Car craze takes Americans back to the future

It looks like it could be Al Capone's weekend car.

With its wide, waffle-iron front grill and flat back, all it lacks are doors that open backward and a rumble seat.

But this is no relic. Everyone from high-schoolers in Skechers to sentimental seniors wants to drive one. It's Chrysler's PT Cruiser - part 1930s hot rod, part minivan - and the most talked-about car around.

"That is tight!" yells one young driver, checking out a Cruiser from the window of his black BMW, as he rumbles down Boston's trendy Newbury Street.

Not since the rerelease of the Beetle have four cylinders created this much buzz.

More than 80,000 people have signed up to get one, with some paying $4,000 more than the asking price. Others are forming clubs to drool over it - even though many haven't seen one in person.

Even more than the VW Bug, the Cruiser has an appeal that crosses almost all demographic lines. It's a sign that Americans are ready for something new and different - and has a deeper practicality to back it up.

"It's the first car out there [this year] that people can immediately recognize," says James Rubenstein, author of the bestseller "The Cultural Landscape."

"Cars are not just transportation," he says. "Cars are emotional, and the Cruiser is really stirring emotion."

The first Cruisers are hitting the road now, and demand is so great that many buyers are having to wait anywhere from two to nine months just for their sleek new vehicles to come in. That popularity, observers say, is a strong statement of consumers' impatience with cookie-cutter cars.

To be sure, the Cruiser is unique in today's sedan-and-SUV world. It's the size of a VW Golf, only taller. The style mimics the design of cars from the late 1930s - the pinnacle of car design, according to Mr. Rubenstein - but on a smaller scale.

An upright stance gave those old cars more room inside and a better view of the road - two of the demands driving SUV sales today. And the Cruiser is sleeker, modeled after the hot rods that teenagers built in the 1950s.

"The Cruiser is rekindling interest in flashier cars that we haven't seen since the 1960s," says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., who has surveyed those with PT deposits at Chrysler dealers.

"What people complain about isn't the fashion changing every year. It's that cars all look the same," he adds.

Considering that the difference between the most- and least-reliable cars is minimal these days, it's excitement that sells. And the Cruiser's raves show that Americans still love cars, despite all the congestion and smog.

"Cars are fashion accessories and help you position yourself as a man or woman of a certain life- or work-style," says Marian Salzman, head of the worldwide Brand Futures Group at ad agency Young and Rubicam.

But there's a functional side to the Cruiser as well, which should give it more staying power than other trendy cars like the Beetle. In essence, it's a practical, tiny minivan with a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine and a price from $17,000 to $22,000 with all the frills.

It was this practicality that attracted Dana Gray, a communications engineer with a pointy mustache accenting his hefty frame. "There aren't many small cars you can fit someone my size in," he says. "But this one you can."

He made it all the way to a dealer before deciding against the nine-month wait for delivery. But he's still a fan. "It's a perfect little commuter vehicle. It's sporty, it's spiffy."

There has always been a demand for an economy car that doesn't look like an economy car, say industry analysts. It's that demand that first fueled sales of small pickup trucks, notes Jeremy Anwyl, president of Marketec Systems, an automotive marketing consultant firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

And that demand should ensure that the Cruiser stays popular even after the buzz dies down.

The car's retro looks are a "brilliant disguise" for the small-minivan format that has flopped in America before, says Mr. Spinella. Many would-be buyers say they are waiting for Cruisers as an alternative to small SUVs.

The crush has led DaimlerChrysler to nearly quadruple Cruiser production, while it has cut production of its two mid-size SUVs.

Seeing the car certainly won over Marcia Kelly of Revere, Mass. "I don't want you to get me a truck anymore. I want one of those!" she said to her husband. "I'm a big-car person, but I like that! It looks small, but it's not."

Although the Cruiser is designed to appeal to young buyers, most owners so far have actually been baby boomers, who have the money to put down deposits and wait in line for a new car.

For those buyers, the car "screams nostalgia - with a giggle," says Ms. Salzman. It reminds them of a time "when the endings were happy. When even when the endings were unhappy, we knew what to expect."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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