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PT Cruiser gets a topless look

July 04, 2004|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

There's never a dull moment when it comes to the retro-rod PT Cruiser.

That's because Chrysler is never asleep at the wheel, or just plain never sleeps. In reality, it's the only way to keep any vehicle fresh and interesting, and Chrysler is determined to park the PT on the cutting edge.

With the brand new PT Convertible, the company has managed to remove the roof and two doors, but keep all the charm and most of the utility of a "normal" PT cruiser wagon.

Based on these attributes as well as excellent build quality and head-turning good looks, the PT has earned a large and loyal following. Starting at about $20,000, the PT convertible will further broaden the audience.

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Although the new ragtop rolls off the same Toluca, Mexico, assembly line as the 640,000 PT Cruiser four-doors that came before it, just about everything from the windshield back is unique to this model. The extensive reworking of the platform involved a thorough re-engineering of what lies beneath the skin, including extra structural reinforcement to replace what is lost by removing the metal roof.

As well, trunk space is usually compromised because you have to store the convertible top someplace when the sun comes out. However, the PT retains some of that room and a considerable degree of its Swiss Army Knife personality. There's actually ample room in the back seat for two people and their legs. The cargo area is positively cavernous by comparison to competitors such as the Ford Mustang. But wait, there's more . . . room, that is. Pull the trunk-mounted handles to drop the rear seat and the resulting pass-through space is sufficient for two full-size golf bags. The seats are still part of the PT's attraction with nine different configurations.

So, where does the top go if so much space stays behind? Above the rear deck rather than under it. A raised deck, clever engineering and a new "floating bow" design permit the top to fold into a much shallower space than would otherwise be possible.

But there is no free ride. The cargo area and visibility out the back of the convertible take a serious hit when compared to that of a four-door PT. Many would consider that a fair trade-off, however, for what the convertible does offer: more style and more fun.

To put the top down, simply twist a central D-shaped latch on the windshield header and depress a switch. The whole process - up or down - takes about 10 seconds. There is very little wind or road noise thanks to the thick three-layer top and special window seals.

With the top down, the PT's single biggest visual feature is the "sports bar." You can't call it a roll bar because there's nothing structural about it. It has been designed to reduce wind buffeting and noise in the rear-seat area. With the top down, you can actually have a conversation in both the front and back seats at cruising speed without yelling.

Three trim levels and three engines provide a top-down driving experience for just about any budget. The base model comes with the 150-horsepower 2.4 liter four-cylinder and a five-speed manual gearbox for $19,995, including destination charges. Even at that low price you get quite of lot of gear including numerous power accessories. At about $23,500, the Touring model adds 16-inch painted cast aluminum wheels, speed control, security alarm, fog lights, floor mats and a CD player. A 180-horsepower turbo motor is available. Topping the range is the $28,200 (including destination) GT with a High Output 220-horse turbo 2.4, five-speed manual gearbox, performance-tuned suspension, chrome accents, 17-inch wheels, leather interior trim, power driver's seat height adjustment and side-impact air bags.

Driving the PT Cruiser convertible is not unlike driving a wagon version, except for the extra attention and smiles it generates. The structure feels tight and solid, while wind and road noise are decidedly absent, whether the top is up or down. Turbochargers are the only replacement for more engine displacement and whether in 180- or 220-horsepower trim, the PT convertible is a decent all-around performer.

Since price, versatility and good looks are all on its side, the PT is poised to remain the darling of the nostalgia set . . . the tanned nostalgia set, that is.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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