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Chrysler PT Cruiser Development History

See our PT Cruiser development back story • Interview: PT Cruiser leader Chris Theodore (at allpar)

PT Cruiser Engineering

chrysler pt cruiser developmentThe PT Cruiser was designed to fulfill many functions. When the project first started, in 1994, Chrysler was looking for an image-building car that would also help the company to sell more trucks and SUVs by getting good gas mileage. (The company is unique in the industry for selling mid-sized and full-sized pickups and SUVs, but no compact pickups or SUVs). This meant that it had to have a flat floor pan, among other things. That in turn required modifications to the Neon's suspension (the PT Cruiser is built on the Neon platform, as the original minivans were built on the Reliant platform).

Those changes turned out to be a good thing, as Chrysler discovered that, to get a flat floor plan, they needed to make basic changes to the suspension. The result, a hybrid of two suspension types, turned out to be four times as stiff as the former trackbar. It also allowed for more vertical shock absorbers, resulting in less ride harshness and nine inches more interior space. The end result is that the PT Cruiser has an immense interior for given its size - it is larger than the Cirrus inside, but shorter than a Neon.

PT Cruiser concepts and image

Believe it or not, the decision to make the PT Cruiser a Chrysler, rather than a Plymouth, preceded the decision to end Plymouth, according to Chrysler insiders. It was felt that the PT would be most complimentary to Chrysler's desired brand image, along with the 300M and Sebring Coupe. (PT supposedly stands for Personal Transportation). The fact that stylists were seeking a new brand image for Plymouth, following in the footsteps of the highly visible Prowler, doesn't enter into this story.

The concept cars shown to the public started with the 1994 Plymouth Expresso, and proceeded with the 1997 Chrysler CCV and Plymouth Pronto. The latter garnered the strongest customer response, and ended up being the template.

It was decided fairly early that the car should have a "bull-dog" stance, with bulging fenders and separated bumpers (similar to the Prowler). Indeed, Bruce Nesbitt's 1996 concept drawing ended up looking much like the final Prowler, though a number of different directions were explored.

PT Cruiser Competition

While the Cruiser was in development, small minivans such as the Opel Zaffra, Renault Megane Scenic, and Fiat Multiplus were hot sellers in Europe, taking over for families where "tall cars" such as the Colt Vista had left off. Even with these predecessors in Europe, the PT Cruiser attracted a great deal of attention on tour, and Chrysler quickly decided to build the cars at their Graz, Austria factory. European models will have an optional diesel engine.

Detail orientation

Given the idea that the PT Cruiser should be exciting, some of the details are not surprising: the teardrop tail lights, door handle details (interior door handles are taken from a balsa-wood-sculpted original), special steering wheel, and dashboard panels painted in the same color as the exterior.

As with other Chrysler vehicles, design was done with networked computers, allowing suppliers to play a large role in design. Virtual reality and simulation tools were used from the beginning, allowing early optimizing of the interior and ergonomic design. (The balsa wood door handle was scanned into a computer!).

Late in the Cruiser's development, the team realized that the Neon's steering wheel was out of place, and asked engineers to come up with a new design. Though challenged by the need for a spoked wheel with a small hub, which would contain a next-generation airbag, the team quickly came up with a steering wheel that is as individual as the fenders or tail lights.

Likewise, a number of stick-shift designs were considered before the current "retro" cue-ball was selected, because it thrilled many of the potential customers (and engineers).

A new, quieter ventilation system does away with louvres, and instead directs air through circular shafts; though not unusual in European cars, this was the first time Chrysler had used the design. It allowed for round vents with less air noise.

The PT Cruiser is partly popular because of the details - this is one that Chrysler truly seems to have gotten right.

Also see our PT Cruiser development back story • Interview: PT Cruiser leader Chris Theodore

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