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Chrysler/Plymouth Prowler

 

1997 Plymouth Prowler Development

For sheer impact, though, nothing could match the 1997 Prowler, the most-exciting Plymouth in a generation. It was unlike anything ever offered by a mainstream automaker, being a modern reincarnation of the iconic American hot rod.

Like the Dodge Viper before it, Prowler began as a concept, premiering at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show amid rabid pleas to "Build it!" Once more, Chrysler president Bob Lutz gave his full endorsement to a fairly outrageous automobile aimed squarely at car buffs like himself.

Again sharing his enthusiasm were design chief Tom Gale, long an active hot rod hobbyist, and Advanced Design director Neil Walling, who oversaw the concept's development from an idea suggested by a staffer at the company's California design outpost, Chrysler Pacifica.

Though hardly the sort of car expected of a "value brand," Prowler promised to do for Plymouth what Viper had for Dodge -- namely, get people talking and change their minds. Indeed, Chrysler viewed its two-seat retro roadster has having just the right "shock value" for resuscitating Plymouth's moribund image and low "brand awareness" among consumers.


The 1997 Plymouth Prowler was a crowd-pleasing hot-rod.

There was high-tech seriousness beneath the hot-rod fun, as Prowler became Chrysler's low-volume laboratory for nontraditional construction and materials. For example, aluminum was used not only for an all-independent suspension but the entire chassis and much of the body. In fact, Prowler packed more aluminum than any car in Chrysler history -- some 900 pounds of it -- construction rivaled only by the exotic Honda-built Acura NSX sports car. The result was a lean machine with about the same length as a Porsche 911 but weighing well under 2900 pounds.

Other weight-watching measures included a lateral dashboard brace made of costly magnesium, the industry's first cast aluminum brake rotors (rear only; front discs were iron Voyager parts), and plastic-like sheet molding to shape the quarter panels, vintage cycle-type front fenders, and a pointy nose skimming just 4.5 inches above the pavement.

Helped by a raked-forward profile and broad 76.5-inch beam, the Prowler turned heads like nothing else on the street. The only changes from the stunning concept were more prominent front "bumperettes" and headlights, both to satisfy the feds. Wheels were handsome five-spoke alloys measuring 1737.5 inches fore and a massive 20310 aft, and you could have any color at first so long as it was vivid Prowler Purple. The manual top, a black fabric affair, stowed easily beneath a rear-hinged trunklid -- and most always was. Prowler, after all, was about lookin' good. There was no room for introverts.

Or much of anything else. The front-tapering '30s-style body left footwells uncomfortably narrow (though wider than on the concept). Standard run-flat tires eliminated the need for a spare, but the trunk was nearly useless, squeezed from below by the fuel tank (itself laughably small at 12 gallons) and a rear transaxle, also new for Chrysler. The latter contributed to front/rear weight distribution of 45/55 percent, making Prowler quite nimble on dry roads despite a long 113-inch wheelbase. And for times when you had to carry more than a couple of pizzas, Chrysler offered a small accessory trailer, shaped like the tail, for about five-grand.

But the fat tires with their ultra stiff sidewalls "find every bump," as Car and Driver noted, and could be way too slippery in the rain. And like Viper, antilock brakes and traction control weren't available, yet a number of luxuries were standard: air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, leather upholstery, high-power sound system, even a gee-whiz tire-pressure monitor.

Hot-rod purists also shook their heads at Prowler's powertrain: a 3.5-liter V-6 sending a modest 214 bhp through a four-speed automatic transmission. Like much of the interior, these were off-the- shelf components used to keep price reasonable, which it was at an initial $38,300. Yet despite that, the low weight and standard AutoStick manual-shift feature, Prowler was nowhere near as fast as it looked. Car and Driver's results were typical: 0-60 in 7 seconds flat, a standing quarter-mile of 15.6 at 87 mph -- pretty tame.

Overall, C/D viewed Prowler as "awash in contradictions. Hot rods have V-8s and manual gearboxes. The Prowler offers neither. Hot rods are supposed to ride badly and handle badly, then set fire to the dragstrip. Instead, the Prowler handles almost like a sports car but is a relative flatliner on the drag­strip. Hot rods are supposed to have individualized exteriors …[not] one level of trim. Hot rods customarily sport spartan, handmade interiors. The Prowler's is more plush and option laden than a BMW Z3's."

On the other hand, "It's a convertible, the drivetrain is dead reliable, it can be driven [every day] as long as there's no snow, there's a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, and the vehicle regularly twists the needle right off … the gawk meter."

Predictably, Chrysler's latest piece of eye candy was always in short supply. Though the long wait from concept to reality stoked demand to a fever pitch, Chrysler wouldn't rush. After all, Prowler was Plymouth's important new image-leader, and thus needed to be well-made and glitch-free from day one. Besides, why risk diluting the car's mystique -- and driving down resale values -- by building too many too fast? All this echoed Viper experience, and Chrysler sensibly assigned Prowler production to the Viper plant on Detroit's Conner Avenue, which was geared to build semicustom machines at a measured pace with considerable hand labor.

As it happened, though, Prowlers didn't begin reaching dealers until August 1997, delayed by last-minute production glitches. As a result, model-year output was only 312 units instead of the 2000-3000 planned, and a bidding war broke out among would-be owners.

Prowler skipped model-year '98 for an early start on 1999. Red, black, and a vibrant yellow expanded the color palette, but the big news was an aluminum-block version of the single-cam 3.5 V-6. Horsepower swelled by 39 to 253, peaking at 6400 rpm instead of 5850. Torque rose by a useful 34 pound-feet to 255, and maxed out at more accessible 3100 rpm (versus 3950). Car and Driver lopped a second off the 0-60 dash and timed quarter-mile acceleration at 14.7 seconds at 90 mph.

Other magazine tests showed less-dramatic improvements, but the '99 was stronger by most accounts. And though the traditional hot-rod exhaust burble was still missing, so were some of the '97 model's unwanted cowl shake and body quivering. Base price went up $1000, but nobody complained.

Plymouth Prowlers, like this 2001 model, were much talked about but
didn't boost sales as much as retailers had hoped.

Yet for all its high-profile pizzazz, Prowler did nothing to spur sales of workaday Plymouths, and that spelled trouble once Germany's Daimler-Benz absorbed Chrysler Corporation in late 1998. The new DaimlerBenz was troubled from the start, and the mostly German top brass were far more concerned with "shareholder value" than any value Plymouth might have for their American "division."

Thus, in late October 1999, after months of mounting rumors, DC's American-born president, James Holden, announced that Plymouth would be terminated after model-year 2001 as irrelevant to the company's new "global growth strategy." It was a sad day for many car lovers, but industry analysts (and even Chrysler-Plymouth dealers) weren't surprised. After all, Prowler was only the first Plymouth since the '69 Barracuda with no direct Dodge duplicate, and Dodge always did better with shared products.

But C/D's Pat Bedard, himself a former Chrysler engineer, begged to differ. In a March 2000 epitaph, he noted that Plymouth sales might still be sliding, but were "hardly dead … Voyager sales not only outnumbered Plymouth cars in 1998, they outgunned the combined minivan efforts of the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Montana … There's something odd, too, about DC's notion of global growth. Yeah, Plymouth is only a U.S. brand. So what? … Low-priced brands always slump when people have the dough to buy higher on the status ladder. [When they don't], a trusted budget brand makes a great lifeboat [for an automaker]. Building a fresh one, as GM did with Saturn, costs billions … I think DaimlerChrysler is walking away from sales."

Maybe so, but losing Plymouth was easy for DC, and customers could be steered to other company brands. With that, Breeze was dropped with the 2001 redesign of its Dodge and Chrysler siblings (which would then presumably take up the slack), and rebadging created Chrysler Voyagers even before the company's new minivans arrived, also for '01. The second-generation 2000 Neon was sold as Plymouth, but only for about 18 months and without the sporty options Dodge offered.

Prowler, too, became a Chrysler, swapping nameplates during model-year 2001, but hung on through '02. The 2000 edition got revised damping and adjustable shock absorbers for a more pliant ride, plus a few minor feature additions. Otherwise, only colors were changed.

Left behind in Plymouth's demise was the intriguing Howler concept. Basically a Prowler with a handsome new squared-off tail, it offered usable luggage space at last, achieved by exchanging the rear transaxle for a conventional front-­mounted transmission. Even better, though, that gearbox was a five-speed manual bolted to a V-8, a torque of 250 4.7-liter borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Enthusiasts cheered, but there was no hope for Howler, a strictly what-if dream unveiled only weeks before Plymouth's announced execution.

Plymouth wasn't Detroit's only historic nameplate to be killed off by new-century corporate tactics. General Motors' Oldsmobile went to the gallows barely a year later. But there's an ironic footnote in that the 2001 PT Cruiser was once planned for Plymouth, as product chief Tom Gale told us. Considering its huge sales success as a low-priced Chrysler, the versatile, "way-cool" Cruiser could have been just the comeback car Plymouth needed, setting the stage for more Plymouth-only models and a true revival of the make. A pity Chrysler walked away from that, too.

 

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