SAN DIEGO - Al Capone probably would have bought DaimlerChrysler's new PT Cruiser.

"It reminds me of the cars the gangsters drove in those old movies," says a middle-aged woman who came upon one parked in La Jolla, CA, as she walked her dog.

This retro-rod's expected to appeal to a lot of different people. That includes:

n Young people who think it's cool.

n Older folks who think its retro look is the cat's meow.

n Those on a budget who like its relatively low price.

n Families who are looking for a third car. The number of three-car garages in the U.S. has increased from 12% to 16% in four years, notes A.C. (Bud) Liebler, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president of marketing.

Add to that diverse list the La Jolla dog-walker. She may trade in her Volvo 850 for a Cruiser.

"This vehicle will cut across all demographic lines," says Mr. Liebler. "We don't have strict demographic breakdowns because in focus groups it appealed to all age groups, all incomes."

Much of the appeal is that it resembles no other vehicle out there today.

It has a vintage '30s hot-rod look. But it's thoroughly modern. It's fun to drive (although its choice of 4-cyl. engines won't get you anywhere particularly fast). And it is utilitarian.

But some people within the corporation initially had problems with it, according to John C. Miller, DC's vice president of product planning.

"Either you get it or you don't," says Mr. Miller. "We had to do some work internally convincing certain people that the PT Cruiser was a good idea. To them, it wasn't a home run. It was a bunt."

"It's hard to pin down what the PT is because it's a segment buster," chimes John P. Critzer, DC's senior product planner for small car platforms.

What it's definitely not, he insists, is a Neon spin-off, despite the skeptical press' understanding that the Cruiser fits in that now-classic mold - a car "based" on the platform of another, in this case, the oft-maligned Neon.

Quips Mr. Critzer, "Repeat this mantra, 'It's not a Neon, it's not a Neon, it's not a Neon ...'"

More seriously, he adds, "Word was that it was based on the Neon. But it really is unique. It's a new platform. Only fasteners, switches and parts like that are shared with the Neon."

One need only drive the PT a few city blocks before realizing that he's right - it is indeed not a Neon.

The PT's powertrain and suspension are much more refined, providing a solid, clean ride; the PT Cruiser really does "cruise" at higher speeds - without feeling mushy.

The standard 2L I-4 and the larger 2.4L version offer sufficient power, 140 hp and 150 hp, respectively. But if some of those prospective young buyers are looking for a genuine hot rod, well, better grab the latest Auto Trader.

For this modern-day hot-rod, the four-speed automatic transmission is shamefully preferable to the 5-speed manual, whose ratios could be spaced better. The move from first to second, in particular, is not as smooth as it should be.

Despite the Cruiser's rather blunt 0.379 coefficient of drag (same as quasi-SUVs like the Lexus RX300), there's a remarkable lack of wind noise when the PT is traveling at high speeds. That's once you figure out that the power window switches reside in the most unlikely of positions: on the dashboard, above the radio.

Besides the alluring "look," the price is another PT attraction: the base model runs $16,000; top-of-the-line, $19,995.

It went on sale in late March as a 2001 model. Some dealers reportedly are charging thousands of dollars over sticker price for the first crop.

"That's a concern," says Mr. Critzer. "Some of our platform team members are going into the sales zones to emphasize that we want a great launch for a vehicle with great pricing."