SAN DIEGO - Al Capone might have liked the Chrysler's new PT Cruiser.
"It reminds me of the cars the gangsters drove in those old movies," says a middle-aged woman who came upon one parked in La Jolla, CA as she walked her dog.
Then again, it's expected to appeal to a lot of different people. That includes:
* Young people who think it's too cool.
* Older people who think its retro look is the cat's meow.
* Folks on a budget who like its relatively low price.
* Families who are looking for a third car. (The number of three-car garages in the U.S. has increased from 12% to 16% in four years, notes A. C. (Bud) Liebler, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president of marketing.)
Add to that diverse list the woman in La Jolla who ogled at a silver PT Cruiser that was part of a media preview. She says she may trade in her Volvo 850 for a Cruiser.
"This vehicle will cut across all demographic lines," says Mr. Liebler. "We don't have strict demographic breakdowns because in focus groups it appealed to all age groups, all incomes."
Much of the appeal is that it resembles no other vehicle out there today.
It has a vintage '30s hot rod look. Yet it's thoroughly modern. It's fun to drive (although its 2.4L 4-cylinder engine won't get you anywhere really fast). Yet it is utilitarian. (All seats but the driver's fold down for extra transformable cargo space.)
"It's hard to pin down what the PT is because it's a segment buster," says John P. Critzer, DC's senior product planner for small car platforms.
What it's definitely not, he insists, is a Neon spin-off.
Quips Mr. Critzer, "Repeat this mantra, 'It's not a Neon, it's not a Neon, it's not a Neon...'"
More seriously, he adds, "Word was that it was based on the Neon. But it really is unique. It's a new platform. Only fasteners, switches and parts like that are shared with the Neon."
Besides the alluring "look," the price is another PT attraction on which DC is banking. The base model is $16,000; top-of-the-line, $19,995.
It went on sale in late March as a 2001 model. Some dealers are reportedly charging thousands of dollars over sticker price for the first crop.
"That's a concern," says Mr. Critzer. "Some of our platform team members are going into the sales zones to emphasize that we want a great launch for a vehicle with great pricing."
However to many dealers it's supply-and-demand economics. If sometimes they're forced to sell an unpopular vehicle for well below sticker price, they figure the reverse is true - that they should be able to charge premiums for hot new vehicles.
Knocking $3,000 off the sticker of a hot vehicle "is like handing over $3,000," says dealer Sidney B. DeBoers, CEO of Lithia Motors, Inc., Medford, OR.
In the end, says Mr. Critzer, "Dealers are independent business people, and we can't control what they charge for products."
What the automaker can control are production volumes. The PT's are starting out fast off the line at a plant in Toluca, Mexico. Its annual capacity is 180,000 PT units a year. Of those, 150,000 are for the North American market.
Mr. Liebler predicts initial overcharging will be short-term as product quickly fills the pipeline.
The PT (for Personal Trans-portation) Cruiser is already a hit with most DC executives. They nearly swoon when talking about it. They say it's one of the most significant small vehicles to come off a Detroit drawing board in years.
Fueling their optimism is that many dealers have waiting lists. They're also taking deposits from people who've seen only pictures of the vehicle, which is technically classified as a truck.
"It's a marketer's dream," says Susan Thomson, senior manager of Chrysler brand advertising. "In my 18 years with the company, I've never had a vehicle like this to work with."
Mr. Critzer says its styling evokes emotions of a bi-polar kind. "People either love it or hate it," he says.
Clearly, DC is counting on a lot more PT lovers than haters.
But some people within the corporation initially had problems with it, according to John C. Miller, DC's vice president of product planning.
Detractors worried about the industry challenge of small-car profitability, he says.
And then there's that funky design.
"Either you get it or you don't," says Mr. Miller. "We had to do some work internally convincing certain people that the PT Cruiser was a good idea. To them, it wasn't a home run. It was a bunt."