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2003 CHRYSLER PT CRUISER Review - Base Price $16,275

Turbocharger turns this Cruiser into a hot rod.


2003 chrysler pt cruiser Review

Last year the flames were on the outside of the PT Cruiser. For 2003, there's more fire under the hood. The Chrysler PT Cruiser gets its first power upgrade since it was introduced early in 2000.

Instead of just bolting on a turbocharger, however, Chrysler engineers thoroughly redesigned the 2.4-liter four cylinder, boosting the output to 215 horsepower, a 65-hp gain. The 2003 PT Turbo gets significant handling upgrades to go with its more powerful engine. The end result is the hot rod many wanted when the Cruiser was first introduced.

Though it has become a familiar sight, the Cruiser still attracts attention. We don't recommend you buy a PT Cruiser if you like anonymity. People from all walks and stations want a better look, intrigued by the Cruiser's difficult-to-define character. It is, as Chrysler says, too cool to categorize.

The two strongest virtues of the Cruiser are its practicality and its affordable price. These two virtues make the PT Cruiser suitable for everyday use. It offers the interior volume of a sport-utility vehicle, yet it's shorter than many compact cars. Now with the optional turbocharged engine, it's as much fun to drive as a sport sedan.


The PT Cruiser pulls exterior styling themes into the cabin with painted inserts on its T-shaped symmetrical dashboard. The driver faces three white-faced gauges set in individual cylinders, with speedometer center, tachometer right and fuel and water temperature left. The Turbo's silver-faced speedometer reads up to 140 mph, while the standard Cruiser goes only to 110. Switches are concentrated in the center panel, with radial-type climate control dials and a single pair of buttons for the front windows. The door levers have a nice action and the switches operate with good tactile feel, not world class, but a noticeable improvement over Chrysler's sloppy mid-1990s standard.

The same improvement applies to the interior finish. The leather package, in particular, has a rich appearance, given the Cruiser's price, with suede inserts in the doors and along the lower cushion edges.

The front seats have a reasonable amount of bolster to keep driver and passenger from sliding side to side in the three lower-line models, but the Turbo gets more padding in its side bolsters. This is to keep you firmly held in the seat during quick corners.

A unique bonus of the tall Cruiser is its upright seating position, with a fairly high, commanding view ahead, much like a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. And with 120.2 cubic feet of interior volume, there's no premium on space in the PT Cruiser. The government's standard for defining a large car, like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lincoln Town Car, is 120 cubic feet.

All that space is largely a function of the Cruiser's height. Its roof rises toward the rear, and its rear seat bottoms are higher than those in front are. The industry calls this "theater seating." The front seats are mounted on tall boxes, leaving plenty of room for rear passengers to stretch their legs underneath. We tested a six-foot, nine-inch passenger who fit comfortably front or rear, and, no, he wasn't an NBA star.

Chrysler claims the PT Cruiser's cabin can be configured 26 different ways. We didn't count, but there are clearly a lot of options. This flexibility stems from three features: a 65/35 split rear bench that can be folded flat, tumbled forward or removed, a movable parcel shelf, and an available front passenger seat that folds flat. The rear seats are anchored with quick-release attachments, and fitted with suitcase-style handles for lifting and steel wheels for rolling. The smaller section weighs 35 pounds, while the larger section weighs a hefty 65 pounds.

The load floor measures 40 inches between the wheel wells. With the front passenger seatback folded flat onto the bottom cushion, there's a table next to the driver and in front of the rear passengers. Even better, there can be more than 8 feet of flat surface between the dashboard and the tailgate. So the Cruiser can accommodate a tall stepladder or a load of two-by-fours within its cabin.

The PT Cruiser has a thorough complement of safety features. Front passenger side-impact airbags are standard on the Limited Edition and optional on the other models. Seatbelts should always be worn, however, and the PT Cruiser comes with three-point safety harnesses at all positions, including the rear seat's center position. The front belts have pyrotechnically charged tensioners, just like luxury cars, to keep the belts tight during an impact. The rear bench is equipped with child-seat tethers.


Chrysler's PT Cruiser blends the retro look of a late-1930's American sedan with new-age styling cues such as dual-beam flush headlights and bullet-shaped taillight lenses. But that's not all that makes up the PT Cruiser. The shape is intriguing, but underneath is a modern platform with front-wheel drive.

By exterior dimensions, the PT Cruiser is quite compact. It's nearly 6 inches shorter than a Neon subcompact. Yet with 63 inches from pavement to the highest point of its roof, the Cruiser is also 7 inches taller than a Neon, and nearly as tall as some minivans. That height is a crucial element of the PT Cruiser's design.

The PT Turbo is distinguished from the other models by its chrome exhaust tips and larger grille and air intakes.


PT Cruiser was introduced with styling as its main draw, and when onlookers found out there was no hot-rod V8 motivating the wagon, many were shocked. At heart, the PT Cruiser is an economy car, not a hot-rod. In reality, though, the PT Cruiser's power-to-weight ratio is better than the Volkswagen Golf's. Weighing 3123 pounds with the manual transmission, the base PT Cruiser has a power to weight ratio better than a four-cylinder Honda Accord or the typical minivan. It accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in a lively 8.5 seconds and can cover the quarter-mile dragstrip in about 16.7 seconds. So the PT Cruiser is relatively quick for an economy car.

The Turbo model is another story: It feels like it's got a bigger engine under the hood. It still displaces 2.4 liters using four cylinders, yet the crankcase and crankshaft were redesigned to be more robust. High-tech oil jets spray the undersides of the pistons to keep them cool because turbocharged engines make a lot of heat as well as power.

The Turbo's engine reaches its peak of 215 horsepower 500 rpm sooner than the 150-hp base engine, at 5000 rpm. Horsepower is only part of the story, because torque is increased dramatically from 162 pounds-feet at 4000 rpm to a wheel-twisting 245 lbs.-ft. at just 3600 rpm. In fact, 220 lbs.-ft. is available at just 2300 rpm. A rumbly exhaust makes the car sound more like what most people expected when the hot-rod body was first introduced. You know it's a turbo because it has a telltale whine when it spools up, though chambers in the intake manifold act as sound dampeners, says Chrysler.

Big four-cylinder engines have a natural tendency to idle roughly, so Chrysler uses a counter-rotating balance shaft to smooth things out in all of the PT Cruiser engines. The 2.4-liter happens to be the base engine in Chrysler's minivans; for the Cruiser, improvements were geared toward reducing noise and vibration rather than increasing power.

The base PT Cruiser can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds (when equipped with the manual transmission), which is more than respectable for a car in this price range, while we estimate the Turbo can get to 60 mph in about 7 seconds. Driving the Turbo around town, you'll likely forget to downshift, since the engine pulls strongly at 2500 rpm in any gear. Once you decide to go quicker, the Turbo acts like the muscle car its body says it is.

The PT Cruiser offers both a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission. We tried the manual, which is surprisingly precise; it's not sports-car grade, but not bad for a longer-throw gate with a lever that's a foot long. Working the gears to get the most from the base engine is pleasing. The automatic isn't as effective as the five-speed at getting the base Cruiser cruising, because the power is biased toward higher rpm, which is not where automatics work best. On the other hand, there are four gears in the automatic, and kickdown shifts come fairly quickly. With properly timed dips of the accelerator, there's enough torque for safe, clean overtaking on two-lane roads.

The Cruiser handles more like a sedan than a minivan. With the big 17-inch wheels and tires of the Turbo, it will hustle like a sport sedan. Base models maintain composure in the corners, too. Body lean is well controlled. Its rear suspension design maximizes cargo space, but the solid rear axle bounces a bit on rough pavement. Overall, however, it's a comfortable ride.

In quick, hard, slalom-type maneuvers the PT Cruiser starts to feel top heavy, even with the Turbo's big wheels. You can almost feel the high mass of the car try to continue in one direction as the front wheels turn in the other. In sudden, emergency-type lane changes, the PT Cruiser is more composed than the typical sport-utility or minivan. At speeds beyond legal Interstate limits, the Cruiser is stable, and not particularly susceptible to cross winds.

A lack of noise may be the most impressive, or surprising, of all the PT Cruiser's qualities. There is little wind noise, almost no tire or road noise, and just an audible whine from the drivetrain.

Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard. A better plan is to order the optional anti-lock brake system, which comes with four-wheel discs and low-speed electronic traction control.


As Chrysler says, the PT Cruiser is too cool to categorize. Its gangster design appeals to people of all ages and lifestyles. Its affordability greatly increases the appeal of its unique design. Its practicality closes the deal for many buyers. Its roomy interior, and affordability should keep owners smiling for years.

The Turbo has added needed hot-rod credibility, yet the novelty of the base car's styling has still not worn off. And if that's not enough, you can always order it with flames.

Find more reviews at New Car Test Drive. The wolrd's leading provider of Automotive Reviews.

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