2003 Chrysler PT Turbo
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by Paul Williams

There’s no doubt the Chrysler PT Cruiser is different. If you want something other than a cookie cutter car, a PT Cruiser will set you apart for sure. But until now, the dash of the PT Cruiser’s unique profile has been somewhat mitigated by its modest performance numbers.

That changes with the 2003 PT Cruiser Turbo. Horsepower is up from 150 to 215, delivered through a four-speed automatic transmission or a Getrag 5-speed manual transmission. Torque is a hefty 245 lb.-ft at 3600 r.p.m., which enables this vehicle to pull away with some authority.

Located behind the attractive 17″ five-spoke silver painted wheels are four-wheel performance disc brakes with anti-lock, and a performance suspension system. Tires are low-profile 205-50 series.

Additional enhancements are body-coloured front and rear facia panels with enlarged openings at the front, a large diameter, tuned exhaust tip, body colour side mouldings, special seats, silver-faced instruments, various instrument panel accents and “GT” embroidered front floor mats.

The “GT” designation is somewhat confusing to me. It’s also on the rear door (on the left hand side) along with a 2.4L Turbo badge (on the right). The gauges also wear the 2.4L Turbo badge, but the floor mats, you remember, say “GT”.

2003 Chrysler PT Turbo
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This leads some people to refer to this vehicle as the GT Cruiser. I’ve even seen it described as the PT Cruiser Turbo “GT Cruiser” (shades of the MGB-GT V8). The sales brochures and the website call it a PT Cruiser Turbo. Take your pick — it’s the same vehicle.

The engine, by the way, isn’t simply the stock motor with a turbo bolted on. Chrysler has redesigned the cylinder head and crank and added a racing-style oil delivery system. The turbo is calibrated to give quick boost while reducing emissions. The whine associated with some turbos under boost is barely evident.

The exterior of this car doesn’t really need to be described. Is there anyone who can’t identify a PT Cruiser? Suffice it to say that the big wheels, body-coloured moldings and minor trim accents of the PT Cruiser Turbo successfully enhance an already striking design.

The rich metallic paint coupled with the reflective silver wheels create a jewel-like appearance that flashes impressively in the sunlight. The multiple curves and surfaces of the 1940s-inspired design amplify this effect and draw attention to the vehicle’s clever execution.

You’re unlikely to be on the fence with this car – you like it or you don’t. And it is a car, even though some think of it as a small truck or a compact SUV. At the recent Car of the Year test in Shannonville, journalists found the PT Cruiser firmly planted in the Family Car category, alongside more traditional sedans from Honda, Saturn and the like.

The novel exterior design continues inside the PT Cruiser Turbo. Open the door and it’s immediately apparent that this is not your standard spread of gauges, switches and controls. Even the door panels and map pockets are eye-catching. It’s not bizarre or idiosyncratic; it’s just suitably different.

The gauges are recessed well into the instrument cluster and have a retro look to them. They’re easy to read, however, because the red needles on white background contrast so effectively.

The nifty gearshift matches the gauges in simplicity and functionality. It’s a simple spherical affair that fits nicely in your hand.

The centre stack contains most of the car’s controls, including those for power windows, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and sound system. Multi-function switches on the steering column control the lights and wipers.

2003 Chrysler PT Turbo

2003 Chrysler PT Turbo
Click image to enlarge

Seating is firm and supportive on the newly designed, leather-faced sport seats, and the four-spoke, leather wrapped steering wheel is a delight.

The transmission in my review car was the Autostick, which permits full automatic or up-and-down shifting. The five-speed is a late delivery, expected in December. Both versions arrive with traction control.

I think the character of this vehicle is better suited to the five-speed, but if shifting isn’t your cup of tea, the automatic is smooth and will permit you to enjoy the PT Cruiser Turbo’s other attributes, including its very strong acceleration when asked. With the automatic, of course, you ask it by simply stomping on the gas.

The PT Cruiser Turbo answers with unexpected gusto.

So much so that if you’re not familiar with the behaviour of high-powered, front-drive vehicles under hard acceleration, you might be caught off guard. For instance, stop at a T-junction, and turn right with a bit too much gas? The torque steer can be severe, literally pulling the steering wheel from your hands.

Putting 215 h.p. into the front wheels of any car requires a firm grip. The PT Cruiser Turbo is no exception.

Once you’re up to speed, and able to concentrate more on the experience behind the wheel, you find it’s a satisfying ride. It’s good to be in something different for a change. Storage capacity is generous and the interior is versatile. It’s a clever and practical vehicle.

As Chrysler continues to refine the PT Cruiser, it redefines the family car segment. Variations on the theme appear only limited by the imagination of its designers. As long as the public is buying, the PT Cruiser appears ready to morph into whatever you want it to be.

At a glance: Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo

Price: $27,700 (five-speed) plus $810 freight, PDI, $100 air conditioning tax. Add $1230 for automatic transmission

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