Where Rental Fleets and Fads Hit a Wall

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By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

WARREN, Mich. -- Should it survive its current flirtation with bankruptcy, I offer this short wish list for Chrysler:

-- Stop selling base cars to rental fleets.

-- Start scrapping models whose initial fad-based appeal has faded.

I offer these suggestions after two miserable days in a base 2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser obtained from the Avis car rental company. The compact, front-wheel-drive family wagon I once hailed as a delightful styling exercise turned out to be a stinker.

It was a car of relatively low mileage, barely 30,000 accumulated miles, in good mechanical condition. But it was a base model equipped with Chrysler's anemic 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine.

Because U.S. rental car companies correctly assume that most Americans cannot operate manual transmissions, the subject automobile's engine was mated to an optional four-speed automatic transmission instead of the standard five-speed manual gearbox, which is better suited for the base PT Cruiser.

The combination of a little engine and bargain-basement automatic transmission didn't work. The PT Cruiser became a rolling obstacle on local expressways. Motorists approaching me from the rear automatically changed lanes when they saw what was in front of them. It was humiliating.

And the humiliation was deserved.

Any car certified for highway use should be capable of reaching a speed of 70 miles per hour -- the legal posted speed of several expressways in this region -- with relative ease. My ill-equipped PT Cruiser, a car bought by a rental company precisely because it could be obtained at the lowest possible wholesale price and rented out at maximum profit, just couldn't cut it.

The thing wheezed, whined and struggled at speeds approaching 60 miles per hour. Had I never before driven a Chrysler product, had I known nothing at all about Chrysler, this would have been my introduction -- one that would have left me not the least bit inclined to try, buy or drive a Chrysler product again.

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