How the PT Cruiser Became the Dad Jeans of Cars
In between the minivan’s decline and the SUV’s surge, one of the century’s most beloved — and despised—cars experienced a brief moment of fame
Do you remember the PT Cruiser? Yeah, you do: Chrysler’s po-mo hot rod with the funny name and the Dick Tracy-esque curves? It’s in the first shot of the new CW series Superman and Lois, because it’s the closest thing on the road to the car on the cover of Action Comics #1, the 1938 comic book in which Superman makes his debut. It’s just right — like the current comic-book universes, the PT Cruiser was designed to be contemporary, entertaining, and a very loud echo of the past.
It was also supposed to be as ubiquitous as the DC and Marvel properties feel right now, and it worked. The PT Cruiser was huge, selling for well over the sticker price soon after launch in 2000, all the more surprising because it was the effort of a struggling manufacturer in a brand-new class of vehicle. Ultimately, the throwback vehicle was too popular for its own good; instantly appealing to Boomers, it became overexposed and devolved into the dad jeans of cars, eventually ending up on a lot of worst- and ugliest-car lists. Still, a lot of cars that fared better in the long term owe it a debt.
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To understand the PT Cruiser, you first need to understand how automobile sales started shifting at the turn of the millennium. U.S. minivan sales peaked in 2000 and began declining over the next decade, while crossovers rose from 4% of the U.S. market from 2000 to 19% in 2008. Light truck sales, after years of increase, surpassed passenger-car sales for the first time as pickups and SUVs climbed toward their physical and numerical dominance of the American road.
The idea was “candy-coated medicine.”
Americans demanded bigger, more aggressive cars. In 2000, the Wall Street Journal reported that…