Fleet News

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Review

##chrpt.jpg --Right##WHAT'S the connection between a wild retro-look hot-rod and the fleet car market? Everything, if Chrysler UK boss Simon Elliott is to be believed. 'The PT Cruiser waves the green flag on our fleet aspirations,' says Elliott, without the hint of a smile. Despite the car's less-than- conventional looks and image, he is convinced it is going to be a big hit among the user-chooser market. 'It's perfect for people who want to be seen in something different, ideal for the dot.com generation,' he says.

'We have no doubt that the PT Cruiser will be snapped up by corporate money as much as it will by private money - and as such, it gives us a real foothold on the fleet market.' There's no doubting that the PT Cruiser, which arrives in the UK in June, is different. Even in California, where Chrysler launched the car to the press, it was turning heads like nothing else on the road.

Youngsters thought it was cool, older people, clearly wistfully remembering their misspent youth messing about with custom cars, thought it was hot. Cool and hot at the same time - you can't get much broader appeal than that. Over on this side of the Pond, reactions might be a little different. Elliott agrees that in the UK, opinion is likely to be polarised -people will either love it or loathe it. Mind you, with a comparatively small 2,700 units available in 2000 and only 5,000 in its first full year, it shouldn't be too difficult to find enough fans.

The PT Cruiser (PT standing for Personal Transportation) grew out of one of those famous show-stopping Chrysler concept cars, called the Pronto Cruiser, originally shown at Geneva in 1998. Superficially based on the front-wheel drive Neon, the chassis of the production Cruiser differs from the worthy but dull saloon in a number of ways, most notably a new and innovative rear suspension layout.

Like the VW New Beetle, the Cruiser's shape has been determined by the past. Unlike the Beetle, a case of style over substance if ever there was one, the Cruiser is a thoroughly practical machine - a Renault Scenic for people with a sense of fun. The doors and tailgate open wide. There's a vast boot and the versatile seats can be folded or removed altogether to create a 64 cu ft load space. The front passenger seat folds flat to create a table, while the rear pair - split 65/35 - have integral mini-wheels, Voyager-style, so they can be moved about with ease.

Chrysler proudly boasts that an eight-foot ladder can be carried in the car with ease - though why they didn't talk about how many surfboards could fit in the back is anybody's guess. Tall styling means a roomy interior and there's ample space for odds and ends: cup-holders, coin holders, under-seat drawers, cubby bins, map pockets - you name it, it's there somewhere. Special praise is also due to the rear parcel shelf, of all things. It can be located in any one of three positions and can even double as a table - perfect for a picnic or beach party.

Retro styling touches are everywhere, but rather than being a cynical attempt to cash in on a glorious past (I'm thinking Jaguar S-type here) the touches are light and done with humour. The flat dashboard could have come from a 'sit up and beg' Ford from the 50s but works well, while putting the aerial slot in the front fender is a respected custom car technique (though even the meanest customers would have put in a powered aerial in place of the manual job Chrysler has given the Cruiser).

Even the chromed alloy wheels suit the car. Chrysler plans an extensive options list to allow owners to personalise their cars and it surely won't be long before someone gives it a flame paint job. Standing still then, the Cruiser delivers. Fortunately, it's pretty good on the move, too. In addition to building the car in Mexico, Chrysler has announced plans to produce it in Graz in Austria. And being Europe-friendly, Chrysler has ensured that the Cruisers we get will have suspension tuned to suit our driving style. That means positive steering with plenty of 'feel', a firm but comfortable ride, and sharp handling and road-holding.

As a result, the PT Cruiser is a hoot to drive, or at least it would be if the engine was any better. The only weak link in the entire car, the 2.0-litre engine might look OK on paper - 16 valves, a twin cam head and 140bhp - but the reality is somewhat different. Never particularly smooth, it gets rougher and good deal more vocal as the revs rise. And to row the heavyweight Cruiser along, it's revs that you need. It's based on the old 2.0-litre that powers the Neon saloon, and while giving it a double overhead camshaft has helped boost power, it cannot disguise the basic lack of refinement of the engine. Its deficiencies are not even masked by the new electronically-controlled four-speed automatic: kick-down gear changes result in an increase in noise and precious little else. Despite the looks, the Cruiser is no drag racer. And Chrysler knows it - the company has yet to release official performance figures.

Help is at hand, however, and next year will see two further engine options on the price lists: a new 1.6-litre petrol and a 2.2-litre turbodiesel. The former is a joint development between Chrysler and BMW and will also power the forthcoming Mini, while the latter is the acclaimed common rail diesel built by kissin' cousin Mercedes-Benz and used in the A-class. Motor industry synergies and mergers do bear fruit eventually.

You can have your Cruiser in any colour so long as it's crazy - like Deep Cranberry, Inferno Red or Aztec Yellow for example. Trim levels in order of gizmos start with Classic and rise through Touring to Limited, with prices starting at £14,995 and going up to £17,195. Automatic is an £800 option.

Top-of-the-range equipment includes air conditioning, part leather seats, front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, power steering and those essential chromed wheels. But the most important piece of equipment is standard across the range: the hi-fi. Stick Dion and the Belmonts on the tape, your elbow on the door and go cruisin'.

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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