The once-hot hatchback is now a complete dog…
These days, the Chrysler PT Cruiser is largely mocked. 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 over MSRP and preorders piling up.
Check out our pick for the most disappointing car reveal for last year here.
Shoppers seemed to be absolutely captivated by Bryan Nesbitt’s retro-inspired design, which was originally previewed as the Pronto Cruizer concept in 1998 at the Geneva Auto Show. Even though the concept was far sexier than the production model, the PT Cruiser was a welcome departure from the bubbly, wanna-be-futuristic car designs which inundated the market in the late 90s. Continuing a retro-cool vibe kicked off by the Plymouth Prowler, the PT Cruiser was hailed by some as the future of the industry. Adding to its appeal was the utilitarian nature of the large rear hatch and removable seats, combined with the fuel economy provided by a small four-cylinder engine.
Chrysler emphasized the fun yet practical nature of the PT Cruiser before it launched. The automaker highlighted the trim exterior dimensions and how they made parking a breeze, while claiming the interior volume of 119.8 cubic feet provided as much space as some full-size sedans. With MSRP set at $16,000 the little hatchback piqued the interest of many, leading to a mountain of preorders, something we can see with overly hyped vehicles today. In fact, The Baltimore Sun proudly declared in a headline the “PT Cruiser is hottest car on market.”
Almost instantaneously, PT Cruiser enthusiast clubs popped up, something Chrysler very much supported. The car’s fans were rabid, attacking anyone who dared to question what all the fuss was about. After all, it was paving the way for a better tomorrow and all obstacles to that progress had to be eliminated.
It wasn’t just Chrysler and its fans dutifully promoting the PT Cruiser when it launched. Car and Driver included it in the publication’s 10Best list for 2001, saying the “fuel-efficient tall wagon in a sexy wrapper” had won the 10Best jury over. It picked up quite a few other accolades, including being named North American Car of the Year for 2001.
Many automotive journalists breathlessly explained to readers how the PT Cruiser was actually considered a light truck by the US Department of Transportation since the backseat could be removed, leaving a flat load floor. Adjustable shelves in the cargo area behind the rear seats helped keep different items separated, another feature roundly praised.
Modified PT Cruisers were proudly shown off at SEMA, Woodward Dream Cruise, and countless other shows. People were applying all kinds of mods to theirs, including flames, faux wood panels, thumping sound systems, and bolt-on go-fast parts. Interest in the PT Cruiser had reached a feverish pitch.
Ultimately, over 1.3 million PT Cruisers were assembled before the final one rolled off the Toluca, Mexico line for the 2010 production year. With that kind of sales success, you would think there would have been a second generation, but the future of the car was doomed as sales plummeted after the first few production years. Almost overnight they became the butt of countless jokes and so did their owners. For example, bumbling boss Michael Scott on the hit TV show The Office started driving a red PT Cruiser convertible in the season four episode Local Ad, which aired on October 25, 2007. It was a symbol of his striving to be cool mixed with hilarious ineptitude. It was as if everyone suddenly realized there was little to nothing behind the hype, that the PT Cruiser was in fact a dog all along.
Some attributed the sales decline of the Chrysler PT Cruiser to the fact it received few updates during its production run. While that might have been a factor, it’s apparent much of the early excitement was generated by the novelty of the design. Some of the earliest owners recounted to journalists stories of people gawking at the car, asking if they could sit in it, and being peppered with questions while fueling up. Once PT Cruisers became common, the fascination wore off and the utilitarian nature wasn’t enough to sustain the excitement. After all, the PT Cruiser only could handle 865 lbs. in the cargo area and tow a mere 1,000 lbs. making it not as practical as many initially believed.
Two PT Cruiser enthusiast sites launched back in 2000, ptenthusiasts.org and ptcruiserclub.org, are now long gone. You can pick up one of these cars of the future, light unibody trucks, or whatever you want to call them for a song and a dance today, making them anything but a collectable.
Images via Stellantis