The 1999 Plymouth Prowler Was A Rolling Midlife Crisis Wearing 295-Wide Rear Tires

The 1999 Plymouth Prowler Was A Rolling Midlife Crisis Wearing 295-Wide Rear Tires

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I was still a preteen when the Plymouth Prowler was first presented to the world, but I remember how disappointed people were with it. My dad, especially. He was hoping for something more. I remember him yelling at our 27-inch cathode TV screen: “An Intrepid V6! Really?”

My dad was pissed because the Prowler looked like it deserved something wild underneath its hood, but failed to amaze us the same way the Dodge Viper had a few years prior.

The good-looking Prowler sadly ended up being underpowered, not very fun to drive nor particularly reliable. It then mutated into some sort of automotive joke, never gaining the traction its enormous rear tires deserved.

Today, you can easily find a Prowler as a .gif under the “angry baby boomer with white socks” category.

But then, my friend Yuri, a Canadian automotive YouTuber you may know as one half of The Straight Pipes bought one. And, as friends typically do, he offered me the chance to review his car in an attempt to convince me it’s a much better machine than people think.

Turns out the Prowler is just as awful as we all imagine it to be.

But driving one had me realizing one important fact: That American carmakers were going through one hell of a weird midlife crisis during the ’90s.

(Full Disclosure: While I was in Toronto for other journalism-related work, Yuri from The Straight Pipes called me up and asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing his Prowler for Jalopnik. We met up by the CN Tower as Canadian citizens typically do and the rest is history.)

(Testing Conditions: Sunny summer’s day in the streets of Toronto.)

What Is It?

After its success with the Viper, Chrysler felt confident it could pull it off a second time, so it gave its engineers and designers the green light to conceive whatever they wanted.

The result was the bat-shit crazy Plymouth Prowler. The idea behind it came from Chrysler’s design director at the time, Thomas C. Gale, who loved 1930s American hot rods and imagined what they would look like in the modern automotive world of the 1990s.

The story goes that Gale owned a hot-rodded 1932 Ford and used it as a design benchmark for the Prowler. But it actually ended up being Chip Foose–the renowned American hot rod design specialist–who finalized the Prowler’s killer look.

At this point it’s important to underline how badly the American auto industry was doing in that era. Chrysler, specifically, was dishing out very lame and not particularly good cars. Things like the Neon, the Intreprid, the 300M, the Sebring or the Caravan; all vehicles (except for perhaps the Caravan) that weren’t competing very well against their Japanese and European equivalents.

More importantly, none of those cars were cool or fun.

The Prowler’s mission was therefore to change that perception. With it, Chrysler would show the entire world that it still knew how to manufacture exciting automobiles.

But then, reality hit cash-stripped Chrysler hard: the limited-production Prowler had to be as cost-effective as possible, meaning the only way it could be green-lit into production was by utilizing existing Chrysler components.

The result was a machine that looked like it should have had a 400-horsepower V8 under its hood, but ended up with a 3.5-liter V6 shared with Chrysler’s sluggish sedans.

Power was rated at an equally underwhelming 214 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque. Even more disappointing was the gearbox it was bolted to: An “Autostick” four-speed automatic unit taken straight out of an Eagle Vision.

There wasn’t even a manual gearbox option, which further inflamed enthusiasts.

There was, however, a bit of good news. Chrysler’s engineers went through great lengths to make the Prowler at least drive like a sports car.

For instance, even if that transmission had originally been designed for front-wheel-drive applications, it was modified to be fitted at the rear of the vehicle. It was then connected to the engine via a torque tube, similar to a front-engine C5 Corvette.

The rear-wheel-drive Prowler was also aluminum-intensive to keep weight low. At 2,800 pounds, it was indeed lighter than a Porsche 911 or an Acura NSX of the same era.

The model you see here is a 1999 example, which was a facelift year for the Prowler. It then stayed this way up until it died in 2002.

The most noteworthy upgrade was a more powerful V6 that pumped out a more interesting 253 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque. This allowed the Prowler to be a little “quicker” off the line, with a claimed o-60 mph time of roughly six seconds.

Why Does It Matter?

Out of all the weird cars that came out of the ’90s, the Plymouth Prowler is by far the most unusual, but also the most intriguing. I mean, no other production car looks like this on the road, and I have to say, even 21 years on, the Prowler still looks fresh, modern and unquestionably rad.

More importantly, it represents the kind of automotive risks carmakers don’t really take nowadays. It’s one thing to keep turning out high-horsepower versions of regular vehicles, like FCA’s so fond of doing now. But imagine how difficult it would be for a car company to approve a project this wild today. Would a modern Prowler even pass crash-test regulations?

So, in a sense, as useless as it was, the Prowler was a necessary useless for Chrysler. It proved how corporately frozen the company was, and how desperate it had become to find solutions.

But fundamentally, the Prowler was the result of all its bad decisions over time. If it weren’t for all the god-awful K-cars and LH sedans it built throughout the eighties and nineties, the Prowler would have never existed.

In many ways, this car is the precursor to all the crazy stuff FCA currently sells. If you enjoy your Hellcat-powered cars and SUVs, you can thank the Prowler for setting the pace.

“There’s Dance Mix ’95 In The Changer!”

It took me some time to digest the Prowler and explore its quirks and features. I mean, it’s a lot to take in in one gulp, but Yuri did a great job of showing me around the vehicle.

Perhaps the Prowler’s most noteworthy feature isn’t the fact that its front wheels stick out of the body, exposing all of its mechanical components. Nor is a rear end as wide as a Lamborghini Diablo’s.

What I was the most intrigued about was the odd trunk arrangement in which you can also store the roof.

It’s essentially a large clam shell device that opens inversely towards the rear, leading to a large, but not so deep surface in which you can throw your gear.

Removing the car’s soft top is also more complicated than one would imagine. There’s no fancy electronic switch to do it all for you, which means you need to actually get out of the car and embark onto a multi-step procedure while your leather interior gets ruined from the downpour.

But once you memorize the “pull here, push there, and press on that” sequence, the operation becomes somewhat straight-forward affair.

It was at that point that Yuri threw me the key to his ride, which was identical to my dad’s old Chrysler LeBaron turbo coupe, or anything sold by Chrysler at the time.

Yuri then reminded me that he had filled the car’s CD Changer with some cool tunes from the Dance Mix ‘95 compact disc.

He then instructed me I had to turn the key three times so his Prowler could turn over, something to do with a defective fuel pump.

After firing up the beast, which sounded exactly like a Town & Country minivan, I put the heavy, Jeep Cherokee-derived gear lever into the D position. I stared at Neon-sourced HVAC controls while a hard thump was felt from underneath my butt, revealing just how 1997 Chrysler this thing was.

Off I went in what felt like driving a giant bathtub with a wooden steering wheel. Meanwhile, the audio system, taken straight out of a Dodge Durango, spewed pre-millennium dance tunes into my eardrums.

Disappointments

The Prowler ended up driving exactly how I expected it, in other words bad, so I wasn’t exactly disappointed with much.

I did wish it had more power. While Yuri claimed it was, and I quote, “quicker than people think” during his drag race against Jakub’s Ford Raptor, the reality is that no, the Prowler is not fast. Not even by ’90s standards.

There’s also no dead pedal in there which is sort of a letdown given the Prowler’s boulevard cruiser pretensions. Visibility is also very bad, especially when comes time to park the damn thing.

That has to do with a front that’s narrower than the rear, and side mirrors that are located inside the front wheels. So if you’re not paying attention, you’ll quickly curb rash the stupid thing.

And gosh is that gearbox awful. I’ll get back to specifics in a bit, but what you need to remember is that it’s everything we hate from mid-nineties American transmissions. It slips, lags and emits worrying thump noises when you’re really pushing the car hard. It just feels like it’s always choking the engine.

Casual Driving

Perhaps, ironically, a standout is how good of a casual driver the Prowler turned out to be. I was impressed by how comfortable its thick leather seats are, and, at six-foot tall, I was able to find a decent driving position in there.

And while that V6 is never eager to provide power, it does love to purr down low in the rev range, allowing the car to casually cruise about. I get now why they call it a Prowler.

Also, everywhere I went with this thing I got a million stares. Granted, the pandemic situation led to unusually empty Toronto streets, but people really like seeing a Prowler out in the wild. They like it either because it reminds them of how cool and weird they were when they originally came out, or because they’ve never seen one and can’t believe what they’re seeing.

I experienced that when I drove by a bunch of kids playing basketball. They went completely nuts on the Prowler.

So yes, the Prowler attracts more attention than a modern supercar, but also proves it can be a formidable casual driver thanks to its smooth ride and surprisingly roomy interior. Head room isn’t even all that bad once the roof is in place.

I also ended up really liking the center-mounted Baywatch-grade gauge pod. While, yes, the rest of the Prowler’s cabin is a mashup of existing Chrysler parts, that distinctive gauge setup at least gives it a sense uniqueness.

They’re also really easy to read being so close to the windshield and all. The tiny little RPM gauge tacked onto the steering column is also kinda cute.

The suspension is however not this car’s best asset as its very stiff. Chassis rigidity is also awful by today’s standards as the entire thing flexes and bounces the moment it hits a road imperfection. Windows wobble, mirrors move about and the entire thing feels flimsy.

Finally, I personally wouldn’t daily drive a Prowler. One, because its rag top has a reputation to leak when it’s raining–a problem Yuri’s car is also plagued with–but also due to its very limited cargo space. Or should I say “none.”

You can’t really put anything back there, not even a grocery bag.

At least the Prowler has some storage areas. The little nets on each side of the transmission tunnel are handy to store some of your gear. You can’t even get that kind of stuff in a modern Lamborghini.

So yes, the Prowler nails casual driving, as long as you’re only two people traveling during a sunny summer’s day and don’t have much cargo to haul around.

Hard Driving

The Prowler performs the way it was built, meaning it drives as if the people in charge of its handling never spoke to the people in charge of its drivetrain.

As expected, grip is enormous given the massive 295-wide rear tires. But the car has so little power that it can’t do a burnout or even kick out the rear under hard throttle.

There’s at least an upside to all that grip: It’s easy to drive fast. It also means you can throw it very hard into a corner without fear of understeering it into a ditch.

But the rest of the drivetrain just doesn’t fit with the car. The transmission downright discourages any form of spirited driving. Sure, you can use the Autostick’s “manual” feature to have a bit more fun with it, but it’s never really helpful at extracting maximum engine power. Except for letting the engine hold on to its revs until it blows a head gasket (these engines will do that), it doesn’t do much to enhance the Prowler’s performance.

Power is fine, but never eager nor energetic. The single overhead cam V6 does its thing in a non-dramatic way. It does however have a nice exhaust note, an enjoyable low-pitched growl that at least gives the Prowler a bit of personality.

But it’s really the large, vague steering wheel that ruins the drive. Not only does it feel like it belongs in a school bus, it has no precision whatsoever, so you’re constantly over-correcting it.

Hit a hard bump and the car will most likely swerve to the right from your entire body bouncing up and pulling the steering wheel. There’s also a tremendous amount of play in the wheel itself, which isn’t very confidence-inspiring at the limit. It’s just not sports car material.

Value

The good news, at least from a collector’s point of view, is that Prowlers retain their value rather well. Will the Prowler spike up in value like an old air-cooled Porsche 911? That, I can’t say. Even Prowler connoisseurs like Yuri don’t know where the market is going.

But clean, low-mileage Prowlers can be found between $20,000 and $30,000 USD. Some owners have opted for the no front bumper look, but I’m told stock examples retain more value. It’s the same story for engine swaps or generally modified Prowlers. As cool as some of them are, they’re never really worth what their owners ask for.

Our man Yuri got his for $28,500 CAN, which roughly translates to $21,000 USD. It’s a U.S. car that was shipped to Canada, all stock, clean title with 30,000 miles. And no, it’s not for sale.

I do firmly believe that the Prowler’s uniqueness makes it a viable contender to become a future classic. The fact that its value hasn’t plummeted is a testament of how well it’s holding up. Even if it’s ultimately a badly engineered automobile, the Prowler is also very cool and unique. For that alone it deserves to be saved.

Verdict

The Plymouth Prowler is like a shy nerdy geek trapped inside a supermodel’s body. Stare long enough at its Hot Wheels-inspired front grille and you can hear Chrysler’s designers and engineers screaming to be set free from Detroit’s inevitable financial demise.

After spending an entire day flaunting the Prowler through the streets of Canada’s metropolis, receiving endless amounts of stares and Instagram stories from the general population, the Prowler had succeeded its mission of inflating my ego to its ultimate form.

It ended up being a lot more charming than I had expected. It had made me laugh, smile and feel like a superstar for a short but exhilarating moment that I’ll never forget. It was now time for me to head home to Montreal, a six-hour drive that would have me in bed around midnight.

Illustration for article titled The 1999 Plymouth Prowler Was A Rolling Midlife Crisis Wearing 295-Wide Rear Tires
Photo: Yuri Tereshyn

“Hey what’s that smell?” I asked my photographer as the car’s little cabin filled up with a vague stench of burned oil.

“Yuri, is your car supposed to smell like burn?” I yelped out of the Prowler’s open-top cockpit.

“Not sure, let’s bring it home and check it out,” he replied.

“I hope it ain’t a head gasket, man.”

William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.

Contributing Writer, Canada at Jalopnik. williamclavey@gmail.com

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DISCUSSION

FistFullofNeutral
FistFullofNeutral

No Chrysler apologist here, but I think you whiffed on the context of where Chrysler was in the early-to-mid-90's when this was designed and rolled out:

- The first gen Neon was a breath of fresh air in the compact space, especially for an American car. Genuinely fun to drive and interesting to look at

- The LH / LHS cars were also rather “cab-forward” looking. 300M was cool for the time, and my personal opinion is that the originals still look good

- Chrysler was making bank, but their share price didn’t reflect it. “Minimum Bob” Eaton got screwed by the Germans as Daimler picked up an pile of cash and ATM on the cheap with an auto manufacturer thrown in

- PT Cruiser was an attempt to make a interesting car at an accessible price that matched how people actually use them (cruising down main street on a sunny day vs. weekly racing). It’s like an old muscle car, people smile when they see them even if they drive like crap.  Something missing in today’s market for the most part.