PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. - Though sales of the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser won't begin until spring, DaimlerChrysler expects the retro-looking four-door to be a strong seller throughout the vehicle's five- to six-year life.
Tony Richards, vice president of passenger car operations, said the automaker is looking at ways to boost production, possibly by adding a second assembly site. Strong response from dealers and potential customers in North America, plus a favorable response in Europe, is prompting DaimlerChrysler executives to look at production options.
In addition, Richards said the model will remain exclusive to the Chrysler brand. He said DaimlerChrysler is unlikely to add more models, such as the panel van shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month. A Dodge version will not be offered.
Richards was interviewed late last month at a DaimlerChrysler press event in Arizona.
The PT Cruiser has triggered a lot of excitement since it was unveiled more than a year ago. The front-wheel-drive vehicle offers the retro styling of a late 1930s Ford sedan and the versatility of a 2001 minivan. The base PT Cruiser carries a $16,000 sticker price, including destination, while a loaded, top-of-the-line model is priced at about $20,000.
TOO MUCH EXTRA EFFORT
'There are some neat opportunities which you saw (at the auto show). But they are not that easy to create,' Richards said. The two-door, panel van concept, for example, would require tooling a separate body side.
'And, right now, we feel like we're capacity constrained in Toluca (Mexico),' he said. 'We project right now that we will be sold out through the life of the vehicle.' Consequently, the need to tool for an additional model, such as the panel van, in order to reach plant capacity is unlikely, Richards said.
He said a second vehicle, loosely based on the PT's underpinnings, was considered, but that plan has been dropped.
Once production gets up to speed, the Toluca plant can assemble 185,000 PT Cruisers annually with overtime, Richards said. However, that won't happen until the Chrysler Sebring convertible, which also is assembled there, is moved to the Sterling Heights, Mich., plant at the end of the 2000 model year. DaimlerChrysler has not started accepting dealer orders.
Asked whether the automaker is looking for a second PT Cruiser assembly site, Richards said 'that's a possibility; we are considering some options.'
Though the assembly plant in Belvidere, Ill., would have capacity after the Plymouth version of the Neon is discontinued at the end of the 2001 model year, that plant is not under consideration. Richards said the PT Cruiser is too tall to fit through the Belvidere factory. The plant would require a major expenditure and substantial down time to convert to PT Cruiser assembly.
FLOOD OF INQUIRIES
Richards said that despite the strong interest in the PT Cruiser - the company has received more than 225,000 inquiries via the Internet, the company's 800 telephone number and the mail - the automaker's plans to export the vehicle have not changed.
'We plan to sell the Cruiser pretty much wherever we can. We will have a right-hand drive version, and we're working on a diesel.' The vehicle will be sold in more than 40 markets.
Richards said he is especially encouraged by the strong response to the PT Cruiser in Europe, 'where we have very low awareness and the Neon doesn't fit the market very well.'
Richards said a larger engine for the PT Cruiser is not planned, though turbocharging is a consideration. As for all-wheel-drive availability, he said: 'I don't think we want to go there. It's too heavy, too complex.'
Ernie Hampton, general manager of River Oaks Chrysler-Plymouth in Lansing, Ill., said there had been a lot of interest in the PT Cruiser, 'probably the strongest of any car we've had come out.'
Hampton said the dealership has kept a list of potential customers but isn't taking customer orders because DaimlerChrysler hasn't announced the allocation plan: 'I don't know if it's going to be a car we sell for sticker, or if we're going to add a rust-proofing package, add a few things to it. It's probably what a lot of places are going to do because it's going to be pretty limited for a while.'