ROYAL OAK, MI – A fresh paint job, 17-in. alloy sport wheels, sturdy new seat fabric and a glistening chrome-plated grille set apart the ’09 Chrysler PT Dream Cruiser Series 5, a special-edition variant unveiled today on the eve of the world’s largest one-day car event.

The Woodward Dream Cruise, which attracts more than 1 million spectators and 50,000 classic cars to the suburban Detroit thoroughfare, rolls into town this Saturday, and Chrysler has used the event to launch PT Cruiser derivatives each year since the vehicle launched in 2000.

This year’s Series 5 Dream Cruiser arrives in Midnight White Pearl as the primary body color, with Brilliant Black Crystal Pearl coating the roof and instrument panel. Two-tone paint jobs have been used on PT Cruiser variants in the past, but this is the first time for such a bright shade of white.

This is the 14th factory-customized version of the PT Cruiser. Past iterations have exhibited flames, chrome and exterior wood trim, while others have paid homage to Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset Boulevard.

Since ’03, Chrysler reports it has sold 8,707 special-edition PT Cruisers.

The highlight of this year’s car is the upper and lower grille, each piece manufactured from a solid billet of aluminum that is milled and machined for a premium look, then bent into shape and chrome-plated, much like the DUB version of the Chrysler 300 sedan.

Larry Lyons, Chrysler’s vice president-car and minivan product team, says the grille does not change the car’s aerodynamics and adds 4.25 lbs. (1.9 kg) to the front end in replacing the composite material used for standard PT Cruisers.

Inside, the black embossed Momentum seat fabric glistens in the sun and is stitched in a ribbed configuration that gives the seats a decidedly sporty demeanor. Lyons says the Momentum fabric also appears on the all-new Dodge Challenger.

The 17-in. alloy wheels, with all-season performance tires, also are featured on the Dodge Caliber SRT4 sport compact.

Chrysler is limiting production of the Series 5 Dream Cruiser to 1,750 units for ’09, and pricing starts this fall at $22,700, including a $670 destination charge.

Powertrains consist of a 150-hp 2.4L normally aspirated I-4 coupled to a 4-speed automatic, as well as a 180-hp turbocharged 2.4L.

The special-edition PT Cruiser arrives as the standard version of the car is selling poorly.

Chrysler sold 88,607 PT Cruisers in 2007, down dramatically from 126,148 vehicles in 2006, according to Ward’s data.

This year’s sales show little improvement, as 35,057 deliveries have been recorded through July, down more than 32% from like-2007.

Two years ago, the PT Cruiser dominated Ward’s Small Cross/Utility Vehicle segment.

But today, the PT Cruiser badly trails the Chevrolet HHR, which, ironically, was criticized as a PT Cruiser copycat when it arrived in 2006.

The HHR handily outsold the PT in 2007, notching 105,175 deliveries, and is on pace to trump the Chrysler model once again this year.

Chrysler already has dumped the convertible version of the PT Cruiser, and speculation suggests the auto maker is considering dropping the car in a bid to streamline its showroom.

Lyons declines comment on speculation about the PT Cruiser’s future but remains upbeat when asked about next summer’s Dream Cruise edition of the small CUV.

“Let’s just say we’re not done with custom editions,” he says.

Chrysler has sold more than 1.3 million PT Cruisers since 2000.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com