When Chrysler unveiled its PT Cruiser in 2001, it was hailed as a fun, versatile retro-mobile. While sales have remained relatively robust, virtually every automaker in the Cruiserweight class has introduced a new or reworked small wagon: the Toyota Matrix/ Pontiac Vibe twins, Mazda 3 and Chevrolet HHR (a.k.a. 'Me-Too Cruiser') among them. Even the Cruiser's parent company has introduced the genre-bending five-door Caliber. Despite the pig pile on PT, Daimler Chrysler has just given the Cruiser its first-ever refresh for 2006. Is this a case of a mortician doing a little touch-up work before closing the casket, or does the PT have longer legs than the fashion police led consumers to believe?
Few would argue that the PT's retrosexual curves haven't held up well– even if fellow Cruisers have long outgrown the whole light-flashing fraternity thing. But up front, DaimlerChrysler's makeover artists have reworked the lower valance to questionable effect. Whereas the original PT's lower reaches looked like an extension of the shield-shaped grille, the new design is at once more conventional and less harmonious; chrome garnishes, scalloped headlamps and new-look fogs creating change for the sake thereof. In our case, the PT's now legendary two-box profile rides on 'chrome clad' nine-spokers (16' alloys with a mirror-finish cap screwed on) and shiny side moldings. Out back, the song remains the same, with new clear-element taillights and a larger chrome (natch) exhaust. The overall effect remains that of a gangster mobile playfully packing cap guns. In the case of our "go for baroque" Electric Blue Limited, chrome ones. (We'll leave the bling-laden '2CK Quick Order Package' unchecked on the order sheet and pocket the $3,200, thanks)
Inside, DCX has given the PT larger, chrome-ringed gauges, round air vents, an 'Oh Shit' towel-bar of a grab-handle and a revamped center stack capped with an analog clock. Our tester's seats were a bit narrower than we recall, though wrapped in upscale cowhide and 'preferred suede' (the best euphemism for "fake leather" we've ever heard). Evidently looking to abandon its cheap n' cheerful reputation, our PT arrived ladled with a bushel's worth of options: power chairs with bun warmers, satellite radio, trip computer, the lot. Some of the Cruiser's middling interior plastics have been retextured, but it's largely the same well-assembled, functional and characterful interior as before. Even if the PT hasn't gotten a Cribs-style makeover, its den is still a fun, funky place to chill, with peerless room, excellent sightlines and a charming, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic unavailable elsewhere at this price point (barring the MINI franchise).
Under its U-shaped clamshell, our PT proffered a 2.4-liter force-fed four-cylinder, yoked to a 4-speed automatic. The PT's 180-horse light-pressure turbo imbues the retromobile with sufficient mid-range power to bob along all day at 80 mph, secreting a little extra in reserve for passing poke. When given Das Boot, the PT's old-skool four-speed slushbox often comes harder and later than a XXX A-lister. As no manual override or DIY option is available with the Limited's powerplant, drivers are encouraged to learn the tranny's tipping point to ensure smooth, swift progress.
We averaged about 22 mpg, an acceptable if uninspiring result given a hooligan's right foot. Either way, there's little wrong here that an up-to-date gearbox couldn't fix. Well, perhaps we'd take a reworked exhaust. As it is, Cruisin' soundtracks are best left to the discs in the six-puck stereo, because the engine's tune isn't nearly as playful as the vehicle it motivates.
Grab the (too thin) pseudo-banjo-spoke wheel, pitch the PT hard into a bend, and the front-driver's Goodyear Eagles wash out with Woolite-like predictability. Given its humble (and elderly) underpinnings — MacPherson strut (front), twist-beam/Watts link (rear) — the Limited acquits itself very well. But like a too-staid 'steady,' our touring-suspended PT proved a companion merely tolerant of questionable behavior. A more aggressive tread pattern than our tester's milquetoast footwear would go a long way towards improving the PT's fun-to-drive quotient, as might a slightly lowered ride height (the Cruiser's stance is a bit 'high-boy' for our tastes). Admittedly, its brakes haul 'er down with repeatable predictability, though we're at a loss as to why anti-lock supervision remains an option box unchecked on a $23k example.
The PT's dynamic pitfall is its epic turning circle. While hardly an issue when lazing along the interstate, it's a remarkably tough sell in tight parking lots. We suspect it's a packaging hurdle brought about by its pointed retro prow. However, given the its small footprint, it bears repeating: turning the PT round about its axis is a little… round about. Let's face it: the Cruiser has always romanced buyers with the curves of its fenders, not those upon which it travels. Yes, the Little Chrysler That Could remains flawed, but improbably enough, well… the kid stays in the picture.
[Chrysler provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas]