue in one direction as the front wheels turn in the other. It feels tentative when turning in for high-speed corners and does not inspire confidence. It's more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan in sudden lane-change maneuvers, but it really is more of a cruiser than a sports machine. A Neon is a much better choice for lapping road circuits or blasting down country roads.

In spite of its height, we did not find the Cruiser to be particularly susceptible to cross winds at high speeds. There is little wind noise, almost no tire or road noise, and a just-audible whine from the drivetrain.

In terms of ride quality, past PT Cruisers have felt like compact cars, with road vibration entering the cabin. An all-new accoustic package for 2006, including improved sealing around the doors, windows, rear floor pan, and even the climate control system, plus additional sound insulation in the dashboard and windshield postsm, reduces interior volume up to 5 decibels, according to Chrysler.

Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard. ABS is available for base, Touring, and Limited ($595). Four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS ($825) are offered for Limiteds equipped with the 180-horsepower engine; that's the best setup, and it also includes low-speed traction control.

Summary & Specifications
The Chrysler PT Cruiser appeals to people of all ages and lifestyles with its whimsical, retro design. Its affordability increases its appeal. And its practicality often closes the deal with a roomy, versatile interior that makes the price easy to justify. It isn't particularly refined, however. The GT models deliver strong acceleration performance and bring hot-rod credibility to the Cruiser's hot rod image. The convertible offers genuine open-air fun and is great for carrying four people, but isn't practical for hauling cargo. The lower-priced models offer the best value and we think they make the most sense.

New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino and Phil Berg reporting from Detroit. [source :]


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