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1997 Plymouth Prowler
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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
Plymouth Prowlers, like this 2001 model, were
much talked about but
didn't boost sales as much as retailers had
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
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.
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.
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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