CHELSEA, Mich. -- The Chrysler group is trying to jump-start PT Cruiser sales by touting it -- at long last -- as a small car.
A small-car pitch is surprising because the company has called it anything but.
The vehicle was derived from the Dodge Neon sedan. But the company classified it as a light truck for federal fuel economy purposes when it was introduced in 2000.
The classification drew the ire of some environmentalists. They said the vehicle was clearly a car and should be subject to higher federal fuel economy standards. The law says that if a vehicle's rear seats can be folded flat, it can be a truck.
For marketing purposes, Chrysler cast it as a segment buster, neither car nor truck.
Now Chrysler is coming full circle. It will market the PT Cruiser as a small car, says Jeff Bell, Chrysler group vice president of the Jeep and Chrysler brands.
"We convinced ourselves based on the initial sales euphoria that this was a completely unique thing, that it defied a definition and had its own unique segment," Bell says.
"That was not a very robust strategy for its long-term success," he says. "So we have repositioned it and placed it squarely in the small-car segment where there is a lot of volume opportunity."
The 2006 model reaches dealerships in August. A new grille, interior and front and rear fascias update the 5-year-old model.
Through May, PT Cruiser sales are holding steady. In the first five months, 53,821 units were sold, 189 more than in the year-ago period.
Chrysler began tinkering with the PT Cruiser strategy last fall. For the 2005 models, content was removed and the base sticker price was lowered.
That strategy "really started gaining traction this calendar year," Bell says. "It is now getting consideration with small-car shoppers."
Shoppers considering the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla also are looking at the PT Cruiser, he says.
"We have had our highest cross-shopping against those vehicles this calendar year," Bell says.
The average age of the PT Cruiser buyer is dropping, he says. "It was running about 57, and now it is almost 10 years younger."
The PT Cruiser touched off a sales furor when it was introduced in March 2000. Sales peaked at 144,717 units units in 2001. Its worst year was 2003, when 107,759 units were sold.
Bell says Chrysler now pitches the PT Cruiser as a small-car with style, functionality and a versatile interior.
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