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Where Rental Fleets and Fads Hit a Wall
2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser

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.

That's too bad, because Chrysler does make good cars and, indeed, even turns out PT Cruiser models -- I'm thinking the upscale Limited version -- that are better than the car I drove.

It baffles me that Chrysler, GM and Ford -- all of whom have made similar errors -- don't seem to understand that consumers often form their first product impressions via rented cars. That being the case, it would make more sense for an automobile manufacturer to display the best samples of its cars in the rental market, even if that means selling them to rental car companies at a loss.

It's marketing. It's better to pay marketing costs to build and support a positive image than it is to waste hundreds of millions of dollars, often in the form of profit-eroding rebates, trying to correct an image gone wrong.

So, again, Chrysler, stop the self-defeating insanity of spending money to develop new products only to display the worst examples of those models where consumers will meet them first -- in rental fleets.

It just doesn't make sense. Nor does it make sense to bore consumers with a styling exercise that has long lost its appeal.

The retro, bread-wagon styling of the PT Cruiser hit a nostalgic chord when it was introduced eight years ago. But what was cute then seems silly and laughable now, the moral equivalent of a pet rock with an engine and four wheels. It's gone from turning heads to shaking them.

Like it or not, the automobile industry has much in common with the fashion-crazed clothing industry. It doesn't pay to push mini skirts when something longer is in vogue.

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