Chrysler turns to Fiat to fill PT's wheels

Image: PT Cruisers
A long row of unsold 2007 PT Cruisers sit on the lot of a Chrysler-Jeep dealership in the east Denver suburb of Aurora, Colo. Chrysler ended production of the PT Cruiser Friday, July 9, 2010.David Zalubowski / AP file

Now that the PT Cruiser has gone off to the automotive rust heap, Chrysler needs to fill its wheel wells with a hit that will equal the popularity the quirky 5-door once had.

The last PT Cruiser rolled off the assembly line on Friday, ending the run of what was one of the long-troubled automaker’s rare hits in recent years.

Now run by Fiat, Chrysler is hoping to score later this year with the launch of the Americanized version of the Italian maker’s popular Cinquecento, or Fiat 500. It could use a success story. While sales were up 35 percent in July, the third consecutive monthly year-over-year gain, the maker has lost significant ground since its financial problems began to look terminal in late 2008.

Chrysler is betting on small cars. But it's going to have a tough time in the current market matching the adoration the PT received (among some consumers). The car Chrysler described as “too cool to categorize” sold 1.3 million vehicles and at one point couldn't keep up with demand.

The launch of the Cruiser, a decade ago, nearly touched off a riot at the Detroit Auto Show as journalists jostled to grab press kits and, later, customers raced to plunk down deposits. But tight on cash and unable to come up with a suitable replacement for the retro-styled hatchback, Chrysler decided to let the PT Cruiser fade into oblivion.

The PT stood for Personal Transportation, explained former Chrysler Chairman Bob Eaton, as he pulled the wraps off the compact Cruiser during its Detroit debut. The five-door was one of the earliest products to fall into the nebulous crossover category, and the first where designers didn’t try to make it look like a traditional sport-utility vehicle.

If anything, the design was a paean to the bustle-back cars of the 1930s and ‘40s, and it helped touch off a short lived retro fad that included other models like Ford’s short-lived 2002 Thunderbird.

Smaller by a foot than the more conventional Dodge Neon sedan of the time, the Cruiser offered SUV-like high seating and an unusually flexible interior, both the rear and front passenger seats able to fold down to carry surprisingly long loads of cargo.

“The styling gets you into the vehicle, but the utility keeps you there,” one-time PT Cruiser Marketing Manager Jay Kughie said at the vehicle’s launch.

Edgy design
The edgy design of the Cruiser was part of Chrysler’s strategy to “polarize” buyers.

Traditionally, the maker and its domestic rivals had taken a play-it-safe approach to styling, opting for bland shapes that would offend as few potential buyers as possible. But the Cruiser — like Chrysler’s later 300 sedan — pushed the boundary of design, betting it’s better to excite a core audience even if that means alienating the rest of the market.

The PT Cruiser didn’t connect with one of its targets, however: hip young Gen-X buyers. But it proved far more successful with Baby Boomers, so much so that demand quickly outstripped the capacity of the Toluca, Mexico assembly plant designed to assemble the crossover. It took more than a year, and over $100 million in modifications to the line, but the automaker eventually added capacity at a second plant, in Belvidere, Ill.

Even if it was difficult to categorize, the PT Cruiser definitely had the cool factor. A variety of celebrities, including musician Brian Setzer, came up with one-off versions of their own, a number of which Chrysler took to the annual automotive aftermarket convention in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA.

At its launch, Chrysler promised to add a string of Cruiser variants, and hinted some of the more intriguing prototypes might actually make it into production. But the long-promised panel van never made it to market, and an awkwardly patched-together convertible failed to generate much enthusiasm. Instead of updating the original design, the automaker rolled out a series of so-called one-offs, like the Sunset Cruiser. But the only thing they offered were fancy paint jobs and different interior fabrics.

Life in the concept
Ironically, the man behind the original PT Cruiser proved there was, indeed, more life in the concept after he left Chrysler, in 1998, and later joined General Motors as its vice chairman. A pet project of GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the equally retro-styled Chevrolet HHR, is little more than what a next-generation Cruiser might have looked like.

Chrysler insiders, speaking solely on background, offer a variety of explanations for why the maker didn’t do its own substantial update, especially when demand was still strong enough to justify the investment.

Some senior planners apparently felt the original PT Cruiser was a one-time concept that simply couldn’t be replicated. Other sources suggest that while the crossover was developed by an independent Chrysler, the company’s new German bosses, after the takeover that created DaimlerChrysler, simply couldn’t relate to the concept. And once the Germans sold Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management, the automaker no longer had the cash or capital to pull a replacement together.

Cerberus actually planned to pull the plug on the PT two years ago, but a closer look at the sales charts showed it was one of the maker’s few successful offerings. The Cruiser was given a two-year reprieve.

And now that it’s gone? Betting there’ll be growing demand for small cars, Chrysler clearly needs a replacement. The maker has several small models under development, but the first will hit market later this year wearing a Fiat badge. The Italian company — which assumed control of Chrysler after its 2009 bankruptcy — is making its return to the market after a 20-year absence, and will use the 500 microcar as its calling card.

Whether the Fiat 500 will come close to the PT Cruiser's success remains to be seen, but in today’s crowded and competitive market, it won’t be easy.