The Chrysler PT Cruiser Connects the K Car to Today’s Fiats
The Chrysler PT Cruiser has been a polarizing vehicle ever since its debut. Its retro styling was something you either absolutely loved or didn’t want to come near. But the car’s timing was just about perfect: it arrived at the height of the retro craze at the turn of the 21st century, and it sold over a million examples in the U.S., along with thousands more in overseas markets. While the exterior was a throwback, it was a significantly modern car underneath. But as always, we’re able to find some shared components lurking in the depths of this machine.
Welcome to The Parts Department, where we follow basic car components to their strangest destinations.
A common misconception is that the PT Cruiser is simply a hatchback version of the Dodge Neon that had debuted one year earlier, in 2000. While the two share many components, they were actually built on separate but related platforms—Platform Tall for the Cruiser, Platform Low for the Neon. A variety of front suspension components were shared, including control arms and strut mounts, but the PT Cruiser used a completely unique rear suspension design—in part, to create the flat load floor that allowed Chrysler to categorize this vehicle as a “light truck,” boosting the automaker’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers. This is similar to what Chrysler did in the Eighties, creating a new platform for the first-generation Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans that used K Car front suspension but a new, heavier-spec rear suspension.
Coincidentally, you’ll find a few old K Car parts in every PT Cruiser. It, and the contemporary Neon, uses a front lower ball joint that first appeared in the K Car in the mid-Eighties. That same lower ball joint can be found in some of Chrysler’s sportier offerings from that decade, the Lebaron and the Chrysler TC by Maserati.
Ball joints aren’t the only PT Cruiser parts shared with the Lebaron. The Ultradrive 41TE 4-speed automatic transmission found in many Cruisers first appeared in 1989 in various front-drive Chryslers including the Lebaron, as well as V-6-powered Plymouth Sundance and Dodge Dynasty models. A modified variant of that same transmission, dubbed 40TE, was made cheaper and lighter to pair with smaller-engine vehicles like the Dodge Caravan and Stratus in the mid-2000s. The Ultradrive transmission ended up outlasting the PT Cruiser completely, surviving all the way to 2020 in the Dodge Journey.
Excluding a few unique pieces in early model years, by 2003 the PT Cruiser and Neon used identical front brakes. And while the Cruiser’s rear suspension was unique, the back brakes were picked straight out of the parts bin. The rear rotors came from the 1995 Dodge Neon, with pads interchangeable with everything from that Neon to earlier vehicles like the Eagle Vision. The parking brake shoes go even further back, first appearing on the 1989 Dodge Shadow and Daytona.
The PT Cruiser was offered with a variety of engines depending on the market. The most common powerplant for North America was the 2.4-liter EDZ 4-cylinder, available naturally aspirated or turbocharged. The N/A variant of that engine first appeared in 1995 in the Chrysler “cloud cars”—Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus, Plymouth Breeze—and would later show up in base-model versions of the Jeep Liberty and Wrangler. The turbocharged version of this engine was shared with the Neon SRT-4.
Overseas markets offered diesel-powered PT Cruisers, with Mercedes-Benz’s OM646 2.1-liter turbodiesel inline-four installed in this and many other offerings from the DaimlerChrysler lineup. But the most unusual engine ever found under a Cruiser’s arrow-shaped hood was the 1.6-liter EJD, a gasoline-burning four-cylinder built in Brazil. This engine was built by Tritec Motors, a joint venture between Chrysler and Rover in the late Nineties that created powerplants found in exported Cruisers as well as certain Mini models (Rover was a BMW subsidiary at the time). A supercharged version of the EJD, dubbed T16B4, powered the first-generation Mini Cooper S, and was found in the 2006 Dodge Hornet concept car; other variants of the 1.6-liter powered certain Chinese-market vehicles, like the Chery A11 and Lifan 520. The Tritec joint venture ended in 2007, but the engine made its way back to Chrysler—well, FCA—as the license and plant were purchased by Fiat Powertrain Technologies in 2008. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder was used to launch the E.torQ family of engines that currently power the Fiat 500X and Jeep Renegade, as well as a number of other Fiat models not sold in the U.S.
The PT Cruiser was a fascinating vehicle. Its instant popularity helped define the retro design trend of early 2000s cars. Its tricky use of the “light truck” category was a CAFE victory for Chrysler. The model’s image has evolved in the 20-plus years since it debuted, but even today, the PT Cruiser is fascinatingly connected to the past and present.
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