Famously Unsafe: Chrysler PT Cruiser

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Although it's retro styling was appealing to many, the Chrysler PT Cruiser was overweight and had a bad record when it came to official crash tests.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser will no doubt go down in history as one of the all-time great dorkmobiles. This is a shame, because its appallingly bad safety record is probably more deserving of fame. The big volume seller of the early retro niche, the PT Cruiser was actually a big hit with buyers, thanks in part to a couple of preceding decades of some of the dullest mainstream cars produced by the Big Three. But that doesn't mean it won't kill you. The PT Cruiser was actually originally developed to be an exclusively Plymouth model.

The automaker was capitalizing on the retro momentum (such as it was) of the Prowler model and making Plymouth the Chrysler standard bearer for retro. This makes sense, but by the time the car debuted in 2000 as a 2001 model, the collapse of Plymouth was imminent, and a Chrysler-badged version became the publicized model. The car had made its first appearance in 1997 in the form of a concept called the Pronto. This was followed the next year by a concept called the Pronto Cruiser, a more refined version of the same idea. The idea was to blend elements of the Prowler with as much of the 1934-37 Airflow as possible.

To look at the PT Cruiser and the Airflow side-by-side, the influence is actually fairly obvious. By virtually any measure you can think of, the PT Cruiser is a car. But Chrysler actually designed it to just barely fit within the NHTSA specifications of a light truck, a ploy used to improve the CAFE rating of their pickup lineup. This was effective, but nobody was seriously fooled. The PT Cruiser was powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine which produced 150 horsepower, and a later GT version was offered with a turbocharged engine that made 215 horsepower. It was built on a modified version of the platform which underpinned the Neon.

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However, it drove better than this would suggest. Not that this made it fun or in any way cool. But despite offering up completely forgettable acceleration, the PT Cruiser got surprisingly poor fuel economy for a vehicle of its size and weight. The bad news started coming in 2002, when EuroNCAP crash testing rated the PT Cruiser poorly. Not Chery Amulet poor, but not the kind of rating that inspires confidence either. But the worst rating of all came from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, who didn't get around to testing the PT Cruiser until 2008 for the 2009 model year, and were shocked at what they discovered.

The PT Cruiser got incredibly low marks in both side and rear impact tests. It actually received the worst rating of all of the 21 small cars tested that year, and a warning was actually issued telling of the car's unsafe nature. Of course, the car had already been sold for years at that point, and hundreds of thousands of units were already on the streets. But the PT Cruiser wouldn't last much longer after this point. A number of special editions were offered over the years, quite a bit more than is normal for a family wagon. Many of these played off of the PT Cruiser's retro styling, and probably would have looked pretty good if the retro had been better executed.

But the worst version of the PT Cruiser of all was the convertible. This is presumably the car from which Nissan was trying to take the title of ugliest vehicle of all time when it brought out the CrossCabriolet. But since the PT Cruiser came first, it can at least keep the title of groundbreakingly hideous. In spite of all this, Chrysler still sold 1.35 million units of the PT Cruiser over a 10 year period. It was an unqualified success, and we'll be seeing them on our roads for some time to come, even if they are trying to kill you.

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