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Rumble Seat

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Fenders, the curvaceous swells of metal adjunct to the body of vintage cars, began their slow march to oblivion beginning with the Chrysler Airflow (1934), whose wheel-well coverings were integrated into the hood and rear-quarter panels. By the early '50s, fenders were pretty thoroughly smoothed into the overall contours of cars. Now, with Chrysler's PT Cruiser, fenders are back. Can't this company make up its mind?

Fenders are but one of the nostalgia notes played on the PT Cruiser, DaimlerChrysler's new, category-defying minivan/sedan. The overall shape owes much to the '37 Plymouth PT-50 Commercial Sedan (with a 1950 Chevy Panel van and a little Willys Overland in there somewhere), though with the PT Cruiser these contours are drawn with a mighty small pen. Visually, the diminutive PT comes dangerously close to being silly--you rather expect clowns to tumble out, or Shriners--but the aggressively posed front-end, reminiscent of a drop-axle treatment on a street rod, saves it from terminal cuteness.

Even though the PT is no longer hot news--they have been in Florida rental fleets for months--it is enjoying an Indian summer of novelty, and curious car-lovers still swarming to the car are rather like pesky mosquitoes (no, for the last time, it is not fast).

But novelty wears off, and nostalgia is a shallow sentiment. The New Beetle stumbled when, in the sober light of the showroom, shoppers began to see the car was limited by its flower-powered design (note the wasted headroom up front and the neck-bending lack of it in back). The PT Cruiser's charismatic retro design, in contrast, merely camouflages what is actually a supremely efficient box-on-wheels.

Lift the yawning rear hatch lid, and you will see that the floor of the PT Cruiser is flat, thanks to its low-profile beam-axle rear suspension (no shock towers to intrude into the space). The 35/65 split rear bench, equipped with three sets of seat belts, folds flat or can be pivoted upright and secured to the B-pillar with straps. The seats can also be unlatched from the floor and removed altogether (these units are quite heavy and awkward, so herniate at your own risk). With the rear seats removed and the front passenger seat folded down, the PT Cruiser suddenly becomes cavernous, big enough to hold two or three mountain bikes, an 8-foot ladder or a downtown DJ's rave-ready turntable and loudspeakers.

For the driver, gaining access to the PT Cruiser is as easy as sitting at the dining room table; the low step-in height (about mid-shin on me) and lintel-like roofline mean there is no leaning or ducking to board as there is to ingress, say, the Dodge Neon. The PT's driver's seat is mounted high, rather like a lifeguard's chair, affording excellent leg room as well as the commanding seating position that would-be SUV owners crave.

The PT is only 168.8 inches long, a full foot shorter than a Ford Focus wagon, but offers 64 cubic feet of cargo space, besting the Ford by eight cubic feet. The secret to all this space-efficiency--and the headroom, the sightlines, the access--is the PT's rangy roofline, which skies to 63 inches (a half-foot taller than the Ford, by the way).

In another company's hands, such a stubby and over-tall package--a la Toyota Echo--would look, well, is dorky in the stylebook? But Chrysler wisely conceals the PT's proportions with heart-grabbing retro design cues.

The fat fenders, the low and prominent bumpers, and the running-board-like contours seamed along the rocker panels all give the high-backed PT Cruiser a firm visual foundation that keeps it from looking tipsy. Thus is necessity made a commercially palatable virtue.

That foundation is more than skin-deep. The PT Cruiser feels overbuilt, really sturdy for what is, by some measures, a subcompact. The B-pillars are thick and the doors are wide and hefty. Under power, the PT's big-boned structure provides rattle-free composure and excellent isolation from even the shabbiest secondary roads.

Inevitably, something had to give, and in the PT that something is curb weight. Tipping the scales at over 3,200 pounds, our Limited Edition worked up a lather accelerating to interstate speeds. Under hard throttle, all the hard-won interior quiet melted in the face of engine howl. Powered by a 2.4-liter, 150-hp inline 4, with torque peaking at 162 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm, the PT won't tempt any hot-rodders to feats of derring-don't. Ours was equipped with an automatic, however, and I imagine the performance equation is much improved with the standard five-speed manual. Besides, the manual has the cue-ball style shift knob. Is it enough to tempt folks back to the pleasures of shifting gears?

In terms of handling and ride quality, the former does certainly sacrifice in the name of the latter. On the optional 16-inch Goodyear Eagle radials, our test car practically glided over the road, absorbing hits that would send other small cars skittering. Overall ride quality is excellent. But the handling, even with the "touring" suspension package, seemed a little shifty. In the back-and-forth of spirited driving, I found myself feeding more steering correction to keep the PT online than I like. The PT's high center of gravity is something even cool styling can't disguise.

On balance, complaints are few and compliments abound. This is a superb automobile at a terrific price. Our Limited Edition was loaded to the gills, including luxo features like leather seat trim, power driver's seat, 16-inch polished chrome wheels, smoked rear glass, heated outside mirrors, as well as the expected air-conditioning, power windows and doors with keyless remote, traction control, anti-lock disc brakes--in short, everything you can reasonably squeeze into a small car. The gloss-black test car was priced at $20,835, including a $550 destination charge. Ford Focus now knows how ephemeral being the value leader in the small-car segment can be.

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