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Chrysler/Plymouth Prowler

 

The Car Place: By Robert Bowden

2001 Chrysler Prowler

Prowler

GOOD STUFF

    The ultimate lookatme production car
    Can be fun to drive
    Good fit and finish done by hand
    Aerospace aluminum frame and composite body parts
    Decent set of amenities, including sound system
    Run-flat tires
    Prowler orange is best color yet
    Autostick automatic transmission
    Everyone loves it -- from the outside

 

One James Dean One James Dean One James Dean
Cars are rated one (forget it) to four ('bout as good as it gets) James Deans  

BAD STUFF


    Brutal, bone-shaking, eyeball-gelling, rough ride
    Interior is mish-mash of retro and modern
    Difficult entry and exit
    Severely compromised visibility
    No anti-lock brakes and long stopping distance
    No spare tires(s)
    Tiny footwell with no left foot rest
    Manual top drop with difficult front latches
    Hair-ripping wind buffeting above 50 miles an hour
    Ultimate "lost in space" vehicle
    Wheels look out of place
    No V-8 option
    No manual transmission option
    So low the nose strikes everything and scuffs up
Specifications
  • Style: roadster
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
  • Transmission: four-speed automatic
  • Drive train: rear-wheel-drive
  • Horsepower: 253 hp @ 6,400 rpm
  • Torque: 255 ft-lbs. @ 3,950 rpm
  • EPA mileage: 17 city/23 highway
  • Weight: 2,838 lb.
  • Base price: $45,000
  • Price as tested: $45,000

     First, the bottom line

    "No matter what his mood or feeling, his trouble or his joy, it made everything right and good to be guiding his car ... In some ways these daily sessions on the road were his hours of meditation, of true self expression, the balm for his soul and the boast of his spirit."
    - Henry Gregor Felsen, author of "Hot Rod" and "Street Rod"

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In the '50s, Henry Gregor Felsen spoke to young teens with a succession of novels about hot rods and street rods. What middle-age man today cannot relate to those words above describing the freedom and status a unique car -- a hot rod or street rod -- bestowed upon its owner?

Fast forward 50 years and the appeal of the hot-rod inspired Prowler remains much the same.

Today, for its owner, it is "the balm of his soul and the boast of his spirit."

Nothing else in production anywhere in the world looks like this. The Prowler is, like street rods and hot rods of a half-century ago, unique. And low production numbers assure its continued rarity.

But in Felsen's novels, it is the drivers who are flawed, young teens who lack respect for a highway's dangers, invincible youths flaunting physics in their hot rods right up to the point ... where they die in their cars. Almost always, in Felsen books, they die in their cars.

"Those young drivers have learned to drive. They can operate a car all right, and make it go as fast as anyone else, but they haven't learned the one most important factor in driving -- the proper attitude."

With the Prowler, the average buyer is a mature male (95 percent of Prowler buyers are male) who earns more than $150,000 a year. This buyer respects cars, understands danger, firmly grasps the finality of death. Today, it will be the car that lets down the driver.

The Prowler -- fun as it is -- is seriously flawed.

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For anything more than warm, fair weather cruising around town, it is unsuitable. In the extreme.

Thrown together with no interior design integrity, the Prowler ultimately lets down on its promise of being an up-to-date retro rod. Out-of-place bins parts in the interior ruin the retro look. And up-to-date it isn't. Shamefully, it is absent even anti-lock brakes. It offers the mature hot rodder no stick-shift and no V-8. He cannot even chirp the rear tires! It's no rod of old. It's just ... show time!

But, standing near one, it is quite a show. This thing is drop-dead gorgeous. It screams look at me! And it's a chick magnet for that mature male behind the wheel.

Prepare to talk about the Prowler every time you stop -- even at a stoplight. After a few days, however, this becomes wearisome. Enthusiasm first must always be for the car, not the conversation the car sparks.

The Prowler sees to it that your enthusiasm for it will dampen.

From difficult entry, to pounding ride, to difficult exit and everywhere in between, the Prowler will make a would-be buyer question whether this is really a $45,000 purchase that should be made.

In the end, if you're honest about this, if you live life with your head and not your heart, you realize it's a toy. It's impractical beyond words. It's a car, as one writer put it, where passengers ride with you once, and only once.

Still, flaws and all, I want one. I loved the Prowler on those warm nights in the city, cruising the neon-colored streets, the music of another era weaving its feel-good message from a first-rate stereo system, wind tousling my hair, exchanging smiles with fellow motorists at stoplights, being looked at ... as an object of envy.

I tell you, it's a great feeling. A balm for the soul and a boost for the spirit.

Sadly, I know what the onlookers don't. Do I spoil the party? Do I tell 'em?

I'll tell you.

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 Safety

"The crushed pile of twisted metal that had once been My-Son-Ralph's Chevy was on its back in the ditch, its wheels up like paws of a dead dog. Two of the wheels were smashed, and two were turning slowly. Something that looked like a limp, ripped-open bag of laundry hung halfway out of a rear window. That was Marge.

"The motor of Ralph's car had been driven back through the frame of the car, and its weight had made a fatal spear of the steering column. Somewhere in the mashed tangle of metal, wood and torn upholstery was Ralph. And deeper yet in the pile of mangled steel, wedged in between jagged sheet steel on one side, and red hot metal on the other, was what had been the shapely black head and dainty face of LaVerne.
"Walt's car had spun around after being hit, and had rolled over and along the highway. It had left a trail of shattered glass, metal, and dark, motionless shapes that had been broken open like paper bags before they rolled to a stop. These had been Walt's laughing passengers. Pinned inside his wrecked car, beyond knowing that battery acid ran in his eyes, lay Walt Thomas. Somehow the lower half of his body had been twisted completely around, and hung by a shred of skin."

After a careful analysis of this Felsen-described accident, it has been determined that anti-lock brakes could have been the difference between multiple fatalities and just-missed-it.

The Prowler, a 2001 model, doesn't have anti-lock brakes.

I learned that fact quite by surprise. An auto writer today assumes all pricey vehicles have ABS. It should be required, even on strippers.

First off, let me tell you that the Prowler frightens as speed increases. The shaking that is constant at low speeds and idle becomes pronounced at anything above about 50 miles an hour. Both hands must tightly, and I mean white-knuckle tightly, grip the fat steering wheel unless you're on a marble road. So, venturing to 60 miles an hour and feeling the Prowler dance all over the empty back road, I jammed down hard on the brake pedal.  Oooops.

Instantly, all four wheels locked up and blue clouds of rubber-burning smoke from the front tires obscured my view and filled the Prowler, which had begun to turn sideways and drift into the oncoming lane.

I gently released the brake pedal and corrected the direction of travel.

I slowed and checked to be sure all bodily functions were still under my control.

No anti-lock brakes! On a performance roadster? In the year 2001? Are you kidding?

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Not kidding. This is almost criminal (and I am not alone in criticizing Chrysler for omitting ABS -- it's almost a universal criticism of this car). Get anti-locks on this thing mid-year, Chrysler. Right now. Even careful modulation of the brake pedal produced longish stops, much, much longer than a Corvette or Boxster or Audi TT. The Prowler will be dead last where safety is an important consideration.

The little headrests behind the two seats contain roll bars, but they don't seem high enough. I'm average height and the top of my head was right at the top of the roll bar. In a rollover, I'm almost certain my head would be striking pavement or ground or any object. Fatally so, probably.

There are dual air bags up front, but no side bags. The passenger bag can be disabled. (Note: The test Prowler did not contain an owner's manual -- few testers do -- and it took me many days to find the location of the switch to disable this bag. It's in the passenger front door jam. Just one more ergonomic flaw with this interior. More later.)

The only safety features on a Prowler, in fact, are those that are required. Three-point belt restraints that come from an LH sedan and the dual air bags.

A state-of-the-art roadster should go far beyond requirements. No crash tests have been conducted on the rare Prowler, so we'll have to wait-and-see how the all aluminum frame and body fares. Just know this: Repairs will be through-the-roof expensive.

The front bumpers look like an afterthought. Hot rods and street rods, you remember, had Nerf bars, little chromed ovals, if they had bumpers at all. The front wheels were usually exposed. Clearly, that would have served the retro look better than these black plastic-covered protrusions. But federal safety standards demanded these awkward looking front bumpers. So there they are, out of place like the wheels.

"In the hushed confusion of the mass burial it seemed to Bud that Marge's coffin got lost in the shuffle. The strange thought came to him that the others were being buried on purpose, and that Marge, who would do anything to be taken along with the crowd, was just following along to be one of them."

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  Handling
The Prowler is a test bed for DaimlerChrysler. The all-aluminum frame and body result in a strong but lightweight chassis. Up front is what amounts to a race car suspension; much the same in the rear.

And this setup provides all the creature comfort of a Formula One racer.

It is brutally rough on those inside.

On smooth roads, the Prowler simply shakes. That's fine. Powerful cars often shake, even at idle. That's cool. But let the road become irregular and the Prowler falls to pieces. This shaking signals tires not in constant contact with road surface -- and handling is adversely affected.

Ever skip a stone across the glassy surface of a lake? Traveled straight and true until it lost momentum. Ever try it on a choppy lake surface? Didn't work, did it? The Prowler handles like that rock. It is at the mercy of the surface condition. Pray that the road you're traveling has no ripples.

Now, if you consult skid-pad and slalom results, you will be pleasantly surprised. The Prowler, in fact, out-handled a Corvette in these tests and on a race track, according to Edmunds testers. You can thank a suspension even harsher than that in a Vette for these facts.

Our roads aren't carefully groomed race tracks, however.

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And the smooth skid-pad isn't representative of a highway curve with a bump somewhere in your lane.

Believe me, you can lose a Prowler in an instant.

Crossing railroad tracks, it has all the rigidity of Reynolds Wrap. Hit a pothole and the Prowler whacks your bottom like Willie Stargel used to attack a low-and-inside fast ball. An outta-here spinal smash. Passengers, particularly, will be less than thrilled. The blonde so eager to ride with you on the lunch hour now wants to return to the office -- right now.

And the brakes, as noted, do not have ABS to assist them.

Prowlers also lack traction control or any kind of stability control.

Thus, a driver gets no help in handling a Prowler -- not while accelerating or turning or braking. Listen, that we can live with. What we can't live with is a car that fights a driver. This one does. It's not Man and Machine here, it's Man versus Machine.

I hope that is no one's idea of fun.

The very best thing Chrysler could do for the Prowler is soften the suspension system. A lot. Come on, Chrysler, this is a cruiser, not a racer. In the real world, our roads are a potholed mess, our interstates a succession of oozing tar strips separating sagging concrete segments. Help us drive on them. Not for comfort reasons alone. Your Prowler now is an orange squirrel, not at all like the sure-footed cat on your logo.

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  Performance

The Prowler made its debut as a Chrysler concept car in a 1993 auto show. Response to it was overwhelmingly positive. Mercy, who doesn't like the way it looks? Everywhere I went, everyone loved the styling.

Buoyed by the response, Chrysler set out to put a similar model into production. In 1997, the first Prowlers hit showrooms. But they were few and far between, and first year production of less than 300 saw only 120 sold in the U.S. By any standard, the first-year Prowler was not a success. It was underpowered and buckboard-rough.

So Chrysler took a year off to return to the drawing boards. There was no 1998 Prowler.

In 1999, the Plymouth Prowler returned and 1,594 were sold.

Now, the target is about 3,000 Prowlers a year. And, with Plymouth officially deceased, the Prowler badging is now Chrysler (but the window price sticker said Plymouth).

In its brief evolution, the Prowler has not only changed brands, but has improved somewhat. There's more horsepower now, and the suspension is a tad friendlier to homo sapiens than in 1997. Chrysler added a passenger air bag cutoff switch. And there are more amenities -- some which fit the retro scheme and some that shout "I came from an LHS parts bin."

Having only to push a frame and body of aluminum and various composites, the 3.5-liter V-6 engine with 253 horsepower does a more than adequate job of launching the 2,838-pound Prowler. Zero to 60 is about 6 seconds flat, Chrysler says. But with 20-inch rear wheels sporting P295/40R Goodyear Eagle tires, the Prowler proved impossible to send up in smoke.

Not even a Tweety Bird cheep came from those monster tires under full-bore launches.

Hey, at least be thankful it's rear-wheel-drive.

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The automatic transmission is located in the rear, behind the rear axle, with its own cooler unit. It features an "autoshift" function. Move the lever to the rearmost position and shifts can be done manually -- upshift by nudging the lever right, downshift by nudging left.

Kept in auto mode, the transmission downshifts a bit too abruptly. And it may drop two gears when a driver would prefer only one.

Use the autostick, however, and fuel efficiency goes into a dive.

The exhaust comes off the engine in dual fashion, then travels through a single muffler system and splits again to exit under the rear bumper as attractive twins. It's been tuned for a specific sound and burbles when you back off the accelerator.

A word of warning on the computer test results of performance below. They may be generous. No program yet knows how to factor in big rear tires and smaller front tires, the aerodynamics of this needle-nose car, etc. But these results will be close. Real-world 0-to-60 test times have all been around 6 seconds flat and quarter-miles are under 15.

A Prowler has all the performance any street vehicle needs.

The figures that follow are from computer testing the 2001 Chrysler Prowler.

Prowler Performance Data
Acceleration (mph) 0-30 0-40 0-50 0-60 0-70 0-80 0-90 0-100
Elapsed time (sec) 2.1 3.0 3.9 5.8 7.4 9.1 11.3 14.6
Top speed potential  146 mph 
Quarter mile  14.2 @ 98.9 mph

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  Comfort
Upfront: Comfort as it is usually defined with automobiles may not be an important consideration for many buyers of sports car, particularly a car as unique as the Prowler. But comfort incorporates considerations of convenience, utility and ergonomics -- and these are important no matter the style of a vehicle.

Failures in this area can provide little irritations for years.

Where to begin with the failures -- and pleasures of the Prowler?

Let's begin by approaching the Prowler, as a driver. First, it's got the wrong exterior door handle design. Big deal? Not at all, but a failure not found on the extremely well thought out PT Cruiser retro model from Chrysler. These Prowler door handles are strictly parts bin. And that underscores this hard fact: The PT Cruiser is a much better done vehicle. Much.

Grab the nail-breaker handle and pull up. The door opens. Not very wide. Push on it. Sorry, that's it. It doesn't open wide at all. Large people may have difficulty getting into either seat in a Prowler. Fair warning.

Now look where you'll be stepping. The door sill is high, with about an eight-inch drop to the floorboard. The seat is almost on that floorboard. It's a heady drop down. With the top up, it's like crawling into a tiny tunnel. But, for the moment, let's enter a top-down Prowler (the only way to use a Prowler).

You'll step in, grab the steering wheel for balance, and then swing and slide down into the seat. It's more difficult even than the notoriously difficult entry into older Corvettes. Settle in. The seat feels good (but lumbar support is insufficient for extended travel -- which no Prowler owner is likely to do anyhow).

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The steering wheel is fat and feels pretty good. Above the center of the steering wheel, on the steering column, is a tachometer, its wiring exposed on purpose, furthering the retro look. Nice touch. The instruments are lined up horizontally across much of the dash. In the center of the instruments is the speedometer. On the far left, completely hidden to the driver's view by the steering wheel, is a voltmeter. (To see a scrolling panorama of the dash in a new window, click the photo here.)

It's a terrible layout.

Just a little bit of thought could have yielded a more visible display. Instead of facing all of the gauges straight out, for instance, why not cant them toward the driver. They are inset, so create the insets at an angle toward the driver's head. As it is now, the legal speeds on the 150-mph speedometer are partially obscured, since the speedometer is deeply inset into the dash and the driver is viewing it from the left.

But, praise be, at least the instruments have a kind of retro feel, lined up that way.

Not so the remainder of the interior.

The gear selector is a year 2001 parts bin item. Remember the cue ball shifter in the PT Cruiser (and Lexus IS300)? How perfect that would have been in the Prowler. Too bad. You get an LH sedan shifter -- just 'cause.

Worse is the radio. No effort at all to look retro. It's your standard Chrysler setup, with too many buttons and a lousy joystick for fade-balance control. Awful in any car. Terribly out of the place in a Prowler. A pimple on a pretty face.

Likewise looking ludicrous is the rear-view mirror. It's an electrochromatic model that dims as bright lights approach. Nice, but not exactly "period". No. It would have been better to use a little oval rear view, with a flip bar at the base for night/day setting. This one is .. 2001 parts bin.

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Neat touch? Look at the cat logo on the steering wheel and seat backs. Neato.

Settle back into the seat now. Crank 'er up. Let's get ready to ride.

Turn around to check behind you before backing up. Oops. That high deck and third brake light really block the view, eh?

Look ahead. All you will see is the end of the dash. You will not see the end of the pointed-snout hood, or the neato exposed wheels with their motorcycle fenders. You are completely lost in space. And it's worse here than any other Chrysler product yet tested. Why? This one makes you pay for that lost in space fact!

Guarantee: Within a week, the nose of the Prowler will be a scarred mess. You will have struck driveways, bumper curbs, street rises, speed bumps and anything larger than a Rubik's Cube lying in the road. Ground clearance is only 4.5 inches. Looks great -- for about one hour.

To visualize just how difficult it is to drive a Prowler, consider this: I lined the front wheels and axles of a Prowler and Ford Explorer side by side. Viewed that way, the driver's location in the Prowler is equivalent to sitting in the back seat, on the floor, and driving the Explorer that way.

Couple that with a large turning diameter and you may understand how I knocked over the neighbor's garbage can set out by the curb. Misjudged it. Couldn't see it from the driver's seat once I got close to it.

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Now, every problem is magnified with the top up. Visibility is obstructed in every direction. Huge blind spots exist both to the left and right rear. It's decidedly claustrophobic in a Prowler, and this combines to assure the Prowler will be used solely as a fair-weather toy.

Raising and lowering the top is a manual operation in which Chrysler seemingly copied every aspect of the Chevrolet Corvette, right down the yellow color of a button depressed to pop the trunk open. The Corvette top-drop operation is one of the worst. The Prowler adds a few problems of its own.

There are two latches below the windshield to release first. They're almost dainty in their operation, completely out-of-place in this car. And they are virtually impossible to secure at night, in the darkened interior. Nothing lines up, for one thing, then the latches require several deft movements before they can be closed. But...

After releasing them, find a hidden yellow button behind the driver's seat and press it. The trunk lid springs partly open. Pull the trunk lid up; it rises from front-to-rear. Note: There is not much cargo space in the trunk. One writer said a toothbrush might fit back there. It's not that bad, but not suitable for hard luggage or large boxes. It could hold a soft overnight bag or briefcase, even with the top stored inside. (Want to carry more? Chrysler will sell you a cute little custom trailer for $5,000 to tow behind your Prowler.)

Drop the top into the trunk and close the lid. Done.

From the driver's seat, the window sills are way up there and the windshield top is way down there. Opposite optimum. The extremely high window sill prevents comfortably resting a left arm on it. And the top of the windshield will effectively block the view of a stoplight if you're first in line. You have to duck and bob to see the light.

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 It's worse for your passenger. That seat is lower. Even taller-than-average people will find their eyeballs are level with the door sill. Children can't see a thing except dash and door (a major disappointment, I might add). An air bag cutoff switch, clearly an afterthought, is located in the passenger door jam.

Fire it up. Nice exhaust note -- for a V6. Not too loud. Not too muffled. Pretty nice.

Get in motion -- careful, careful. Turn on the stereo. Hey, pretty nice sound (but radio signal pickup is very poor).

Notice that the car shakes. Hmmm. Hit a bump and this baby will get your attention. Now we may have found a practical reason not to rest a left arm on the window sill. The Prowler almost jerks the steering wheel out of your hand when any road irregularity is encountered. It jumps. It bounces. It wiggles. It shaaaaakes.

Then there are the two sunvisors. If flipped down, they obscure almost any forward view. So they must stay up. But there's the wind factor...

If the visors are positioned horizontally, level front to back, then the wind flowing over that low windshield does not massage your hair as much as it tries to rip it out. So flip the visors all the way forward. Now the wind becomes manageable. Up to about 50 miles an hour. At 50, the visors yield to the force of the wind and flip themselves horizontal.

Whoa, Nellie. There went your cap, sailing away. Your sunglasses are torn from your face, dangling from one ear. Wind blasts down your shirt, whips up the skirt of a female passenger, embeds sand and grit in your eyes.

"I am not having fun," one female friend said in sarcastic understatement as wind molested her hair and clothes.

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The angled style of the car creates some interior problems. The driver's footwell, for instance, is small, and there is no dead pedal, no left-foot rest. Spend any amount of time behind the wheel, and the left foot becomes a problem.

The thin door is extremely close to the left side of the steering wheel. Drive with a cigarette in your left hand and you'll likely burn the door panel.

The three-spoke wheel means a hand cannot be rested at the bottom -- but, hey, this car shakes so badly that it always requires two firm hands on the wheel.

So why, with all these flaws, would anyone want a Prowler?

There were many moments of pure delight during the test week. This unique roadster is the antithesis of today's invisible car or minivan or sport ute. Personally, I enjoy a car that expresses at least a part of my personality. This one does. I do not want to be invisible, in person or in a vehicle. This one guarantees that will not be the case when I'm behind the wheel.

Around town, at slow city speeds, the Prowler is a joy. At night, a driver enjoys aural and tactile stimulation, taking in the sound of the exhaust, the feel of manageable wind on the face, the smells of steaks grilling inside restaurants.

And, to a point, the attention is attractive. During the test week, it was thumbs-up across-the-board. Motorcyclists loved it. Old men with canes looked at it with envy. Teenage neighbor boys had their moms photograph them inside the test Prowler. My favorite six-year-old loved being picked up at the bus stop by this object of desire, while her classmates ran and leaped about at the joy of it all.

That will never happen with 99.99 percent of all vehicles sold.

And, for most new vehicles sold today, a buyer faces instant and serious depreciation. Years from now, the used vehicle will be worth little or nothing. But a Prowler...

This may be the only vehicle sold in the year 2001 that becomes a future collectible. Almost guaranteed.

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Parting Shots
Chrysler, now properly DaimlerChrysler if the union holds until I get this review up, deserves a huge attaboy from consumers.

It took risks. It departed from safe melted-soap vehicles to give us the Dodge Viper, PT Cruiser, and Plymouth Prowler.

All are unique. One, the PT Cruiser, is a runaway success.

The Viper was born with one mission: Beat the Corvette. Be America's biggest, baddest sports car. It succeeded. But cost was another matter. Convenience was a store you passed. The Viper was, and is, a rich man's speed toy.

Not so the PT Cruiser. Focused attention to detail produced a vehicle so good that demand far exceeds supply. The Cruiser instantly became everyone's Car of the Year. Deservedly so. It's well thought-out and the execution is excellent at its price point.

But that can't be said of a Prowler.

Like the Viper, it's a toy. Like the Viper, it's impractical in the extreme. Unlike the Cruiser, it is not faithful to its retro roots. It is a styling exercise, a lab experiment with its chassis. With the Prowler, form rules. Function takes a non-existent back rumble seat.

Despite it all, I found the Prowler appealing. So much so that I began to anticipate the next time I'd take it out. I soon learned not to go east, onto rough country roads. Stay off the interstate. Head .. downtown.

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Smile and answer questions from fellow motorists at stop lights. Watch the patrons of the opera house follow with their heads as you pass. Catch the reaction of young children. Enjoy the "nice car, man" comments from teens and young adults.

It's a heady feeling, not easily attainable in a vehicle.

The Prowler could never be anyone's main vehicle. Never. Too many factors work against the practicality demanded of primary transportation.

But if there's a space in the garage, if there's an itch to recall a missed era of hot rodding, if there's more than $45,000 disposable cash in your bank account, then you might want this.

Flaws and all, I would.

For a week, it was the balm of my soul and the boost of my spirit.

'Nuff said.

Home, James
2001, Robert C. Bowden

Plymouth on the Prowl

Can Chrysler's new hot rod boost the brand?
 


Plymouth on the prowl

Plymouth on the prowl

LOS ANGELES - Plymouth is on the prowl. But can the world's first "factory-built" hot rod breathe new life into a brand Chrysler Corp. was ready to abandon just a few years ago?

It's hard to miss the Prowler, even in a car-jaded city like LA. Take a touch of Ford's '32 Deuce Coupe. Add a few features of the classic coffin-nosed Cord. Then spin it around inside Chrysler's styling studios, known for some of the auto industry's most innovative designs. And you come up with a car that looks like a set piece from the film "American Graffiti."

Yet underneath the skin, the Plymouth Prowler is what one Chrysler engineer calls a "rolling test bed," designed to test a variety of new concepts - including the use of aluminum and other lightweight, fuel-efficient alternatives to steel.

Unconventional concept

The Prowler made its debut as a concept car at the 1993 Detroit auto show. There was no way to confuse it with a conventional Detroit coupe. The two-seater was modeled after some of the great classic hot rods, such as the legendary Deuce Coupe. Its broad rear tapers to a narrow nose, and the front wheels are set more than a foot outside the car's body.

The Prowler proved so popular that Chrysler executives decided to put the car into production as a low-volume showpiece, an image car in the mold of the Dodge Viper, a muscular sports car that also made its debut in concept-car form. The Viper has helped transform the once-stodgy image of Chrysler's Dodge Division, creating an aura of hipness and performance. And that's precisely what the Prowler is supposed to do for Plymouth.

It was only a couple of years ago, notes Chrysler's marketing chief, John MacDonald, that "people were saying that Plymouth was going out of business." And indeed, there were a number of Chrysler executives who thought it was time to trash the sickly division. "But this should put an end to that."

The Prowler is the first product Chrysler has produced exclusively for Plymouth since the 1969 Barracuda. And it's clearly unlike anything else in the lineup of conservative sedans, coupes and minivans. But MacDonald sees the aubergine-hued Prowler as a neon sign blaring "Watch this space." And those who follow the company agree.

"It's a masterstroke," declares George Peterson, an analyst with the AutoPacific Group. "Buying the amount of publicity they're generating with this car would have cost them many times more" than the estimated $100 million invested in the project.

Today, says Peterson, there's nothing in the Plymouth lineup like Prowler, but among the vehicles under development are versions of several other hip, youthful concept cars. These include the Pronto micro-minivan and the Backpack, a hybrid blending the best features of a passenger car with the go-anywhere versatility of a sport-utility vehicle.

Who will buy?

Who will buy the Prowler? "We're not sure," admits MacDonald. "I don't think you'll see real hot-rodders," he says. They're getting their hands dirty building their own one-of-a-kind rods. But the Prowler will draw plenty of hot-rod wannabes, suggests Gary Medders, who runs the Good Guys, a California company that stages more than a score of hot-rod rallies around the country each year.

Chrysler and its dealers have been receiving tens of thousands of inquiries, and observers believe there should be no problem selling out the first year or two of production.

Chrysler expects to assemble about 2,000 Prowlers this year. In 1998, it will boost capacity to around 5,000.

The long-awaited Prowler finally went into production in May, several months late. The platform team found itself struggling to solve some nagging issues including an unpleasant shake in the front suspension. That's not surprising, considering the car's unusual design. The outset front suspension is normally found in race cars running on glass-smooth tracks, not on a production car.

Rolling test bed

But from the ground up, "we're using this as a rolling test bed for new technology," says platform chief Craig Love.

One of the biggest challenges for the Prowler team was the decision to build the car's chassis and most of its body out of aluminum. The lightweight metal could allow automakers to improve fuel economy sharply - if they can resolve production problems and cost issues.

"While beauty is only skin deep, we were very interested in how the body would be made," says engineer Saad Abouzahr. The team came up with some novel solutions, he notes. For example, body parts are held together with adhesives rather than welds.

There were other challenges. The skinny little bumpers are more than cosmetic. They're designed to withstand 5-mile-an-hour impacts without damage. And since there's no place for a spare tire - there's barely room for a briefcase in what passes for a trunk - Chrysler engineers worked with Goodyear to develop a customized "run flat" tire which can keep going for up to 50 miles, even after a catastrophic blowout.

But while the Prowler breaks plenty of new ground, it also borrows a number of pieces from Chrysler's stock shelf. The steering wheel, for one, was borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee. And the inside door handles are lifted from the Viper. The car's V6 comes from the Chrysler Concorde sedan. That strategy helped slash the Prowler's development costs - and the final price tag.

At $39,000, the Prowler includes a long list of standard features, such as dual airbags, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, a 320-watt Infinity stereo system with compact disc player and a fully retractable convertible top.

"Prowler's a winner," says Peterson. "It'd be pretty hard to screw this one up."

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