The car’s quirky design is still cultishly worshiped online (Photo: 731/Bloomberg)
Everyone knows the sinking feeling of arriving at a Hertz or an Avis or an Enterprise, only to learn that all the premium cars are taken. Inevitably you’re stuck with a plum-colored PT Cruiser, those odd little Chryslers that for the past decade have populated rental car outlets across the country. “They’re just so awful,” says Stephanie Springer, a former research associate at a large biotech company in Boston. Springer and her colleagues once visited Los Angeles and were issued a whole fleet of PT Cruisers. “We ended up carpooling because the people who had PT Cruisers refused to use them,” she says. They briefly considered the possibility that the office administrator who’d booked their itineraries despised them. “I mean, think of The Office. Michael Scott [the hapless boss played by Steve Carell] was driving a PT Cruiser forever,” she says.
Marketed as a playful, sporty wagon, the PT Cruiser was a top seller for Chrysler when released in 2000. The company went on to sell more than 1.4 million of them during the Cruiser’s 10-year production run. The car owed much of its success to its retro-kitsch design—those distinctive flared fenders, that tapering hood. But eventually the novelty wore off. “At first, customers liked it because it was so interesting-looking, but Chrysler was never able to keep the sales momentum going with the mainstream buyer,” says Maryann Keller, an industry expert who serves on the board of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. So, like many surplus cars, hundreds of thousands of unsold Cruisers got dumped into rental fleets and became the albatross of the business traveler.
“You couldn’t see out of the PT Cruiser. It was dowdy and uncomfortable and had a grating power train,” says Sam Smith, executive editor at Road & Track. It was often painted a dark-lipstick shade of purple, hardly ideal for exuding professionalism. It was also dangerous, faring poorly in frontal crash tests and suffering from sluggish acceleration and a wide turning circle. Late last year the four largest American rental companies—Hertz, Avis, Dollar Thrifty (now part of Hertz), and Enterprise Holdings—agreed to stop renting any cars under recall. The companies made the announcement in the face of federal legislation sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), which was brought on by the death of two California sisters killed after crashing their rental PT Cruiser. It was a model that had been recalled for a power steering fluid issue. (Enterprise admitted wrongdoing in court, and the jury awarded the victims’ parents $15 million.)
Since the last PT Cruiser rolled off assembly lines in its factory in Toluca, Mexico, in 2010, the car has started its inevitable road trip to the scrapheap, and as of 2013 the Cruiser has been cycled out of major fleets. Some drivers will miss it: PT devotees have poured out their hearts on cultish message boards. Legions of automotive enthusiasts still meet in parking lots to trade tips—and ultimately blame Chrysler for neglecting the car. In the words of fan site PTCruizer.com: “Designed to be flexible and versatile, the PT has very good handling … a comfortable cabin, and more style than all German cars combined.”
Even local car rental providers such as Continental Rent-A-Car in Florida and Action Car Rental of New York, which still list PT Cruisers in their online fleets, confirm that the car has been cycled out. But several are available on relayrides.com, a car-sharing site. “Mr. Mojo Rysen” in Lake Placid, N.Y., offers his 2001 model, custom-painted orange with purple flames, for $10 a day. The description reads: “Heads turn when you drive this car down the road.”