The Chrysler PT Cruiser: Let People Enjoy Things

So, as I start this installment of Redemption Garage, I feel compelled to state that we didn’t plan on this being all FCA products, but it sure as hell is working out like that. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I promise you this isn’t some weird-ass sponsored content trying to vainly convince you Chryslers you’ve thought sucked for decades weren’t really that bad. Though, that’s exactly what I’m about to do right now about the PT Cruiser.

Thanks to some vast, unspoken decree, the PT Cruiser has become a car that almost everyone feels compelled to defecate upon now. People who barely know or care about cars seem to have an opinion about the PT Cruiser, and that opinion is almost never positive.

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To be honest, I’m pretty baffled as to why this is. Sure, the PT Cruiser wasn’t great, and while in my informal polling I found a lot of people blamed their opinion on poor build quality, but the truth is I just don’t think it was really any worse than many other American cars in its class back in the early 2000s, and certainly no worse than cars like the Neon of that era, with which it shared nearly all of its mechanicals.

But you just don’t hear anyone having the same sort of vitriol for the early 2000 Neons as they do the PT Cruiser. I drove these things a number of times back in the day and there was really nothing especially shitty about them that I can recall, at least in the context of early 2000s Chrysler products.

The reason, I think, that the PT Cruiser gets so much attention is due to the simple fact that people actually remember it. And the reason they remember it is because of the most important part of the PT Cruiser: the styling.

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The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a rise in the popularity of modernized retro-styled cars, like J Mays’ New Beetle and Ford Thunderbird, as well as cars like the reborn Mini and the redesigns for the Mustang.

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I once classified the type of retro design used in the PT Cruiser as Synthetic General, which essentially means that Chrysler wasn’t trying to design a modern version of any specific previous car, but rather was employing design motifs of an entire era, rendered in a more modern design vocabulary.

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The general design of the PT Cruiser came from the Chrysler Pronto Cruizer concept car designed by Bryan Nesbitt, a gleefully cartoony take that started out as a sort-of attempt to make a modern Chrysler Airflow.

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The Airflow was revolutionary for its era, and was quite polarizing as well. You can see a lot of general themes of round and fender and grille and so on that ended up in the PT Cruiser design.

Also influential was Plymouth’s Prowler, which came out in 1997, and was an earlier retro-styling experiment for the company.

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You can especially see the Prowler influence in the PT Cruiser’s grille and hood shape, as those were deliberately designed to show some familial relationship with the Prowler.

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The resulting car was something that, whether you liked it or not, really stood out from the fairly bland Chrylser lineup. Remember, these are some of the other cars Chrysler would sell you back in 2000:

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And then, somehow, Chrysler would also sell you this thing, in freaking purple if you wanted it:

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That’s the earlier version, by the way, with the big rubber bumper and the grille that continued below it; I prefer this to the facelift that used a more integrated bumper and shortened the grille:

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Look, say what you will about the PT Cruiser, but it sure as hell wasn’t boring. And, really, it’s not like you were giving up that much for the novel styling: it was a tall, very usable four-door small wagon, with good room inside and a comfortable, upright seating position, decent for the era power (150 horsepower from its 2.4-liter four, and there was even a turbo GT version that made around 230 HP), and you could get it with a manual.

That manual shifter even had a nifty white cue-ball knob, which fit well with the rest of the slightly-retro interior design:

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Was it all sort of cartoonish? Hell yes. Absolutely. Is that really all that bad? I don’t think so. I’ll take cartoony over boring any day. More importantly, there was a good chunk of the population that agreed, since Chrysler moved 1.35 million of these things over its nine-year run.

Okay, fuel economy kind of sucked at 18 city and 24 highway, but, you know, you can’t have everything.

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Sure, a lot of older people bought these, attracted to the nostalgia value of a car that reminded them of their youth, and PT Cruisers still have a sort of uncool association with middle America Boomer types who order things from SkyMall catalogs and have occasionally cut out poignant Family Circus comics from newspapers.

But, you know what? That’s just fine. Who gives a shit? What matters is the design of this car actually resonated with a lot of people, in a way that hardly anything else from the early 2000s did. You can tell because the PT Cruiser is one of the most common cars you see that’s been absurdly and delightedly modified and accessorized by people, and that kind of thing you only do to a car if you’re really into that car.

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Sure, us jaded sophisticates may laugh at things like this chrome-retro’d out one:

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...or these woody body kits:

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The factory even offered a woody appearance package, and even a flame package:

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That’s a factory option. Go ahead, shit on the PT Cruiser if you want, call it a Public Toilet Cruiser, whatever, but just be aware that you’re shitting on a car made in the 2000s that offered a factory flame job option.

Feel good about yourself?

I don’t care if the PT Cruiser isn’t your style, or if you think it’s hokey or dorky or whatever: the point is that this car, with a common, easy-to-own drivetrain and a bold, polarizing and distinctive design, made an awful lot of people very happy with their cars.

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Sometimes, like the meme says, you just have to shut up and let people enjoy things.

Bradley Brownell’s Take

Normally we would have David Tracy’s engineer take here, but he’s otherwise engaged at the moment wrestling a postal Jeep across hell and back. So I’m stepping in to temporarily take his place.

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I was a young and impressionable Hot Rod Magazine-reading 13 year old when the PT Cruiser made its way into dealerships. This thing absolutely blew me away with retro-futurism, and being that I was already enamored with the Prowler, the PT only furthered that. I had become bored with the jelly-bean styling of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and this was a fresh take on some of my favorite hot rod design cues of days gone by.

As time has worn on, I’ve aged only slightly better than the PT Cruiser did. I’ve driven a few of them, and they’re perfectly fine automobiles. As with almost everything Detroit was producing at the time, it endeavored to be middling at best, and let its wild-at-the-time styling float its entire boat.

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I think part of the reason the PT gets shit these days isn’t because it’s a mediocre car, though it definitely is that. I think it gets shit because the first wave of enthusiastic buyers got completely screwed on the car’s residual value when it came time to trade it in.

Demand was so high for the car’s initial run that dealers were charging huge markups. The problem is, once pent up demand caught up to production, but Chrysler decided they had a hit on their hands and cranked up the production line to make gobs more.

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As demand waned and dealer lots began to stack up with PTs, those dealers began pressuring Chrysler credit to increase incentives and offer lower percentage points on credit notes. The price of a PT Cruiser went from well above MSRP to well below invoice seemingly overnight, and those early buyers still owed more on their car than they could purchase a brand new one for. Might have left a bad taste in their mouth. Might.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)