I'm not joking around. This is serious. Stop toying with me. All I want is a solid, wholesome vehicle that I can drive, evaluate and describe. So, what do I get instead but two vehiclesin one weekthat I can only characterize as toy cars. Or, to be more precise, the Chevrolet Super Sport Roadster, a.k.a. SSR, is a toy truck. The Chrysler PT Cruiser GT convertible is a toy...well, whatever. Whether you're driving them or looking at them, it's impossible to take them seriously. They make some people smile, others giggle and the rest laugh out loud. Suffice it to say that my week with this playful pair was a surreal, albeit entertaining one. Folks with a lot more free time than I have will have their work cut out for them deciding which of these playthings provides the most yucks for the buck.
2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser GT convertible
Alright, so I misspeak. The all-new PT Cruiser is not a toy. When you lower the powered top with its quick-release single handle and one-touch pushbutton, you reveal an Easter basket on wheels. That's because, in order to preserve sufficient rigidity, a bizarre hoop structure is left in place to overarch the cockpit. It looks for all the world like the handle of a basket; and depending on what headgear you and three friends are wearing, your little crew fits comfortably within like four colored eggs.
There's no call for lambasting Chrysler about its cartoony-retro PT Cruiser. It's been with us for several years, and by now most folks who get a kick out of cars have already made their minds up about its looks. As I've admitted here before, it reminds me of the vehicle Popeye might drive to impress Olive Oil.
If anything, he'd have an even better chance with this PT Topless. There's no doubt it catches the eye. So do the different sticker prices that begin in the low $20,000 range. Base and Touring models deliver 150 hp and 180 hp, respectively; but I drove a high-pressure turbo GT model making 220 hp and 245 ft.-lbs. of torque. It feels zippy rather than fast; and Chrysler has taught its turbo to behave without a lot of skittish power-surging. Around town, my chief complaint is the powertrain's pronounced tendency to torque-steer during abrupt acceleration. It's a bit startling the first couple of times the accelerator rips the steering wheel out of your hands like that.
Here's the secret about the PT Cruiser convertible: Kids love it. My 13-year-old begged to be seen at every venue getting into and out of this basketful of fun. She wore a smile for a week, and if you've ever had the pleasure of gutting out the first year of sulky teendom with a 13-year-old, you know that getting one to smile ever is a remarkable feat. Thanks for the memories, Chrysler.
Don't let those radiant flashes of teeth distract you, however, from the fact that the PT Cruiser convertible is actually a clever, fun-for-the-family marketing ploy. What it lacks in total seating capacity it compensates with versatile options for combining people and cargo. The boxy 7.4 cu. ft. trunk, in other words, nearly doubles to 13 cubes once you flatten the split-fold rear seatback. Think of it as a micro minivan that doffs its cap to fine weather, giving your kids a reason to laugh with you rather than at you for a change.
2004 Chevrolet SSR
If a 220-hp topless PT is good, then a 300-hp topless SSR must be better, right? Certainly I thought so. Not only is Chevy's hard-top pick-'em-up truck an engineering marvel in some respects, it's also devilishly eye-catching, grunty sounding and fast on its feet.
My 13-year-old was mortified by it. She actually curled into a fetal position in the passenger seat and hid below the windowsill so none of her classmates could see her when I picked her up at school. I honked and waved to every last one of them, of course.
After all, what does she care about the miraculous, mechanical "top stack" hard roof that origami-folds in half then stows behind the cockpit like bread in a toaster? What does she care about those rumbly 300 horses that power this 5,000-lb. beast from zero-to-60 in 7.5 seconds? She was more annoyed about stowing her backpack and sports bag in the back, which requires opening both a hard tonneau cover and a tailgate. She did get a laugh, at least, when I slammed the tonneau back in place, producing an abrupt gust of air that blew a cap off my head.
Upon sober reflection, there's a lot about the SSR that will blow away even a dedicated auto enthusiast. It outweighs a Cadillac DeVille by 800 lbs., for starters; but it only seats two, with no interior cargo space whatsoever. Its short-bed cargo box affords only 23 cu. ft. of stowage space for just 1,290 lbs. of payload, and it'll tow only 2,500 lbs. The SSR may be adapted from a Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV platform, but at $43,895, as-tested, it costs $60 more than a base-model Corvette.
With 300 richly warbling horsepower, the SSR will scoot in short, exhilarating bursts. Predictably, handling is a tad wobbly, with some cowl shake over rough surfaces. It's fun to drive even so; but that is emphatically not the point. The point is that the SSR transforms whoever is driving one into a Parking Lot Celebrity. It's the trick truck everybody wants to see, touch and talk about. Then, instead of signing autographs, you pacify the paparazzi with the push of a button as you raise and lower the convertible top to a chorus of reverential sighs.
Marc K. Stengel