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Death of PT Cruiser seen as a symbol of industry's problems


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Death of PT Cruiser seen as a symbol of industry's problems

By Sharon Silke Carty, USA TODAY

DETROIT — For many, news that Chrysler is about to stop making the PT Cruiser will come as a surprise: "Wait, they still make that car?"

Yes, they still make that car. The last PT Cruiser will roll off the production line Friday in Toluca, Mexico.

But the truck-like sedan that once was Chrysler's best-selling car has, in recent years, been dying a death of a thousand cuts.

The PT Cruiser symbolizes much that's been wrong with the U.S. auto industry in the past few decades (even though Chrysler was owned by Germany's Daimler for most of the PT Cruiser's life).

It's a car that, initially, people loved. But the company then tried to squeeze as much profit as it could out of the car, refusing to properly redesign it and eventually fitting it with cheaper radios and interior materials to save a few pennies.

"It makes a great symbol of the failing of the American car industry," says Karl Brauer, editor-at-large at Edmunds.com. "Their pattern of behavior was introducing vehicles that managed to resonate with the market initially, and then doing almost nothing to maintain the brand."

From its rollout as a 2000 model, people loved it. Fan clubs popped up around the country. Customizers loved painting the tall body in flames and other graphics. It spawned its own accessories market. It won the North American Car of the Year award at the Detroit auto show in January 2001.

"It really was a great car when it came out, and if they had put money in, instead of taking it out, they'd still be selling a hundred thousand a year," says David Zatz, who owns a fan website called ptcruizer.com.

Sales topped 1.5 million in its decade on the market, and Chrysler sold 99,585 a year as recently as 2007. However, sales were down to 50,910 for 2009, according to Autodata, and this year, through June, just 8,591 have been sold.

Over the years, Chrysler did barely enough to keep it alive, and recent cost-cutting measures involved installing cheap-feeling seats and relegating the vehicle to the fleet market. The company put a hard plastic bar across the passenger side dashboard, something Cruiser fans started calling the "towel rack."

"They cheapened the PT to death," Zatz says. "A car that people used to be shocked at the price of — because they couldn't see how such a nice car could be so cheap — ended up being seen by the same public as cheap rental-fleet fodder."

When it was launched, it confounded the market. Regulators didn't know whether to label it a truck or a car. Buyers weren't sure what the PT stood for, although Chrysler has said it's short for "Personal Transportation."

One thing people knew, though, was that it was pretty cool.

"The company wasn't prepared for the car's success," Brauer says. "They never really ratcheted up to capitalize on it."

It was so cool, it inspired General Motors to make its own version: GM wooed away Bryan Nesbitt, who designed the PT Cruiser for Chrysler, and a few years later, the Chevy HHR (for Heritage High Roof) that mirrored the PT Cruiser's body style.

In earlier years, Chrysler freshened the model with a convertible version, a woody version and a turbo engine. They created some special editions, such as with their own colors, and changed the grille. But mostly, it stayed the same.

Its offbeat style attracted a variety of buyers, Brauer says. Once consumers got inside and started using it, many buyers fell in love again with its utility. The seats came out, making the tall interior space usable for large cargo such as furniture or boxes.

"The utility of it was really neat," says Rich Hutchinson, of Ewing, N.J. He and his wife, Lynn, own two PT Cruisers and use them to haul inventory from their crafts business to weekend fairs.

They bought the cars in 2005, and Hutchinson says he hopes to hang onto them for another two to three years. Then he'll have to see what's available. His most likely option?

"A Chevy HHR," he says. "But that's probably going away, too."


Death of PT Cruiser seen as a symbol of industry's problems

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