DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s upcomingPT Cruiser is designed to have more personalities than Sybil.
PartBeetle, part CRV, with a dash of Dodge Caravan thrown in, the PT Cruiser is expected to create a new niche in the market that appeals to a broad cross-section of customers, from nostalgia lovers to sport/utility intenders and small car shoppers, both young and old. Its love-it-or-leave-it styling, which DC Product Strategy and Design chief Thomas C. Gale reluctantly admits is "retro," is meant to look familiar and futuristic at the same time, executives say.
"In clinics, the PT scored the highest in company history in 'nostalgic' and 'futuristic' categories at the same time," says Dale Bostwick, DC director of corporate market research.
DC, which unveiled the PT at the Detroit auto show in January, more recently gave the media an overview of the truck's - yes, it will be classified as a truck for fuel economy purposes - styling philosophy. The automaker will dole out more details on the '01 PT in stages between now and its first-quarter 2000 sales launch.
The front-drive PT Cruiser is based on the revamped Neon, but just how much it shares with the subcompact sedan, DC executives are reluctant to say for now. It will get a slightly bigger engine - a 2.4L 4-cyl. rather than a 2L - and sources say the PT will boast a 4-speed automatic, not the 3-speed of the Neon.
Output will get under way later this year at the Toluca, Mexico, plant, but DC is being chary about disclosing volume plans, indicating only that it will be "into six figures." Production for export markets will come about six months after launch, including right-hand-drive versions.
And with plans to sell the car in more than 40 markets, DC isn't denying rumors that additional assembly sites could open elsewhere if demand warrants.
Clearly not borrowed from the Neon is styling. One of the biggest design hurdles, DC executives say, was getting the interior of the small truck to meet expectations promised by the "street-wise kid" look of the exterior. That meant abandoning plans to share such Neon components as the steering wheel and manual gear shift selector - for the latter, DC settled on a white, cue ball-like knob mounted on an aluminum shaft.
Key to the 5-passenger PT is its packaging versatility. The middle 65/35 split seat folds flat, forward or can be removed. And the front passenger seat folds flat to allow the PT to carry an 8-ft. (2.4-m) ladder.
The rear compartment features an adjustable package shelf that locks into three positions, including one that serves as a table for tailgate picnics. In all, its 18.3 cu.- ft. (0.52 cu.-m) of cargo space isn't far astray of a standard Dodge Caravan.
Although about 60% to 70% of PT volume is expected to be sold in the U.S., the small truck, similar in size toSA's hot-selling Megane Scenic microvan, also is seen having solid potential in South America and Europe.
DC says the PT will start below $20,000, and insiders suggest it will top out around $22,000 to $23,000.
Some changes likely will be made between now and the market launch in first- quarter 2000, possibly including the addition of side-impact air bags. All-wheel drive is a likely option for later production.
DC executives admit the PT's nostalgic styling carries some risk, but they say the Cruiser program has been geared to make money from the start.
"We wanted to do something that would break through the clutter," explains Mr. Gale of the PT's controversial design. "But we won't do anything that puts the company at risk. The business prospects (for the PT) are really pretty good." O