There’s something about the Chrysler PT Cruiser — simply looking at it is enough to put a smile on your face. But for many folks, the fun starts to fade once they slip it in gear. Even with the optional flame paint kit, the PT is a bit of a poseur, barely fast enough to get out of its own way. And that’s turned off a lot of potential customers, as the recent decline in sales suggests. But help is on its way.
At this week’s New York Auto Show, Chrysler pulls the wraps off an all-new version of the Cruiser, this one carrying an unambiguously suggestive new nameplate. Dubbed PT Turbo, it takes the anemic 2.4-liter four-banger and with the help of a fast-revving turbocharger, bumps the pony count from 150 to 215.
TheCarConnection.com recently had a chance to spend a day behind the wheel, and what we found was a 98-pound weakling transformed into the sort of street performer we always suspected was hidden within the PT Cruiser’s genes.
First, some basics. This is, by Chrysler’s count, the fifth PT Cruiser spin-off. Including the Flame and Woody editions, there are also three body packages and the upcoming Cabrio. By comparison, the changes here are visually modest: unique, 17-inch, Blade Silver painted five-spoke cast aluminum wheels, and body-color side moldings and front and rear fascia. You’re most likely to notice the oversized front grille designed to help the turbo breathe and to provide better airflow for the intercooler. Backside, there’s a large diameter chrome exhaust tip.
2003 Chrysler PT TurboEnlarge Photo
2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser
You’ll also spot the new nameplate. But curiously enough, there’s a big “GT” badge on the left liftgate. Chrysler originally toyed with the name GT Cruiser. At the time of our test drive, it had switched to PT Cruiser GT. Perhaps to make the obvious as apparent as possible, Chrysler ultimately chose PT Turbo. But reflecting that last-minute change, there’s also a big GT embroidered onto the front floor mats.
The interior features a sportier set of front seats, the driver’s bucket getting a manual lumbar adjuster. (Cloth seats are standard, but heated leather seats are offered.) There are distinctive silver-faced gauges, with a speedo topping out at 140 mph.
Appearances aside, Chrysler has taken some notable steps to improve performance. Horsepower is up by more than 40 percent, while torque increases from 162 lb-ft to 245. More significantly, it comes on fast, the DOHC 16-valve engine developing more than 90 percent of its peak torque by 2300 rpm. That’s driven through a five-speed Getrag manual shifter, though there’ll also be an optional four-speed automatic with Chrysler’s AutoStick shifting system. Heavy-duty ABS brakes and a performance-tuned suspension—including stiffer springs and tuned dampers—complete the package.
You wouldn’t want to bet your title in a race against Ford’s new SVT Focus. But the PT Turbo is quick enough to put some much-needed thrill into the driving experience. Despite the long shifter arm, the Getrag five-speed proved nimble and consistent. This car is quick and fun-to-drive and might pop onto the radar screen of those young West Coast buyers who’ve preferred “rice burners” like the Honda Civic.
Heights of power
There’s no getting around the higher center of gravity of the PT’s tall design, though. You feel a bit of sway in hard turns, yet considering its dimensions, the tightened suspension does a surprisingly good job of keeping the body in check and you find your confidence growing mile by mile.
2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser
The new seats certainly help, holding you firmly in place on the tight and twisties. Along with a heightened side bolster, they also offer an extra inch of leg support.
The GT Cruiser, er, Cruiser GT, er, PT Turbo we drove out in Arizona late last January was still a late-model prototype. It was not tuned to final spec, offering 10 horsepower less than the upcoming production model. And there were some late changes being made to improve the car’s sound quality, as well. We especially appreciated the rumbly exhaust. But by the time the Turbo hits dealers, Chrysler engineers promise it will be fitted with special acoustic dampeners designed to all but eliminate the whine so common from turbocharged engines.
Of course, the new performance package doesn’t detract from the features that have already made the basic PT Cruiser so popular—its one-of-a-kind exterior design and an incredibly flexible interior package.
“We expect this car to broaden (Cruiser’s) appeal, especially among younger people,” asserts marketing manager Tuscan Bennett. The basic Cruiser has done incredibly well with Baby Boomers long past their prime days of hot rodding. But if Chrysler can attract the Gen X and Millennial buyers, that could shore up sales that have begun to sag just a bit of late.
The price tag is likely to be a big determining factor. With cars like the Civic and Ford’s new SVT Focus to contend with, Chrysler can’t be callous. At least we hope not. The PT Turbo’s a great addition to the lineup and really transforms a car that had everything but horsepower. At the right price tag, this performance addition should help the expanding Cruiser line stay hot for some time to come.
2003 Chrysler PT Turbo
Base Price: $19,500 (est.)
Engine: turbocharged 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder, 215 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic with Autostick
Wheelbase: 103.0 in
Length: 168.8 in
Width: 67.1 in
Height: 63.0 in
Curb Weight: 3304 lbs manual/ 3311 lbs automatic
EPA (city/hwy): 20/26 manual, 18/24 automatic (est.)
Safety Features: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes with traction control, pre-tensioning seatbelts
Major Standard Features: Air conditioning, rear defroster, CD changer, power windows