Driving Impressions

By October 30, 2003

The PT Cruiser is fun to drive. In essence, it's a tall, practical economy car, but the PT Cruiser goes relatively quickly. The standard engine is rated at 150 horsepower and 165 pounds-feet of torque. This is enough power to propel the Cruiser from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, and down the quarter-mile drag strip in about 16.7 seconds. Big four-cylinder engines like Chrysler's 2.4-liter have a natural tendency to idle roughly, so a counter-rotating balance shaft is used to smooth things out.

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