Making the Cruiser more attractive is its combination of practicality and affordability. It boasts the interior volume of a sport-utility vehicle. Fold the seats down and you can carry an eight-foot ladder. Pull the rear seats out and it'll haul a load of building materials or a big TV box. Yet it's shorter in length than many compact cars, making it easy to park. It's also easy on gas.
Adding to the fun is the driving experience. The Cruiser is based on the Dodge Neon, a compact car noted for sprightly performance. New turbo models add fire under the hood. The GT (aka PT Turbo) features a 220-horsepower engine that gives the Cruiser a real boost. That kind of speed costs money, of course. A more affordable 180-horsepower turbo available for 2004 Limited Edition and Touring Edition brings the cost of speed down. We like speed. We also like affordability. On the downside, the PT Cruiser has all the refinement of a compact car.
New features are available for the 2004 models to enhance the Cruiser's sophistication. Sirius Satellite Radio and a Bluetooth system that allows hands-free cellular telephone conversations are on the options list for 2004.
All PT Cruisers are powered by a 2.4-liter, twin-cam four-cylinder engine, but it comes in three states of tune. The standard 150-horsepower engine comes standard in base, Touring Edition, and Limited Edition models. A five-speed manual is standard with this engine; four-speed automatic is optional ($825).
A 180-horsepower turbocharged version of this same engine is optional on Touring Edition ($2,105) and Limited Edition ($2,090) models. The price of this option includes the four-speed automatic transmission, plus a body-color front fascia with larger lower opening, a large diameter chrome exhaust tip, and special badging. New 16-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels are standard on 180-horsepower Limited Edition models, optional ($700) on 180-horsepower Touring Edition models.
A 220-horsepower High Output turbocharged variant of the 2.4-liter four comes on the GT. This engine comes with a heavy-duty five-speed manual transaxle made by Getrag; a four-speed automatic is optional ($440).
Standard on the base model are air conditioning, power windows, rear defroster and wiper, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, an anti-theft engine immobilizer, and 15-inch steel wheels. An optional Power Convenience Group ($705) adds remote keyless entry, automatic power central locking, and power exterior mirrors, and cruise control. New for 2004, an aluminum wheel/touring group ($579) adds 16-inch painted cast-aluminum wheels, 205/55R16 all-season touring tires, and a touring suspension.
The Touring Edition gets everything in the convenience package and the aluminum wheel/touring group, plus fog lights, security alarm, and other features. The Limited Edition comes equipped with just about everything: leather upholstery, power height adjuster for the driver's seat, side-impact airbags, glass sunroof, and chromed 16-inch aluminum wheels.
The GT adds four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a performance-tuned suspension, traction control, and all-season performance tires on 17-inch chromed aluminum wheels. The GT also comes with side-impact airbags and most of the Limited Edition's luxury goodies. Leather sport seats are standard, but cloth upholstery is available.
Stand-alone options include a glass sunroof for Touring Editions ($695), heated front seats for Limited Edition and GT ($250), and side-impact airbags for base and Touring ($390). A new option for 2004 is Sirius satellite radio, which is offered on all models. The cost of the receiver ($325) includes a one-year subscription. Also new for 2004 is UConnect, Chrysler Group's hands-free, in-vehicle communications system ($360), which uses Bluetooth technology to link the user's cellular phone with the Cruiser's stereo speakers. Appearance packages include Woodgrain Exterior Accents, the Chrome Accent Group (expanded for 2004), and the chrome-and-leather Dream Cruiser 3.
By exterior dimensions, the PT Cruiser is quite compact. It's nearly 6 inches shorter than a Neon subcompact. Yet with 63 inches from pavement to the highest point of its roof, the Cruiser is also 7 inches taller than the Neon, and nearly as tall as some minivans. That height is a crucial element of the PT Cruiser's design.
The GT is distinguished from the other models by its chrome exhaust tips, larger grille and air intakes, and a spoiler on its liftgate; however, the spoiler ($150) is an option on the other models.
Accessory switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials. Window switches are at the top of the center dash, not convenient for quick operation; you'll have to search for them until you get used to their location. The door levers have a nice action, and the switches operate with good tactile feel, though they're not world class. The stereo sounds tinny. Also, there's a separate Set button for the station presets, fussier than simply holding the preset down.
A bonus of the Cruiser's tall profile is its upright seating position, with a fairly high view ahead, somewhat like a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. The front seats in the three lower-line models have a reasonable amount of bolstering to keep driver and passenger from sliding side to side. The leather package offers a rich appearance given the Cruiser's price, with suede inserts in the doors and along the lower cushion edges. The GT gets sportier seats with more padding in its side bolsters to hold you firmly in place in corners. The GT also features a chrome-spoked, leather wrapped steering wheel, and chrome pedals.
Roominess is a virtue in the Cruiser. Its 121.5 cubic feet of interior volume is comparable to that of large cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lincoln Town Car. Much of that space is a function of the Cruiser's height. The roof rises toward the rear like on a chopped-top hot rod.
To take advantage of this, the rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front, resulting in what what the industry calls theater seating. The front seats are mounted on tall boxes, leaving plenty of room for rear passengers to stretch their legs underneath. A six-foot, nine-inch passenger can fit comfortably in the front or rear seats.
Chrysler claims the PT Cruiser's cabin can be configured 26 different ways. This flexibility stems from three features: a 65/35 split rear bench that can be folded flat, tumbled forward or removed; a movable parcel shelf; and an available front passenger seat that folds flat. The rear seats are anchored with quick-release attachments for easy removal. Suitcase handles and steel wheels make it easier to stash them in the garage and move them about. The smaller seat weighs 35 pounds, but the larger section weighs a hefty 65 pounds. The Cruiser can provide up to 64 cubic feet of cargo volume. Still, a mountain bike doesn't really fit without removing the front wheel, removing the rear seats, or both. The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheel wells, not wide enough for four-foot building materials, but enormously useful. The front passenger seatback can be folded flat, forming a table next to the driver or making room for an eight-foot stepladder or a load of two-by-fours.
Bluetooth technology brings hands-free telephone operation to the Cruiser while leaving your cell phone free to travel with you when you get out of the car. The system works when you set your mobile phone down anywhere inside the vehicle, tying it into a microphone and a voice-recognition interface when you press a button housed in the rearview mirror. You can even continue a conversation while entering or exiting, without disrupting your call for greater mobility.
Safety features include front side-impact airbags in the GT and Limited Edition models and optional ($390) on the other models. Seatbelts should always be worn, however, and the PT Cruiser comes with three-point safety harnesses at all positions, including the rear center position. The front belts have pyrotechnically charged tensioners, just like in luxury cars, to tighten the belts for the initial stages of an impact. The rear bench is equipped with child-seat tethers.
The PT Cruiser offers both a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission. The manual gearbox is surprisingly precise, not sports-car grade, but not bad for a longer-throw gate with a lever that's a foot tall. Working the gears to get the most from the base engine is pleasing.
The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the base Cruiser cruising because the power is biased toward higher rpm, which is not where automatics work best. The base engine develops 165 pounds-feet achieved at a relatively high 4000 rpm. On the other hand, there are four gears in the automatic, and kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough torque for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads.
The new 180-horsepower turbocharged version that's optional on Touring Edition and Limited Edition produces a healthy amount of torque, 210 pounds-feet. That should improve the performance of automatics considerably. (Torque is that force that propels the car from intersections and up steep hills.)
Speaking of torque, the engine in the GT develops 245 pounds-feet at just 2800 rpm. And this twisting power doesn't drop off until the tach passes 4500. That makes this 220-horsepower High Output turbo feel like a bigger engine, even though it's not. A rumbly exhaust makes the GT sound more like what hot-rodders wanted when the hot-rod body was first introduced. You know it's a turbo because of the telltale whine when it spools up, though chambers in the intake manifold act as sound dampers.
The GT can get to 60 mph in about 7 seconds. Driving the GT around town, you'll likely forget to downshift, since the engine pulls strongly at 2500 rpm in any gear. Once you decide to go quicker, the GT acts like the muscle car its body says it is.
The GT comes with Chrysler's AutoStick. It works like an automatic when it's in Drive, but also permits semi-manual shifting. It works well, though the tall shifter is reminiscent of an old-fashioned hot-rod setup. Stand on it at low rpm and there's a little lag as the turbo gets into the boost, but once it spools up it takes offs. The standard gearbox is a five-speed Getrag.
The PT Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan. With the big 17-inch wheels and tires of the GT, it will hustle like a sports sedan, though it lacks their precision. Base models maintain composure in the corners, too. Body lean is well controlled. The rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the solid rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement and the chassis does not feel rigid. Its ride quality feels like that of a compact car with road vibration entering the cabin. The mirrors shake when the stereo is on. Generally, it feels a bit dated and not very refined.
In quick, hard, slalom-type maneuvers the PT Cruiser starts to feel top heavy, even with the GT's stiffer suspension and big wheels. You can almost feel the high mass of the car try to continue in one direction as the front wheels turn in the other. Still, in sudden, emergency-type lane changes, the PT Cruiser is more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan. At speeds beyond legal Interstate limits, the Cruiser is stable, and not particularly susceptible to cross winds. There is little wind noise, almost no tire or road noise, and a just-audible whine from the drivetrain.
Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard. ABS is available for base, Touring, and Limited ($595). Four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS ($825) are offered for Touring Edition and Limited Edition models equipped with the 180-horsepower engine. We recommend the latter system, which also includes low-speed traction control.
The GT model adds needed hot-rod credibility, while the new 180-horsepower option should broaden its appeal.
Model as tested
Chrysler PT Turbo GT ($25,365)
3 years/36,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
AutoStick transmission ($440)
Model Line Overview
Chrysler PT Cruiser ($17,395); Touring Edition ($19,170); Limited Edition ($21,410); GT ($25,365)
Safety equipment (standard)
front airbags, seat belt pre-tensioners, LATCH child-seat anchors
Safety equipment (optional)
2.4-liter dohc turbocharged 16-valve inline 4
five-speed Getrag manual
Specifications as Tested
power windows, power locks with remote keyless entry, cruise control, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, air conditioning, rear window defroster and wiper, power side mirrors, six-speaker AM/FM stereo with CD, fog lamps, center console power outlet, fold-and-tumble quick-release rear seats, power glass sunroof, ABS, low-speed traction control, performance tuned suspension, 17-inch chromed alloy wheels and all-season performance tires
Engine & Transmission
2.4-liter dohc turbocharged 16-valve inline 4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
220 @ 5100
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
twist-beam axle, trailing links, transverse Watt linkage, coil springs
independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
twist-beam axle, trailing links, transverse Watt linkage, coil springs
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear
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