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PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — Thinking back on it now, the PT Cruiser phenomenon seems a blur. First it was a well-received concept in 1999. Then Bob Eaton’s on-the-cheap cigar smoke and boom box “reveal” of the production “models” at NAIAS 2000, which led to a journalists’ stampede for the press kit that included those models. The invites to PT’s press introduction that March were the most coveted of the year. The talk was could Chrysler keep up with demand by making Cruisers in Graz, Austria and Toluca, Mexico, and would the waiting lists (and dealer mark-ups) ever dwindle down to allow anybody to buy one?
How things have changed in three to four years. The most-desired car in the world in 2000 had found most of its “gotta-have-it” buyers by the end of 2001, as calendar year production topped 140,000. PT sales dropped just below that in ’02, respectable but hardly straining production capacity. Despite a variety of appearance packages ¾ Woodie, Flame, Chrome Accent, and Dream Cruiser Series ¾ and the much welcomed High Output Turbo engine, 2003 calendar year sales fell 22 percent to 107,759. This isn’t a positive trend, especially for a vehicle originally planned to be Chrysler’s volume leader.
But the folks at Auburn Hills haven’t run out ideas or PT permutations. So meet the 2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible, “one more time a Chrysler concept car reaches production,” pointed out Larry Lyons. “No other vehicle combines the six attributes of style, versatility, performance, comfort, quietness, and price,” said Chrysler’s VP for Small Vehicle Product Team Engineering. “Plus this car’s specifically designed to be a convertible and it’s quiet top up or top down.”
Concept to reality
The concept PT convertible was a seven-week rush job early in 2001 when the Chrysler PR folks realized they didn’t have a concept for that year’s New York Auto Show and asked the engineering folks what they could whip up. The result received good reviews, but given how quickly it was built, it’s also not surprising that the production version “is all new from the A-pillar rearward, except for the taillights. They continue as one of the PT’s styling cues that glorify custom cars,” according to Designer Brandon Faurote. With 20/20 hindsight, some point to PT’s custom car cues and 1930s retro styling as drawbacks to more universal appeal; the average age of PT sedan buyers is 51.
2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser ConvertibleEnlarge Photo
But if there’s a company that can do a convertible right, it’s Chrysler. The Sebring’s been America’s best-selling convertible for most of its lifespan, while drop-top versions of Crossfire and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited will join the new PTs in showrooms this spring. I use the plural for this “truly practical, four-passenger convertible” comes in three trim levels, each with its own version of Chrysler’s 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder motor. “Standard” is the $19,995 price leader, riding on 15-inch steel wheels and powered by the normally aspirated 2.4-liter four producing 150-horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. Brakes are front discs/ rear drums with no anti-lock or traction control options.
The mid-range “Touring” model moves you up to a new turbocharged version of the 2.4 that debuted as an option for ’04 model year PT wagons. It develops 180 horses and 210 lb-ft and mates only to a four-speed automatic. Optionally, you can choose either anti-lock on the disc/drum setup, or four-wheel discs with both anti-lock and low-speed traction control (standard on GT). Sixteen-inch, seven-spoke, painted cast aluminum wheels come standard; six-spoke, chrome finish aluminum 16s are optional.
The high-end GT is performance-oriented thanks to a High Output turbo that boosts the 2.4-liter to 220 horses and 245 lb-ft. A smooth, easy-shifting Getrag five-speed manual is standard, but if you must have an automatic, a four-speed incorporating Autostick is optional. A number of features, such as the optional brakes mentioned above or side airbags are optional on Touring but standard on GTs. But only GTs get a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels, leather seats, and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
No shake, no rattle — just roll
All three models have the same incredibly stiff chassis that makes the normal convertible bugaboo — cowl shake — almost nonexistent, improves handling and ride quality, and actually lets you conduct conversations with the top up or down. “We had very aggressive targets for torsional and bending rigidity,” noted vehicle development director Dennis Krozek. “It was all towards good NVH and part of totally re-engineering the vehicle’s structure to be rock solid.”
No matter where the top is, the color-keyed sport bar remains in place. It’s made of hydroformed steel and connects the rear quarters, crossing over the front seatbacks. At the base on either side facing outward is a Chrysler winged emblem, while two flush-mounted courtesy lamps provide some interior lighting. Functionally, the sport bar reduces wind buffeting with the top down, serves as a cross vehicle reinforcement, and improves rear-end stiffness.
Of much more interest to non-auto-enthusiast convertible buyers will be PT’s amazing interior space. How about 40.9 inches of rear legroom vs. 30.1 in VW’s New Beetle and 29.9 in Ford’s Mustang? Chrysler delivered on the “true four-passenger convertible promise.” And as with its wagon sibling, flexibility in configuring the seats (nine different ways) and making maximum use of all 84.3 cubic feet of interior volume is important. Among the most clever is to fold and tumble the rear seats against the front, thus creating 13.3 cubic feet of trunk space, which yes, easily accommodates two full-size golf bags.
Chrysler’s also quite pleased with PT’s three-layer premium cloth top and “fully serviceable glass heated backlight.” Available in black or taupe, the top layer (or “top” itself if you prefer) is soft to the touch, not a hard vinyl; the middle layer is an insulating pad while a full, premium cloth headliner completes the sandwich. It raises and lowers using a system of extruded high-strength steel roof bows and rails that maintain roof integrity. Plus all the roof’s components, from hydraulics to weather stripping and latches are installed using just six fasteners. All you do is release the two latches via a single D-shaped handle on the windshield header and then push the power top button on the center stack. The top boot is a simple, one-person affair that snaps into place.
Most of our Arizona driving was in less than perfect convertible weather in both Touring and GT model. The latter’s high-output turbo leaves no doubt that your right foot controls 220 horsepower, not 150 or 180. The prowess of the GT’s sport suspension is equally obvious on any but the smoothest boulevard, a job well done in my book. But again, for the non-enthusiast, the Touring’s regular suspension and automatic-transmission-controlled 180 horses should bulls-eye the market. It’s a fun car to drive, way less anemic that the automatic 150-horsepower versions we’ve experienced.
We wanted to tell you how the Chrysler folks figured the PT convertibles sales would break down by model, and of course, how many more total Cruiser sales the convertible would add. But nobody wanted to answer those questions. About the closest we got to real information was Chrysler Vice President Jeff Bell’s admission that the GT version of the PT Cruiser sedan had done better than the 30 percent they’d expected for 2003, “so we might expect that level or higher for the PT convertible. We do believe that price helps people position a vehicle … today most of the convertible business is in the $25-30,000 range. We participate very aggressively there (with Sebring), but now having the only convertible under $20,000, we can tap some untapped volume.”
We also had a nice chat with Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche about why the PT Panel Cruiser has never reached production after much early speculation and interest. “We’ve tried to make a good business case for it even since I’ve been here,” he told us. “But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t revisit it with the next generation.” So street rod fans, stay tuned, you might yet be able to buy a PT panel. The rest of us will be watching the sales charts to see how successful the convertible will be.
Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible
Base price: $19,995 (Standard); $23,490 (Touring); $28,155 (GT)
Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 150 hp/165 lb-ft (Standard); 2.4-liter turbo in-line four, 180 hp/210 lb-ft (Touring); 2.4-liter High Output Turbo in-line four, 220 hp/245 lb-ft (GT)
Transmission: Five-speed manual transaxle, (Standard & Touring); heavy-duty Getrag five-speed manual transaxle (GT); Options: four-speed automatic on Standard & Touring; GT adds Autostick
Length x width x height: 168.8 x 67.1 x 60.6 in
Wheelbase: 103.0 in
Curb weight: 3381 lb (Standard), 3426 lb (Touring), 3483 lb (GT)
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 21/29 mpg (Standard-manual); 20/26 (Touring-manual); 20/25 (Standard & Touring-automatic); 19/26 (GT-automatic), 21/27 (GT-manual)
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags; side airbags (optional on Touring, standard on GT); four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock (GT)
Major standard equipment: 100-watt/six-speaker AM/FM/cassette sound system (Touring gains CD player, loses cassette; GT gets both); air conditioning; tilt steering column; power door locks, remote keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles