- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Conceived with exterior styling intended to provoke a reaction, Chrysler’s PT Cruiser wagon is anything but a wallflower in a world of mostly cookie-cutter compacts. Its retro looks are cheered by some as quaint or cool, and derided by others as derivative or goofy.

Regardless of where you fall in this debate, what lies beyond the sheetmetal is a small vehicle of exceptional utility. A number of interior improvements along with goosing the output of the GT’s turbocharged four have only increased its functionality, comfort and fun-to-drive quotient.

Although 2006 isn’t a year of major change for the PT Cruiser, it enjoys a new grille, front and rear fascias, and a new liftgate spoiler. Inside the upgrades are more noticeable and numerous. Key among the enhancements are the replacement of the front-seat armrests with a center console featuring a sliding armrest, as well as a new gauge configuration, rotating air vents and a front-passenger-side grab handle. MP3 play capability has been added to all audio systems.

If your basic attraction to PT Cruiser is its utility and you can be satisfied with just enough power to pull it around, the base edition should be sufficient. For $15,125, a 150-horsepower four and all the required basics, such as air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and an audio system with CD player, are included. At $17,120, the Touring trim level adds some amenities like keyless remote entry, rear-seat headrests and fog lamps. Moving up to the $19,535 Limited adds upgraded seats with six-way driver’s side power adjustment, cruise control, power moonroof and front-seat side-impact airbags.

For an additional $2,105, the Limited’s engine can be upgraded to a low-pressure turbo delivering 180 horsepower. The flagship of the lineup is the $24,085 GT. Featuring a high-output turbo, the GT also provides leather seating, 17-in. aluminum wheels, traction control and a sport-tuned suspension.

The test PT Cruiser was a GT. Its 2.4-liter turbocharged engine generates 230 horsepower funneled to the front wheels through either a five-speed Getrag manual transmission or a four-speed driver-shiftable automatic. Opting for the automatic doesn’t add to the GT’s bottom line.

Spirited with either transmission, the GT is a smile maker. It is quick, nimble and utterly responsive. While its tidy dimensions make it ideal for urban commuting, its comfort, crisp handling and deep reservoir of power make it equally well suited for cross-country treks.

Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy ratings range from 22 mpg city to 29 mpg highway for the normally aspirated four to 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway for the GT.

At first blush, the PT Cruiser doesn’t appear particularly agile - an impression aggravated by its retro styling. A stint behind the wheel through a few twisties, however, will quickly convince you otherwise.

While it doesn’t deliver the driving dynamics of, say, the Crossfire, the GT with its beefed up independent suspension delivers solid handling. One drawback is a surprising wide turning radius. This requires a bit of planning in crowded parking lots. Providing controlled stops, the four-wheel antilock disc brakes include traction control; however, stability control isn’t offered even as an option.

The “PT” in PT Cruiser is short for “personal transportation.” And it is in this regard that this smallish wagon really stands out. Chrysler made much of the Cruiser’s versatility when it was first launched and rightly so.

With more than two dozen seating configurations, the interior can accommodate all manner of cargo - human or otherwise. The 65/35 split rear seat has the capacity for folding down its back and the entire seat or individual sections tumbled forward.

Perhaps the small car product folks could borrow an engineer or two from minivans to show them how to fold the rear seat flat with the cargo floor. That would make things uber convenient. As it is, the two rear-seat sections can be removed to maximize cargo space, but they are a bit cumbersome.

With the rear seat in place, there is 21.6 cubic feet devoted to cargo, but that swells to 62.7 cubic feet with the rear seat removed. This is about 10 cubic feet less than the significantly larger and heavier 2007 Honda CR-V.

Generally the cabin is roomy and comfortable. Plastic is the key ingredient around the interior, but its use is mitigated with texture and color. The new gauge cluster is handsome and the addition of the Chrysler-signature analog clock is a touch of luxury.

In reconfiguring the instrument panel, the audio controls have been repositioned above the three-knob HVAC controls. Additional insulation around the cabin has lowered noise levels for a somewhat quieter environment. Although most of the interior tweaks for 2006 have been subtle, when taken collectively, they are quite an improvement over last year’s edition.

A wagon, a hatchback or whatever, the PT Cruiser is different things to different people. Although making a statement of sorts with its exterior styling, it has become so common on our roads that it practically blends in.

What remains fresh, though, is its capacity to adapt to various loads of people and cargo. That just never gets old.

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