- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Move over, New Beetle. There’s a new, lowest-priced convertible on the market.

Arriving in showrooms in time for spring, Chrysler’s 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $19,995.

This undercuts the Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible, which starts at $21,475, and will help ensure that Chrysler, which is introducing two new convertibles this calendar year, “will be No. 1 in total convertible sales in 2004,” according to Jeff Bell, vice president of Chrysler/Jeep marketing.

The second convertible is the Chrysler Crossfire.

The new PT convertible also should help put a spark in sales of the PT Cruiser hatchback, which debuted in spring 2000 as a much-sought-after, retro-styled vehicle but whose sales have declined.

Consumers have been asking about a PT convertible ever since the automaker displayed a “design study” model at the 2001 New York auto show.

The new, four-passenger production version retains the retro styling of the current PT hatchback, but with two fewer doors. The convertible has two long doors, rather than the four doors of the hatchback.

There also is a 7.4-cubic-foot trunk now, not a lift gate at the rear. The trunk lid only opens to a low, mostly horizontal position.But the PT convertible’s fold-down-and-tumble rear seats can expand cargo space to a commendable 13.3 cubic feet, enough for two golf bags.

The vehicle has been extensively revised to serve as a solid-riding, shake-resistant soft top.

Officials said the work entailed changes from the windshield pillar on back and involved such things as new “smart” glass windows, strengthened rear-seat structure, retuned suspension components and even a novel “sport bar” that extends, winglike, above the rear seat area.

This bar also serves to direct air over and beyond the rear seat for less wind buffeting for passengers.

The PT convertible “is not a coupe with a top chopped off,” said Larry Lyons, vice president of small vehicle product team engineering.

But the PT convertible does share the same engines and transmissions as well as basic suspension setup — MacPherson struts in front and twist axle beam with Watt’s linkage in back — of the PT hatchback. It has the same platform and overall size, too.

In fact, during the test drive, the PT convertible — with almost-bustled-at-the-back fabric top — didn’t draw attention, except from people driving PT hatchbacks.

The tester was the midrange Touring Edition with optional 2.4-liter, turbocharged, double-overhead-cam four-cylinder.

It produces 180 horsepower, up from the 150 of the base, non-turbo engine, and 210 foot-pounds between 2,800 rpm and 4,500 rpm, up from the 165 at 4,000 rpm.

There are two available manual transmissions, but the test car had the four-speed automatic transmission.

The engine worked well to power the convertible, which weighs at least 150 pounds more than a PT hatchback.

There also is a second, more powerful turbo — a 220-horsepower, high-output turbocharged, 2.4-liter four with 245 foot-pounds of torque between 2,400 rpm and 4,500 rpm. This is available in the convertible GT model.

Fuel economy in the test PT convertible was rated at 20 miles a gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. Regular unleaded is recommended.

Beyond the retro look and the two turbos, though, the most impressive part of the PT convertible is the solid ride.

I looked for the characteristic convertible shudder as I traversed road bumps, and found precious little evidence of it. This is especially true when the top is up.

This front-drive tester rode on standard 16-inch wheels.

There was some wind and road noise, but nothing that prevented me from conversing with passengers, even with the top down. The three-layer fabric top, available in black or taupe, is easy to put down. First, grab hold of the circular handle at the front of the roof and turn it to release the two latches at the windshield.

Then, push a button so the “smart glass” windows drop a bit — or all the way, if you prefer — and watch as the fabric top, with glass rear window, folds down and stows at the back.

Finally, haul the top’s boot, or cover, out of the trunk and install it. There are two snaps to hold it in place.

Seats in this convertible are upright and supportive and a welcome surprise because they don’t sit close to the floor.

Rather, they’re up a bit, with the second-row seats up even higher than the front ones for a theatre seating effect.

As a result, riders don’t drop down into the vehicle and they have a sense that, while it’s still difficult to see around vans and trucks in front, they’re not riding way low to the pavement.

Note that window buttons are in the center stack of the dashboard, not on the doors.

I liked the fact that the retro styling is retained inside the PT convertible as parts of the dashboard sport plastic pieces that coordinate with the exterior paint.

It’s not as difficult as it looks to get to the back seat, especially if you use the front-passenger door to get in.

The front seat slides forward a good way.

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