Car enthusiasts have been drooling about the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser since the moment it was unveiled at the Detroit auto show last January. It's not even on sale and more than 225,000 people have asked for product information via a business reply card, the (800) CHRYSLER telephone number or the brand's Web site at chryslercars.com.
Persons of all ages love that retro styling, heavily influenced by the Ford sedans of the late 1930s. And the price? Affordable, expected to be around $20,000 when it goes on sale in the spring. It has the potential to set the automotive world on fire, just as the 1964 Ford Mustang and 1984 Plymouth Voyager.
But there's one word, just one lone word, if muttered by a salesperson at a Chrysler dealership or implied in the PT Cruiser ads that could turn off that enthusiasm faster than you can say 'minivan.'
Let's face it. That's what the PT Cruiser really is, a minivan. The clever folks at DaimlerChrysler - the folks who invented the minivan - have reinvented the concept, this time clearly disguised as a 1930s sedan. The seats can be removed to create a large cargo space; the hatch lifts to load bikes. There's even a shelf panel with hooks at the back of the PT Cruiser that can be used to secure grocery bags. That's a minivan, right?
But the DaimlerChrysler folks apparently don't want you to call it a you-know-what. Even DaimlerChrysler Chairman Robert Eaton, when he unveiled the vehicle last January, was careful with his words. It's 'too cool to categorize.' And Bob knows minivans!
The literature sent to potential buyers is carefully worded. According to one packet, the vehicle is too cool to categorize 'because it so thoroughly breaks the barriers of traditional design and function that it can't be crammed into any conventional segment.'
I think there's good reason why no one is using the 'M' word. I was talking to two colleagues, both wildly enthusiastic about the PT Cruiser and both looking forward to buying one next year.
Then I said the 'M' word: 'You realize, of course, this is just the next step in minivan design.'
'What do you mean `minivan'?' one of them asked. I explained.
Their enthusiasm for the PT Cruiser died right before my eyes.
'I won't own a minivan,' he said.
The other added: 'I don't want be seen behind the wheel of a vehicle for soccer moms.'
I had destroyed their PT Cruiser fantasy. Not intentionally, you understand, but it shows how fragile this PT Cruiser dream can be.
If potential buyers perceive the PT Cruiser to be a sedan, that's cool, and it will translate into strong sales for DaimlerChrysler and its dealers. But if the PT Cruiser is viewed as the next step minivan design, it may lead to a quick exit of customers from Chrysler dealerships.
Rick Kranz can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]