First Drive: 2003 Chrysler PT Turbo
The affordable, family-friendly hot rod
Chrysler wooed the staff three model years ago with the PT Cruiser's retro-inspired styling and affordable, compact package, earning it the coveted Car of the Year title. From the get-go, the PT boasted more than looks; it touted a versatile interior that could accommodate diverse stuff-toting needs and it portended of the crossover invasion to follow. But the PT Cruiser needed something more: power.
Chrysler has rolled out numerous special editions with ghost flames and faux wood paneling recalling fond memories of classic wagons to draw consumers once the novelty bubble burst, but enthusiasts longed for a more powerful model capable of the performance the SEMA-ized PT Cruisers promised at car shows. At last, the everyman's family-friendly hot rod has arrived.
At a glance, the smile-inducing PT Turbo stands out from its naturally aspirated stablemates due to a monochrome treatment that reaffirms the junior street rod persona. The clean exterior is accented with 17-inch aluminum wheels, a larger, lower grille, and bigger exhaust outlet.
The special treatment continues to the interior, with leather sport seats and trim, silver-faced gauges, bright accents, and "Shadow Dot" carbon-fiber-look trim panels that replace the solid color pieces found on Cruiser models. The interior transformation pushes the Cruiser from old school to nouveau-retro chic, while retaining all the versatility (fold-flat seats) and quirky charm (central window controls). The affordable changes are convincing and appropriate, but we wish the Shadow Dot pieces better resembled the weave in carbon fiber and would prefer seats that felt less like minivan buckets.
There's no debating the feature content: the PT Turbo is loaded. Full power amenities, air conditioning, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, keyless entry, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, digital compass, rear wiper/defrost, cruise control, and sport-tuned suspension are all standard at $22,415. Numerous options are available, such as moonroof, side airbags, upgraded seating surface, uplevel audio system, and premium paints. The PT Turbo is a rock-solid value even before factoring in the force-fed engine and guilty pleasures.
The base PT Cruiser has been criticized for not offering the performance to match its cruise night appearance. On paper, the 2.4-liter/150-horsepower DOHC inline four sounds like a strong offering in the compact class, but in a tall vehicle weighing over 3100 pounds it is merely adequate. If the body looked like a more traditional wee wagon, not a complaint would be uttered. But it doesn't... Enter the 215-horsepower, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder, bringing a feisty personality to go along with a full catalog of available Mopar dress-up accessories. Not only does the PT Turbo boast a 65-horse gain over the PT, but torque twists 83 more lb-ft, for a 245 total. Enthusiasts, your pocket retro rocket has arrived.
The engine can be paired with a Getrag five-speed manual or a four-speed AutoStick automatic transmission that invites manual up/down shifting. Our test model had the stick shift and a willingness to race through the gears, with a more satisfying, positive shift action than expected from the tall lever.
Power surges as the engine revolutions climb in turbo fashion. Acceleration is swift off the line, and relatively exciting from a rolling start. The engine screams once past 4000 rpm, limiting max thrills to brief seconds at the upper end of the tachometer. Around town, there is a faint turbo whine that is ready to become a muted song with deep throttle application. Dynamically, the PT has a heavy, unperturbed demeanor that conveys confidence. The car understeers predictably at its heightened limits and serves as the most capable PT Cruiser model. Being behind the wheel is like driving an automotive secret. Today, these cars blend into the motoring landscape, but the PT offers a much more engaging driving experience than the original model and certainly more than your neighbor would guess.
So, what could make this Chrysler more appealing? Like the New Beetle, the PT Cruiser appears to be on the downward slope of its trend-fueled popularity curve, ensuring attractive deals on this compact street rod. A delightful, fun, affordable machine, the PT Turbo delights from bumper to bumper.