Chrysler PT Cruiser Mania: Could It Happen Today?

By | March 28, 2024

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The once popular hatchback is now a complete dog…

Today, the Chrysler PT Cruiser is largely derided. In fact, it was recently featured in The Grand Tour for a showcase of the worst American cars ever made, a sentiment many share. But when it launched in 2000 for the 2001 model year, people literally lined up for their chance to own one. CNN reported on dealers charging well above MSRP and pre-orders piling up.

Check out our picks for last year’s most disappointing car reveal here.

Shoppers seemed absolutely captivated by Bryan Nesbitt’s retro-inspired design, which was originally shown at the 1998 Geneva Motor Show as the Pronto Cruizer concept. Even though the concept was much sexier than the production model, the PT Cruiser was a welcome change from the buzzy, futuristic car designs that flooded the market in the late 1990s. The PT Cruiser continued the retro-cool vibe started by the Plymouth Prowler and was hailed by some as the future of the industry. Adding to the appeal was the practicality of the large tailgate and removable seats, combined with the fuel economy of a small four-cylinder engine.

Chrysler emphasized the fun yet practical nature of the PT Cruiser before its launch. The automaker highlighted the car’s exterior dimensions and how they made parking a breeze, while claiming that the interior volume of 119.8 cubic feet offered as much space as some full-size sedans. With an MSRP of $16,000, the small hatchback piqued the interest of many, leading to a mountain of pre-orders, something we can see with overly hyped vehicles today. The Baltimore Sun even proudly declared in a headline, “The PT Cruiser is the hottest car on the market.”

Almost immediately, clubs of PT Cruiser enthusiasts popped up, something Chrysler was very much in favor of. The car’s fans were furious and attacked anyone who dared to wonder what all the fuss was about. After all, it paved the way for a better future and all obstacles to that progress had to be removed.

It wasn’t just Chrysler and its fans who dutifully promoted the PT Cruiser when it was launched. Car and Driver included it in the publication’s 10Best list for 2001, saying the “economical high wagon in a sexy package” won the 10Best jury. It received a number of other awards, including the title of North American Car of the Year 2001.

Many automotive journalists breathlessly explained to readers how the PT Cruiser was actually considered a light truck by the U.S. Department of Transportation because the rear seat could be removed, leaving a flat cargo floor. Adjustable shelves in the cargo area behind the rear seat helped keep different items separated, another feature that was roundly praised.

Modified PT Cruisers were proudly displayed at SEMA, Woodward Dream Cruise and countless other shows. People applied all kinds of modifications, including flames, fake wood panels, booming sound systems and bolt-on go-fast parts. Interest in the PT Cruiser had reached a fever pitch.

Ultimately, more than 1.3 million PT Cruisers were assembled before the last one rolled off the Toluca, Mexico line for the 2010 production year. With that kind of sales success you’d think there would have been a second generation, but the car’s future was doomed when sales plummeted after the first few years of production. Almost overnight, they became the butt of countless jokes, and so did their owners. For example, the bumbling boss Michael Scott in the popular TV show The office started driving a red PT Cruiser convertible in the season four episode Local advertisement, aired on October 25, 2007. It was a symbol of his pursuit of being cool mixed with hilarious ineptitude. It was as if everyone suddenly realized that there was little to nothing behind the hype, that the PT Cruiser was in fact a dog all along.

Some attributed the Chrysler PT Cruiser’s sales decline to the fact that it received few updates during its production run. While that may have been a factor, it’s clear that much of the early excitement was driven by the novelty of the design. Some of the early owners told journalists stories of people staring at the car, asking to sit in it and being bombarded with questions while refueling. Once PT Cruisers became commonplace, the fascination disappeared and the utilitarian nature wasn’t enough to maintain the excitement. After all, the PT Cruiser could only handle 865 lbs. in the trunk and tow only 1,000 lbs. making it not as practical as many initially thought.

Two PT Cruiser enthusiast sites that launched in 2000, and, are now long gone. You can pick up one of these cars of the future, unibody light trucks, or whatever you want to call them, today for a song and a dance, making them anything but a collector’s item.

Sources: Car and Driver, CNN, The Auto Channel, The Baltimore Sun

Images via Stellantis

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