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The 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser features its first significant facelift in six years. Inside and out, the new look is best described as more modern, but not so much so as to spoil the PT's toy-hot-rod fun.
Chrysler PT Cruiser combines the retro look of late-'30s American iron with modern performance, efficiency and features. It doesn't fit within existing automotive marketing segments.
The PT Cruiser is based on the Dodge Neon, a compact car noted for sprightly performance. It comes in two body styles, a versatile five-door model and a two-door convertible.
The five-door model's tall body boasts lots of room for people and cargo. In fact, its interior volume and versatility compare well to a small SUV. Fold the seats down and you can carry an eight-foot ladder. Pull the rear seats out and you can haul a load of building materials or a big-screen TV. Yet the PT Cruiser is shorter in length than a Neon, making it easy to park. It's easy on gas. The lower-level models are competitively priced, and we think they make the most sense.
Pricier turbocharged models add fire under the hood. For 2006, the fire has been turned up to 230 horsepower in the GT model. A more affordable 180-horsepower turbo is also available.
The convertible is one of the least expensive on the market. It looks like a chopped-top gangster-mobile with the top up and puts the wind in your hair with the top down. Roomy seats make it great for four passengers, but its trunk is tiny and awkward.
The PT Cruiser is fun to drive, but it's not a sports car. In essence, it's a tall, practical economy car that goes relatively quickly. The standard engine is rated 150 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, enough 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. We'd describe it as peppy. 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 unit with a longer-throw gate and foot-long shifter. Working the gears to get the most from the base engine is enjoyable.
The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the base Cruiser cruising, because the engine's power is biased toward higher rpm, which is not where automatics work best. The engine's peak torque is reached at a relatively high 4000 rpm. (Torque is that force that propels the car from intersections and up steep hills.) On the other hand, kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough power for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads. In short, we like the manual better than the automatic.
The 180-horsepower turbocharged engine that's optional on Limited sedans and Touring convertibles produces a healthy 210 pound-feet of torque, starting at 2800 rpm and holding steady to 4000. That improves performance with the automatic considerably.
The quickest Cruiser is the GT, which develops 245 pound-feet of torque at 2400-4500 rpm. That makes the 230-horsepower High Output turbo feel like a bigger engine, even though it isn't. 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, which is decent but not rocket-like acceleration. 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 a little more like the muscle car its body says it is.
The standard gearbox in the GT is a five-speed manual built by Getrag in Germany. We also drove a GT with Chrysler's AutoStick transmission, an automatic that has a semi-manual shift feature. It works well, with a tall shifter 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 off decisively.
Even the base PT Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan, maintaining its composure in the corners. With its big 17-inch wheels and tires, the GT hustles like a sports sedan, though it lacks the precision of one. Body lean is well controlled. The rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the twist-beam rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement and the chassis does not feel rigid. 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. It feels tentative when turning in for high-speed corners and does not inspire confidence. It's more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan in sudden lane-change maneuvers, but it really is more of a cruiser than a sports machine. A Neon is a much better choice for lapping road circuits or blasting down country roads.
In spite of its height, we did not find the Cruiser to be particularly susceptible to cross winds at high speeds. There is little wind noise, almost no tire
The Chrysler PT Cruiser appeals to people of all ages and lifestyles with its whimsical, retro design. Its affordability increases its appeal. And its practicality often closes the deal with a roomy, versatile interior that makes the price easy to justify. It isn't particularly refined, however. The GT models deliver strong acceleration performance and bring hot-rod credibility to the Cruiser's hot rod image. The convertible offers genuine open-air fun and is great for carrying four people, but isn't practical for hauling cargo. The lower-priced models offer the best value and we think they make the most sense.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino and Phil Berg reporting from Detroit.