Cool, funky and practical: Here's what your kids will want you to drive.
"I WANT A PT CRUISER." Got kids? Get used to hearing this. Then again, you may be saying it yourself once you see the funkiest vehicle priced under $20,000 to come out of Detroit since, well, I can't remember.
If you haven't heard of the PT Cruiser by now, get ready. My guess is that the enthusiasm that greeted Volkswagen's New Beetle is about to be closely matched by Cruiser mania.
What is the PT Cruiser? Good question. One answer: a triumph of creative styling and space-packaging evolved from a small car. Classed for fuel -- economy purposes as a truck, the PT Cruiser rides like a small car but has the cargo features of a micro-minivan. But the styling? Think Edward G. Robinson's getaway car -- a 1930s-looking tall-back wagon shrunk to pint size.
The PT Cruiser represents a couple of important trends in the auto industry today. One is the blurring of the distinctions among cars, sport-utility vehicles and minivans. For about a decade the major auto makers of the world have offered American consumers a series of trade-offs. You could have a minivan's functionality, but only with boring styling. You could have the rugged attitude of a sport utility, but only if you accepted a kidney-jarring ride.
Not surprisingly consumers are asking, how about a vehicle with cool styling, Swiss Army-knife functionality and a decent ride? This is what the PT Cruiser tries to offer. It isn't the first vehicle to do so, and it certainly won't be the last. The Subaru Forester and Outback already aim at this target. GM's forthcoming Pontiac Aztek will be a minivan with sport-ute attitude.
The other force that emboldens a mainstream car maker such as DaimlerChrysler to offer a vehicle as downright funny looking as the PT Cruiser was represented by the passengers confined to my test Cruiser's backseat. After spending the past 25 years trying to figure out what baby boomers want to drive, auto-industry moguls are refocusing. Now the big question is, what will the boomers' kids want to drive?
DaimlerChrysler has a factory -- and someday may have part of another -- riding on the bet that the PT Cruiser will be one answer to that question.
As prototypes of the Cruiser have made the rounds of auto shows during the past year, the vehicle's 1930s funny-car exterior lines have generated enormous buzz. DaimlerChrysler has worked hard to keep things humming, with a PT Cruiser Web site and regular mailings to prospective customers.
Now the curious hybrid is about to hit showrooms. So what's it like to drive?
I recently spent a few hours behind the wheel of a PT Cruiser so fresh from the factory's assembly test run that a Chrysler PR guy practically had to steal the car from the engineering department. A note on the sun visor informed me that the digital compass/thermometer installed in the ceiling just above the windshield was a prototype. That means I can't offer a final judgment about how tightly the PT Cruiser will be put together in regular production. But I saw nothing in my test car that looked like a glaring, designed-in flaw.
On the highway, the PT Cruiser's 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower, four-cylinder engine is reasonably smooth, though not hushed like a Honda engine. My test model came with the optional four-speed automatic transmission. I think the standard five-speed manual would be more fun. In any case, acceleration isn't the reason to buy this car. The Cruiser name is apt. This vehicle was made for tooling around town on a Saturday.
The PT Cruiser's exterior styling speaks for itself. You either like the "look at me" factor, or you don't. Inside, its accommodations are surprisingly spacious and comfortable, given how small this vehicle really is.
Compared with some likely alternative choices -- the Subaru Forester, the Kia Sportage mini-SUV and the Ford Focus wagon -- the PT Cruiser's 101.5 cubic feet of interior passenger volume make it the second roomiest of the set (after the Sportage). There's 40.4 inches of headroom in the front, more than in the Sportage or Focus. The Cruiser has a couple inches less leg room than the Focus wagon, but it's 10 inches shorter overall. I didn't feel cramped up front. The split, fold-down rear seats are roomy enough for two adults or three small kids. They are set a touch higher up than the front seats to offer a theater-seating effect, but I still had enough head clearance.
The Cruiser's dashboard is logically laid out, although the cupholder molded into the center console behind the gear shift and brake handle isn't ideally placed. My car had no ashtray, but did have two cell-phone-friendly power outlets in the center dashboard console. There's another power outlet in the rear cargo area. My one ergonomic disappointment was the slick, plastic feel of the steering wheel. I know this is supposed to be an inexpensive vehicle, but the material looked and felt too cheap. DaimlerChrysler will throw in a leather wheel wrapper as part of the leather seating package.
As for safety, the PT Cruiser hasn't received a rating yet from the government. Dual front airbags are standard, and side airbags, mounted in the sides of the front seats, are an option.
The most outstanding interior feature is the cargo area. This is where the Swiss Army knife thinking comes in. The PT Cruiser has a big, yet very light, rear hatch that opens up to an 18.3-cubic-foot cargo area with the rear seats up. In that space is a shelf panel that can be arranged in at least five ways, including as a picnic table for tailgating.
The seats also fold down flat, tip forward or come out altogether to create 76 cubic feet of carrying space, according to DaimlerChrysler's spec sheet. That's more cargo room than a midsize minivan such as the Ford Windstar has behind the second row of seats.
How much will all this cost? DaimlerChrysler is still working out final prices, but a spokesman says PT Cruisers will start at $16,000. A model like the one I drove -- with an optional sunroof, power locks and windows, and a CD player -- will probably run about $19,170.
So a midrange PT Cruiser, financed over four years, should provide lots of stares for around $400 a month. Maybe that's more than the kids deserve. But who says they get to have all the fun?