Dual next-generation front airbags are standard on all models, offering protection with less-forceful deployment than previous units. Side airbags integrated in the front seats are standard on leather-trimmed cars, optional with cloth interiors. Available remote keyless entry, Sentry Key engine immobilizer, and security system add protection for the vehicle itself.

The rear doors open extremely wide to accommodate big passengers and permit easy side loading. Tethers are offered to securely anchor baby seats for triplets well ahead of federal mandates. When unoccupied, the 65/35 split rear bench folds flat, flips forward, or can be removed to maximize cargo flexibility. Fold the front passenger seat flat and the 119.8-cubic-foot interior will swallow an eight-foot ladder with the hatch closed. While showing off, the five-position rear shelf panel has a flip-out leg to allow it to overhang the bumper for serving tailgate hors d'oeuvres. More conventional positions for the panel include mid-level, upside down to expose the protective underside, and vertical to section off packages from the open interior. This flexible interior will have a lot of SUV shoppers wondering where the utility is in those not-so-sporty trucks.

Despite earlier reports to the contrary, engineers insist that the PT Cruiser is an all-new vehicle riding on its own platform, sharing only fasteners, audio head unit, and a few corporate parts with the Neon. The front suspension employs MacPherson struts, while the rear uses a twist beam with trailing arms and a Watts link to keep lateral movement in check. In addition to the standard configuration, an optional touring suspension is available with a package that includes 205/55TR16 tires and aluminum wheels, as shown on our test vehicle. Europe-bound Cruisers will be tuned firmer for the different roads and driving tastes, giving Chrysler a ready-to-roll sport setup for North America should the need arise. Base cars come with front discs and rear drums, but the ABS option puts rotors on all four corners and adds low-speed traction control, a worthwhile upgrade.

On our brief drive, the suspension delivered a fine balance of road feel and isolation. What really struck us was how little body roll the PT Cruiser exhibited when pushed through turns. Even during aggressive cornering, this tall wagon held the road commendably and remained relatively flat. The one area of weakness that surfaced, not unexpectedly, was the lack of power. The balance-shaft-fitted 2.4-liter/150-horsepower DOHC four-cylinder from the Stratus' parts bin revved along with nominal sonic feedback, but it couldn't be described as lively. Oh, what a difference a V-6 would make!

Chrysler was quick to remind us on the preview drive that the car is meant to be an urban cruiser, not a hot rod--despite its obvious looks. While disappointed that the vehicle isn't going to be anything close to a performer, our real-world concern is its demeanor on steep grades when fully laden--a condition we didn't experience. Tow capacity is expected to be capped at 1000 pounds, enough to pull along a personal watercraft or a Harley.