PT Cruiser is hottest car on market

Waits of four months required for buyers of Chrysler product

Some dealers overcharge

Automobiles

July 30, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Patrick Maphis was nearing 50 and was quite content with his 9-year-old Mazda pickup.

"I have enjoyed cars all my life, but I began losing interest in them," the Abingdon resident said.

Then Chrysler's PT Cruiser came along.

"It floored me," Maphis said. "It touched something deep-rooted in me. It rekindled my interest in hot rods."

Maphis ordered the car Feb. 5 without test driving it. He could hardly wait until his Cruiser was delivered May 22.

That experience is being repeated over and over again around the country, even around the world.

The cruiser - a blend of 1930s sedan, minivan and sport utility vehicle - is the hottest vehicle to hit the market since the 1964 Ford Mustang. Chrysler dealers in the United States sold more than 8,300 Cruisers the first week it was on the market, nearly twice as many as Volkswagen's new Beetle when it was launched two years ago. Buyers are putting their names on purchase lists and waiting four months, or longer, for delivery.

The strong demand has executives at DaimlerChrysler Corp. scurrying to add production capacity. It also has prompted some dealers in Maryland and the rest of the country to fatten their wallets by charging customers up to $10,000 more than the vehicle's suggested retail price of $16,500 to $21,000.

Sales were hot when the Cruiser was introduced back in the spring and they are still hot, said Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. Other hot vehicles are on the market, such as the Honda Odyssey and Mercedes CLK convertible. But none, Kitzmiller said, compare to the PT Cruiser.

Such demand has created problems for the manufacturer and some embarrassment from dealers charging over the suggested retail price.

Ann Smith, a spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler, said the majority of U.S. dealers are complying with the manufacturer's pleas that they not gouge their customers. She said the Cruiser was designed to bring excitement and new customers into Chrysler showrooms. Now, the company fears that dealers will turn away potential buyers.

"We try to encourage dealers to hold to the suggested retail price," Smith said. "But they are independent business people, and we can't control their actions."

As an indication of how widespread the practice of charging a premium for the vehicle is, DaimlerChrysler reports that nearly 40 percent of the Cruisers sold cost the buyer more than $21,000.

Some dealers reportedly are charging $2,500 to $5,000, or more, if customers want to eliminate the long wait for a Cruiser.

"That's the ugly part of buying a Cruiser," said Manley Bland, southwest regional director of the PT Cruiser Club, an organization with more than 3,000 dues-paying members, including about 100 in Maryland. "It's not fun to see what some dealers are doing."

"I don't charge above sticker," said Jerome H. Fader, president of Automotive Group of Owings Mills, one of the largest automobile dealers in the state. "We don't think that is the right thing to do."

Fader said he has one Cruiser in stock. He said the store holds onto the vehicle for test drives. Buyers are required to put their name on a list - which numbers about 115 customers - and wait up to four months for delivery.

Kitzmiller said the industry recently received "a black eye" when a New York dealer charged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about $10,000 more than the list price for each of two Cruisers the federal agency acquired for its crash test program.

And to make matters worse, the results of the tests, released this month, showed that drivers of the PT Cruiser face a 36 percent to 45 percent chance of serious injury in head-on collisions. The vehicle scored only two out of five stars in a 35-mile per hour head-on crash into a wall, according to the NHTSA.

Meanwhile, shoppers and DaimlerChrysler hope the showroom shenanigans will cease once production is more in line with demand. That is not about to happen soon, but DaimlerChrysler is working on the problem, said Trevor Hale, a company spokesman.

Hale said the company boosted Cruiser production at its plant in Toluca, Mexico, by 15 percent June 30, to 40 units an hour. He said the assembly lines will turn out 42 or 43 units an hour at times, but the company is afraid of pushing production for fear of compromising quality. The plant is working two nine-hour shifts weekdays and most Saturdays. DaimlerChrysler is also tooling up a plant in Graz, Austria, that is expected to turn out another 50,000 Cruisers a year to serve much of the European market and Japan.

George E. Hoffer, an auto industry analyst and professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., said he thinks DaimlerChrysler missed the boat with the Cruiser.

"I think they made a business mistake," Hoffer said. "They saw that the car was a big hit at the Detroit Auto Show three years ago. They should have retooled a U.S. plant where they could produce 300,000 units a year."

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