2008 PT Cruiser car reviews: Sunset Boulevard Street Cruiser
Since 2001, the PT Cruiser has moved from being a low-volume, high-demand vehicle; Chrysler more than tripled production to meet demand, and then lowered demand with a 2006 refresh that eliminated some of the PT’s unique interior and exterior looks, while some analysts and, reportedly, some within Chrysler referred to the popular vehicle as a flash-in-the-pan or a failure. Oddly, though, the PT is still a good choice; though its gas mileage remains less than ideal and its acceleration less than thrilling, that’s true for most cars in its class. The exterior may not be as striking as it was in 2001, thanks to a poorly executed under-bumper area and perhaps ill-advised modifications to the headlights, but it is still as unique as it was — even with the Chevy HHR on the road. (When GM applied full resources to a PT-like vehicle, they ended up with something no better than the low-budget PT.)
The 2009 PT Cruiser had few changes from 2008. Badging changed, with the turbo moving to “2.4T.” Rear badges were PT Cruiser on the left, and Limited or Touring on the right. The Dream Cruiser Series 5 had a low price, two-tone paint, loads of chrome, and other features. Chrysler cut the number of option combinations to simplify manufacturing. The turbocharged engine (180 hp) was only available on the Limited, as an option; air conditioning was standard; and some options were dropped. Since the restyling, which many believe cheapened the feel of the car, the option mix changed so that most PTs were the base model.
Then, in 2010, the PT was brought to a single model, Classic, starting at around $18,000 and nicely loaded. Fiat’s CEO, now also CEO of Chrysler, had no vested interest in seeing the PT fail, and opened up new markets for the PT, allowing for lower sales volumes in the US — and higher profits overall. The cheapening of the PT ended.
The interior of the 2006+ PT is comfortable, though the new seats are harder; and the convenient built-in armrests have been stripped out in favor of a completely unnecessary “towel bar.” The fabric seats hold the driver in place better than the smooth leather of the old GT, and the YES Essentials™ fabric, while a bit stiff, is practically impervious to ordinary stains. There is plenty of room for four people despite the small exterior size, and parking the narrow car is easy: it fits into spaces ordinary cars can only dream of.
In our burgundy model, with a two-tone beige interior broken up by chrome accents and, on the dashboard, large, body-color bezels, the interior was still attractive even on the base model; the doors are nicely styled, with several different patterns and forms on the plastic to break it up, and practical front and rear map pockets. Carrying over from the original are carefully sculpted chrome door-handles, and available on the Street Cruiser, or at absurd cost from the aftermarket, are chromed locks. In the center console area of our Street Cruiser, the shifter was done up in chrome, and there was a chrome surround on the cupholders; there were also thin chrome surrounds on all the gauges and air vents, as well as the clock, a nice touch that owners of older PT Cruisers have to (and often) pay for on the aftermarket, with rather inconvenient installation.
The dashboard would form a graceful arch except for the bulging center stack, thrust forward by around four inehes, thrusting the climate controls, window switches, and stereo at us; the rest of the dashboard is nicely done, with large gauges set in front of the driver, an evenly split 120 mph speedometer with 60 mph in top-dead-center (rather than the now-normal odd speed at the top), and a decently sized tachometer (ending at 8,000 though the engine redlines at 6,000 rpm). The gas and temp gauges are in a pod on the left that balances the tachometer on the right; likewise, LED displays are balanced left and right, with the left getting the compass/clock and trip computer, and the PRNDL and odometer on the right.
Gauges are an elegant black on white, with letters whose thickness becomes apparent when you flip on the backlight, which shines an offwhite glow through them. The effect is quite nice at night, and easier on the eyes than a pure white; though it clashes a little with the soft green backlighting of the center clock, vent controls, trip computer/odometer, and PRNDL.
The original PT's vent controls were taken from the Neon, where they never made much sense; in the new PT, they are more rational, with a button to activate the air conditioner, and traditional vent direction controls. The system is easy to understand; and the heater control provides a wide sweep for precise dialing. The vents are a little noisier than in the original PT, which had an unusual round vent with a directing knob that allowed for rapid and easy movement of air into different directions, and much quieter than usual operation; the current vents are noisier, but rotate easily and pleasantly, moving up and down or side to side, and closing and opening easily and visibly.
Controls are logical and easy to use; the centrally located power window switch is easy to get used to, and more convenient than the door-mounted switch since it’s easier to see without looking down. The automatic gearshift is traditional and easy to operate, with a nicely styled ball lever, though for some reason it allows drivers to lock into first or third gear, but not second. Windshield washers are mounted on a stalk and have a good flow pattern. The button bar above the climate control is nicely done, with the “blanks” in different sizes and the existing switches centered; we’ve seen nastier treatments on “more refined” cars with cheap black plastic blanks over every switch position, as if to punish the buyer for not having every option.
As with the original PT Cruiser, you can easily get fault codes from the engine computer by moving the key from RUN to OFF to RUN to OFF to RUN very quickly, but not too quickly; the odometer will turn to all hyphens, then read out any codes that may exist (you can easily find explanations for those), then say “done” before going back to odometer mode.
Something people will use more frequently is the trip computer, which doubles as a compass/exterior thermometer on cars that have it. With the redesign this feature (formerly just a thermometer) has been moved into the instrument panel, underneath the gas and temp gauges; pressing a button awkwardly mounted behind the steering wheel cycles it from the default compass/temp through miles driven since the last reset, hours since the last reset, average gas mileage since the last reset, and projected number of miles before the gas tank runs dry.
Overall, compared with the original, the new dashboard and controls are more upscale, more refined, and more Chrysler-like (the original was reputedly to be a Plymouth at first); but as a whole, they do lose something in translation. The PT’s interior remains a cut above most competitors in style and ease of use, nevertheless.
Storage is provided in map pockets on the doors, a glove compartment, an under-center-stack bin, three front cupholders and one front cellphone-holder, and a two-level center bin; the storage drawer once underneath the passenger seat has again become an aftermarket item. The two-level center console requires a button press to open either lid, and feels rather cheap; the top bin is fairly shallow and has a little pen holder, while the lower bin is fairly small but deep, and while the plastic does not feel particularly solid, it also has no sharp edges, including on the undersides. The bottom of this bin includes a little CD rack. In back, a little cupholder tray folds out from the center console, providing space for two cups and two cellphones, but it's a bit hard to reach.
Getting in and out of the PT is made easier by the doors, which are relatively short front-to-back, but swing out and open widely, making it easier to get large objects into the back seats (or, if you remove the back seats, into the area where they used to be.) The back seats come out separately, and are divided into a 2/3 configuration: you can take out the smaller seat and have room for two people (but they'd better like each other) in the remaining seat. They also fold down and flip over to make more cargo room while still keeping the seats in the car.
On the outside, teardrop headlights were modified so that visibly-dual headlights could be used; these headlights are even brighter than in the first generation, which were already quite good. The underbumper area redesign is harder to fathom, as it breaks up the general theme of the front end, and we'd assume cost-cutting is the impetus there, as with the change of vent designs.
The engine is moderately noisy under heavy acceleration, but it idles smoothly and is quiet at idle; the PT feels considerably faster than the Dodge Caliber, which is in the same price range but boasts more horsepower. The PT has a flatter torque curve, with no need to wind up to 6,000 rpm; hit the gas, get a downshift, and fly off down the road. The 2.4 liter four-cylinder is a pleasant powerplant overall, with either the automatic or stick-shift. Carrying a full load up a steep hill with air conditioning and an automatic can tax the little engine, but then, you’ll just be about where the drivers of Hummer H3s are all the time. The manual transmission ekes out considerably more than the somewhat loose-feeling automatic.
The automatic transmission uses fully electronic controls and adjusts for internal conditions and the driver’s style; when switching drivers it can get a little confused, but generally tends to be in the right gear at the right time, without the pronounced delays in upshifting or unresponsive downshifting of some other automatics. The only problem we had with it was an occasional long shift, as though it was trying to decide whether or not to upshift; downshifts were generally quick and on-demand. In short, for a normal person not looking for trouble, it would fade into the background. The engine would probably be faster in sprints with a five-speed automatic, because the gaps in the gear ratios drop the engine out of its power band under full acceleration.
Cornering is good for a vehicle of this type, and the PT ends up being a fun car to drive, if not up to the capabilities of a sports car or a sporty small car; it sticks to the road nicely and allows for quite a bit of spirited driving, without excessive squealing or drawing attention to itself. Wet weather and snow adhesion was good in our test vehicle. The ride is comfortable and solid-feeling, between small car and luxury, without subsonic “bump booms” coming from road conditions; a distant clunkity-clunk is sometimes the only audible indication of a rough road. The PT doesn’t glide along without any sense of road feel; nor does it punish for potholes. We drove the PT right through Manhattan, and found it to be very pleasant. Indeed, it was more pleasant than our 2003 GT model, whose stiffer suspension transmits potholes and broken surfaces much more directly. The new PT’s sound insulation also helps to give it a greater feeling of solidity.
The cargo bay used to have a standard net, which was rather handy for keeping groceries from flying around; this is still available as an option, as it has been since 2003, and it's a good option to have. The cargo bay includes a bolt which, when turned, lowers the spare tire to the ground; the jack is easily taken out of a little compartment. The new trunk latch is not as fast and easy to use as the old one; but you still pull on the Chrysler logo to open the hatch. Now, there's a solenoid of some sort, so you lose the mechanical feel and have to wait a moment for the electrics to do their work. In addition, the once-standard board that covered the cargo area (and rose up, hatchback-style, when the rear hatch was opened), or could be lowered for some reason, or used as a picnic table (there were numerous configurations, at least one of which was practical), has been taken out though supports for it remain.
Our test car had manually adjusting (cable-driven) exterior mirrors, which meant that we had to lean to the right to adjust the passenger-side mirror. In a narrow car like this, that is less of a nuisance than it could be, but we definitely prefer the electric mirror adjustments (on higher models) for their precision. The manual day-night mirror is quite effective at reducing glare.
The new stereo in our test vehicle, a standard unit that seems to have a subwoofer, is a big step down from the older ones in sound quality and, when compared with the optional system that had separate bass and treble sliders, a minor step down in ease of use. However, the newly optional Sirius Satellite Radio is a nice alternative to the commercial-laden, repetitive music stations or the hate-filled talk stations of the standard airwaves; and a standard auxiliary jack lets people hook in their iPods, albeit without integrating their controls or having a particularly good place to keep them.
Our test vehicle had a base price of $15,655, almost a steal in todays market; that included side airbags for front passengers, ventilated front disc brakes (with rear drums), power steering, day/night mirror, rear defroster and wiper/washer, speed-sensitive power locks, remote and alarm with radio-coded keys, compass and temperature, variable intermittent wipers, tilt steering, power windows, four-speaker CD stereo, tachometer, and fifteen inch wheels. Getting that level of equipment in a car you actually want to drive really is a bargan — and that’s before the most recent $1,000 rebate!
With options, our vehicle was a somewhat less attractive $18,475, still very reasonable, and that's before the always-present rebates. Options included $150 for the red paint, $825 for the automatic transmission (we'd pay not to have that!), and $1,000 for air conditioning. The Street Cruiser Edition package added another $825, for 16 inch chrome-clad wheels with bigger tires, tinted glass, chrome outer trim and scuff pads, chromed shifter bezel and door locks, Street Cruiser badges, a power moonroof with single-touch opening, and a lighting package with sliding sun-visors. For those who dress up their cars anyway, the Street Cruiser could actually be a bargain.
Many of the brighter spots of the PT have remained as advantages over other vehicles: the perfect ride height, letting passengers simply turn and sit, and putting the small car at an advantage on today’s big-vehicle-filled roads; the maximum use of available space; and the amazing parkability, with a narrow, short exterior that fits into parking spaces that most SUVs, crossovers, and sedans could only dream of. The PT is even closer in size to the original minivans than any minivan, and while it can’t fit three rows of seats, it can sit four people comfortably, with their cargo, and the seats come out easily.
2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser Touring Edition from the rental fleet
Normally, our cars are supplied by Chrysler, but we also drove a 2007 PT Cruiser Touring Edition, with 25,000 miles on it, from Enterprise. The car seemed brand new in every way, without any visible wear, just some dirt on the towel rack. It also drove as though it was brand new, with nary a squeak or rattle. The transmission was unobtrusive and well behaved, doing exactly what we wanted with no fuss and always in the right gear at the right time; if not for the power-sapping nature of a standard fluid automatic, we would have felt it to be just about perfect.
The engine was quiet unless revved high, when it became rather loud and raucous. Acceleration was neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad, but the sprints could be quicker. Getting from 0-40, the critical area, was easy, and highway-speed passing was fine as well. Overall, we agree with those who say the PT's acceleration is good enough even with the automatic - and we were carrying a full load of four passengers and luggage.
Steep hills did not present much of a problem; a two-block-long 30% grade required only steady pedal pressure, and accelerating just a little more pressure, followed by a downshift. The low-end power of the engine means that ordinary driving feels better than sprint times would indicate. Highway driving was easy with plenty of passing power (and not much wind noise) at 65 mph.
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