by Dan Carney
The Chrysler Prowler (sounds funny without Plymouth, doesn’t it?) represents a bizarre dichotomy: it is simultaneously one of the best and worst new cars on the road.
The Prowler is an all-time champion for attracting positive attention, from men and women alike. The car has been out long enough that most people have an idea what it is (though some think it may be a Viper), but it remains a rare commodity. Women in other cars at traffic lights and walking down the sidewalk yell, “nice car,” and ask for rides.
I wish I could say this was the case in all of the other test cars I drive — or with me — but sadly, the phenomenon seems restricted to the Prowler and a very few other cars. Chrysler could make a fortune renting these things by the hour to singles looking to meet people. The Prowler is more effective at attracting women than a black lab with the requisite bandana around its neck retrieving Frisbees at the park.
Men gather ‘round at the gas station and ask about the engine, and how much the car costs. The delivery service driver who brought the car to me for review said driving it made her feel “like a movie star.”
The Prowler’s rakish, chopped-and-channeled styling evokes a fedora tilted low over the wearer’s eyes. Some think it looks like a gangster’s car, others think it is a sports car. Everyone thinks it looks great.
Simply the best?
Surely, a car that can put a smile on so many people’s faces must be the best new car on the road.
If only it was true. In fact, there are two reasons why the Prowler is such a rare bird. The first is its limited production alongside the Viper at DaimlerChrysler’s Connor Avenue plant. If pressed, they could probably crank the cars out a bit faster. But the factory isn’t pressed, because the Prowler isn’t a very good car by any functional measure.
2001 Chrysler Prowler
The Prowler has easily the roughest, most uncomfortable ride of any new car sold in America, and that includes the Viper. But there is no handling benefit from the ride penalty, as there is with the Viper and other sports cars. Handling on smooth pavement is acceptable, but the car skitters over bumps. This is sadly ironic for a car that features race car-style pushrod front suspension.
Cowl shake, the twisting of the body when the car runs over bumps, is a problem on all open cars, but it makes driving the Prowler quickly a virtual impossibility because the steering wheel moves in the driver’s hands as the body flexes. The rear-view mirror is useless on all but the smoothest road, because it too, is in constant motion.
The Prowler moves briskly, but not quickly, despite its muscle car pretensions. The lack of a V-8 is cited as the primary obstacle to acceptance by the kind of customers who write $20,000 checks to their Harley dealer for turn-key custom American hardware. A V-8 would give the Prowler true performance credentials, and would produce an exhaust note worthy of a hot-rod. The Prowler’s V-6 engine blats a flat drone out the pipes that is well, loud, but uninspiring.
The lack of a manual transmission has been covered thoroughly in the past, so we won’t flog that deceased equine. But the abrupt shifts of the four-speed automatic, seemingly intended to emphasize the modest performance available, instead only irritated this driver.
The Prowler’s beautiful pearlescent midnight blue paint with light blue paint stripe appears to be the equal of Harley’s custom-painted machines. In fact, the $600 Mulholland Edition paint stripe bore a tiny signature of the painter on the trunk. The stripe is the work of Detroit-area hot-rot legend Rudy Kutey, aka “Dr. Ru.” If a stripe can be worth 600 clams, this one is.
2001 Chrysler Prowler
Less impressive were some of the visible welds on the car’s aluminum components. Gearheads who appreciate skilled welding would love some of the visible welds on parts like the brace that supports the rear bumper. They appeared to have been done by a craftsman as skilled as “Dr. Ru.” Others, however, weren’t. Skilled execution of mechanical details make or break any hot-rod, and the sloppy welds on a couple spots on the Prowler would send a demanding owner (who else spends $45,000 on a toy car?) back to the dealer seeking replacement with a properly welded component.
The blue fabric convertible top works well, and provides a seal that kept out the weather while driving through a storm that spawned tornadoes nearby. However, the fabric sagged when the car was stopped, and it looked as though collected rain might seep through. Cockpit pressure once underway ballooned the top outward, dumping the puddled water.
The roof is easy to operate and looks great up or down. But while other cars have moved to a single handle for both latches on the windshield header, the Prowler retains two separate latches. That would be fine, if only those latches didn’t seem to always be in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. After releasing the latches, their hooks would foul efforts to open the roof unless they were pulled back out of the way, and they also got in the way while trying to put the top up. It shouldn’t require a major redesign to substitute latches that retract their hooks out of the way when opened.
Miatas and minivans
Finally, in terms of practicality, the Prowler makes the Miata look like a minivan. The space for occupants is cramped. The view out with the top up is non-existent. There is space in the trunk for a briefcase or an artist’s portfolio — but not both. It would be difficult to execute a weekend getaway for two in a Prowler to any destination other than a nudist colony.
It hurts to hammer Chrysler for the Prowler’s defects, because the Prowler was almost as important as the Viper in establishing the company’s credentials as the only manufacturer bold enough to take such chances. Until the Prowler, the Viper could be dismissed as a fluke. Prowler confirmed the pattern established by the Viper, and paved the way for high-volume vehicles like the PT Cruiser.
So from a strategic standpoint the Prowler is a success. Its styling is almost flawless (Mopar should sell a kit to replace the front bumpers with smooth panels and turn signals). It attracts more attention and makes the driver feel more special than cars costing several times as much. It is a huge success on so many levels, it is a shame the Prowler is a failure as a car.
2001 Chrysler Prowler
Base price: $44,625; as tested, $46,000
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 253 hp
Transmission: five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113.3 in
Length: 165.3 in
Width: 76.5 in
Height: 50.9 in
Weight: 2864 lb
Fuel economy: 17 city/ 23 hwy
Major standard equipment: Four-speed automatic transmission, alloy wheels, leather seats and steering wheel, power windows and door locks, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette stereo with six-disc CD changer
Safety Equipment: Dual-threshold airbags
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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