CAREFREE, Ariz. -- Since its inception, the PT Cruiser from Chrysler has been a bold idea of contrasting shapes and conflicting images.
Stylists devised the original two-door version as a design exercise, then showed it off at the Geneva Auto Show in 1998 as the Pronto Cruizer.
The form-follows-function concept for this Cruizer revolved around a vertical package for maximum interior space and multiple purposes, with the body styled as a contemporary tribute to classic car forms of earlier eras.
Aspects of the Pronto Cruizer resembled either a woody wagon lifted from '60s beach-blanket movies, a 1937 panel van fitted with side windows and modern bumpers, or perhaps a souped-up Fifties street 'rod but with a liftgate at the rear so it worked covertly as a modern minivan.
First production version of Pronto Cruizer popped out of Chrysler assembly plants in Mexico and Austria in 2001 as a multi-purpose vehicle under the title of PT Cruiser -- as in Personal Transportation Cruiser.
Slick lines with retro-styled fenders and the top-heavy tail of the original Cruizer conveyed images of both old and new cars, as if a blender, filled with assorted automotive ideas as diverse as that beach buggy, panel truck, hot rod and minivan, whipped up a too-cool new concoction.
Variations followed with special trim kits and powertrain upgrades -- the PT Flame Cruiser with factory-issued fiery flame decals lapping across body panels, PT Dream Cruiser with the body tinted to Inca Gold, PT Woody sporting wood-grained graphics on flanks and doors, the Chrome Cruiser with bright flashes inside and out, and the growling PT Turbo packing a souped-up powertrain.
Now there's another variation that drops the top and in that process beats all predecessor Cruisers in concept, design and purpose.
Look out for the 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible.
We saw it first several years ago under spotlights at the New York International Auto Show as a far-out concept with the lid of a conventional PT Cruiser pried off and a shapely roll bar installed that arched over the 2+2 cockpit like the curvy handle of a basket.
Design cues from the convertible concept -- including the basket handle now called a 'Sport Bar' -- have been faithfully incorporated into the production version to forge a striking vehicle that's surprisingly nimble and fun to drive in either top-up or top-down mode.
This open-sky issue gets a power convertible soft top with the rear glass window wired to an electric defroster.
Seat-time testing of the PT Cruiser Convertible -- in winter on the Arizona desert where it's usually warm and sunny -- takes place on a chilly day in drizzling rain.
Such conditions favor top-up driving, and PT's soft lid shows it's a water-tight seal that locks out wet weather.
Yet the top drops effortlessly via power controls and one driver discovers that even in light rain, with windows raised and the Sport Bar working as an aerodynamic buffer to whip wind away from the cockpit, it's still dry inside if you keep moving and quiet enough to permit conversations among fellow passengers in a normal tone of voice.
PT Cruiser Convertible employs the same stiff platform that underpins the wagon versions with a long stretch between front and rear wheels to foster a stable stance.
The structure, while still resembling the wagon in basic form but with the roof removed, is actually completely different for all parts trailing behind the windshield.
Typically for a convertible, removing the roof weakens the body and allows it to twist and flex when in motion, which then generates the inevitable cowl shake and sloppy handling traits.
That's not what happens when the roof comes off this Cruiser, however, as the roll bar and various concealed structural braces work together to make a surprisingly tight and rigid body.
It feels substantial in motion, with the tightness of the package translating through the extended wheelbase and a broad track into competent road manners, as exhibited in a twisty set of curves on Barlett Lake Road weaving through the McDowell Mountains east of Carefree.
Suspension elements include independent MacPherson struts in front and a twist beam axle in back with trailing arms and Watt's linkage added to control lateral sway when cornering and decrease dive and squat tendencies when accelerating or braking.
PT Cruiser Convertible comes together at Chrysler's assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico, where the PT wagons are built.
From the outset there are three versions available as cast in a range of price points and power ratings.
The entry edition, priced at $19,995, arrives as the least-costly four-seat convertible in North America.
It stocks an efficient twin-cam 2.4-liter in-line-four engine and sporty five-speed manual transmission.
The plant produces 150 hp at 5100 rpm plus a torque rating of 165 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
Standard on this issue dubbed the 'Standard' are items like 15-inch wheels and tires, air conditioning, white-faced analog instruments including a tachometer, performance-oriented seats covered in cloth fabric, power windows and door locks, an AM-FM radio with cassette deck and dual-stage frontal air bags.
A second trim -- titled 'Touring' -- rolls on 16-inch cast aluminum wheels and has the MSRP pegged at $22,900.
The Touring edition brings numerous performance options, such as a four-speed automatic transaxle or a turbo-charger applied to the 2.4-liter engine.
With the turbo boost, the plant's output rises to 180 hp at 5100 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Top grade for PT Cruiser Convertible is the GT trim, which lists for $27,565 and carries a high-output turbo.
GT's engine, borrowed from the PT Turbo, romps with 220 hp at 5100 rpm and torque running to 245 lb-ft between 2400 and 4500 rpm.
Also aboard the PT GT is either a five-speed heavy-duty manual shifter by Getrag of Germany or an optional four-speed automatic with Chrysler's AutoStick, which brings shift-it-yourself choices like a manual.
It has seats clad in soft leather and more goods for safety, like side air bags and four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and traction controls.
Standard: $ 19,995
Touring: $ 22,900
GT: $ 27,565