Fleet News

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Review

##chrpt.jpg --Right##WANT to make a big impression at the next business meeting? If so, Chrysler has just come up with a surefire short-cut that is guaranteed to get you, and your company, well and truly noticed. First shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 1998 as the Pronto Cruizer concept, the PT (Personal Transportation) Cruiser has been stirring up interest ever since.

In fact, the rush to be one of the first 'Cruisers' in the US has prompted some to pay over list price for the car. Demand is currently so frantic across the Pond the waiting list is running at 10 months.

So what is all the hullaballoo about as the PT Cruiser arrives in the UK? In what can best be described as a cross between a Morris Minor and a classic American hot-rod from the fifties, the PT Cruiser's shock factor is self-evident. From the wedge-shaped nose treatment, stark front grille, through the bulbous wheelarches to the 'garage door' tailgate, few cars have ever looked as striking as the PT Cruiser.

It's the same theme inside mixing retro-look cream-faced instrument dials, an over-sized, thin-rimmed steering wheel, a long stalk gearlever and metallic facia trim with a modern, flat-faced centre console housing the hi-fi, ventilation controls and innovative, circular airvents.

Both, no doubt, are the reasons why Chrysler's marketing manager, Steve Gray, is particularly jubilant: 'The impact of the PT Cruiser on Chrysler's fortunes in the UK market cannot be underestimated.

'With just two models in the range, the Neon and Voyager MPV, we have a tiny 0.03% overall market share. What the PT Cruiser gives us is something different - a catalyst that will get people talking about Chrysler.'

Simon Elliott, director of Chrysler and Jeep in the UK, says: 'All 103 dealers have already taken bookings for the PT Cruiser and we now have 700 confirmed orders. Our allocation for this year is just 2,700 units; next year we're hoping to get 6,000 units for our first full year of sales.

'The PT Cruiser will appeal to user-choosers with an open choice list and to those who want to a make a statement about their personality. It will also appeal to smaller companies who want to highlight the progressive nature of their businesses and are confident about their own image.

So what exactly is the PT Cruiser - a lower medium hatchback to rival the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf trio at the top of class or a mini-MPV that joins the ever-expanding sector occupied by the Renault Scenic, Fiat Multipla, Citroen Picasso and Vauxhall Zafira? To be honest, both.

Based on the Neon, the PT Cruiser's upwardly-sloping roofline generates masses of front and rear headroom and accommodating five adults is no problem. But unlike a traditional hatchback Chrysler has muddied the waters with a versatility package to rival any mini-MPV - the 65/35 split rear seats fold, tumble and lift out (accompanied by Voyager-style wheels for added convenience), the five-position rear parcel shelf doubles as a loadfloor extension or a handy picnic tray, the loadbay has a cargo net and load-tie hooks, there are underfloor storage areas, the full length floor console houses four cupholders and oddment bins, the front passenger seat backrest folds forwards to create a flat working surface and a plethora of sockets powers everything from a laptop to a games console.

Chrysler confirmed earlier speculation that on its UK launch, the PT Cruiser will be available with just one petrol engine. Based on the four-cylinder, 2.0-litre 16-valve unit from the Neon saloon, Chrysler has upped the power for the PT Cruiser with twin cams to 140bhp at a heady 5,700rpm and torque rises to 139lb-ft at 4,150rpm. Three trim levels suffice: Classic, Touring and Limited Edition.

As a cruisin' machine, the PT Cruiser is surprisingly adept. A new twist beam rear suspension linkage helps eradicate body roll and with a precise gearchange, quick steering and excellent ride quality, it is a fun car to drive. But even if it wasn't, one can't help but have fun in it, thanks to its alluring styling. From open-top sports cars to supercars, not one of them can muster more stares, pointed fingers or comment than this. However, if you think this is a classic hot rod then you are sadly mistaken. The 2.0-litre might pump out more power, but stretch it and its lack of refinement - and flexibility - becomes painfully obvious.

At the top end, it's coarse and our test car developed an annoying whining noise at motorway speeds. The driving position is high-set and with the Limited Edition's part leather seats, the flat cushions struggle to hold you in place on tight corners.

Performance figures back the PT Cruiser's lethargy with a 0-62mph time of 9.6secs for manual (the automatic is nearly three seconds slower) and a top speed of 118mph. Fuel economy isn't that special either averaging just 32.5mpg. Delayed until next year is an all-new 1.6-litre petrol co-developed with Mercedes-Benz and the German company's 2.2-litre common rail turbodiesel should make a difference - although whether a diesel engine and not a lusty six-cylinder unit is the answer remains to be seen.

Personal Transport may be an Americanism for functionality but it is not as clever as its European friends. The PT Cruiser offers nothing new over the Renault Scenic which is in its fourth year of production and is also currently the best-selling mini-MPV by a country mile, but it is also not as innovative as either the seven-seater Zafira or six-seater Fiat Multipla.

It is also not as company car friendly as the Europeans either. At 205g/km, the PT Cruiser is edged out by the Citroen Picasso (1.6 178g/km and 1.8 187g/km), the Renault Scenic 2.0 at 190g/km and the Vauxhall Zafira 1.8 at 204g/km. At a P11D price of £17,015 for the PT Cruiser Limited Edition, a 22% taxpayer will pay £861 a year in company car tax in 2002, compared to £604 for the Picasso 1.8 16v SX, £724 for the Scenic 2.0 16v Monaco, £756 for the Fiat Multipla 1.6 16v ELX and £838 for the Zafira 1.8 16v Elegance.

Part of the problem is the age of the engine but the price doesn't help either: at just over £17,000 it competes with top-spec versions of the Scenic and Zafira, but the new breed represented by the Citroen Picasso and Fiat Multipla are considerably cheaper: at £14,625 for the 1.8 SX and £15,080 for the 1.6 ELX respectively, the PT Cruiser costs at least £2,000 more.

What Chrysler has got right though is the build quality. Panel fit is superb and the quality of the plastics is much better than we've come to expect from Chrysler. Entry-level Classic Cruisers start at £14,995 on-the-road, £15,995 for the Touring and £17,195 for the Limited Edition. Base 2.0-litre Renault Scenics start at £16,400 and the 1.8-litre-only Zafira weighs in at £16,250.

All models boast front, passenger and side airbags, power steering, height-adjustable steering wheel, air conditioning, CD player, all-round electric windows, power heated door mirrors and five, three-point seat belts - a first for Chrysler - and a three- year/60,000-mile warranty and roadside emergency cover. Touring models add ABS, front fog lights, traction control, 16in alloy wheels and cruise control with the Limited Edition models adding leather/suede seats and chrome-coated wheels. A four-speed automatic gearbox is an £800 option.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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