DETROIT -- When the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser arrives at dealerships at the end of March, it's expected to get a bigger reception than any mass-produced American car since the 1960s.
Some dealers are already quoting prices thousands of dollars higher than the window sticker totals of $16,000 to $20,000 for the retro-themed wagon. Many more have waiting lists and are taking deposits from buyers who have never even sat inside one.
''The older people, it reminds them of this and that growing up,'' said J.J. Miles, the new vehicle inventory controller at Sunbelt Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge in Lake City, Fla., where about 10 people already have orders and deposits on file. ''For the younger kids, it doesn't matter. Eighteen to 80, they like it.''
The PT (for Personal Transportation) Cruiser offers consumers the interior dimensions of a sport utility vehicle or minivan with a lower price and better style. Its tall cabin, triangular nose and wheel flares evoke sedans of the 1930s and '40s, and even London taxicabs. But it has enough soft, modern lines to avoid looking like a museum piece.
With the rear seats removed, the cabin has more cargo space than a $33,000 Lexus RX 300 SUV in a vehicle 5 inches shorter than a Dodge Neon.
''It's pretty bold, it takes some risks, it's a statement as we wind down the Plymouth brand about how far we can stretch Chrysler,'' said DaimlerChrysler president Jim Holden. ''It's very important to us.''
Michelle Lahd, of Peshastin, Wash., already has her black PT Cruiser on order for $58 over the sticker price. She and her husband weren't planning to buy a new car after paying off their Ford Taurus, but changed their minds after seeing pictures of the PT Cruiser last fall.
What swayed them?
''The looks!'' Lahd said. ''It's just so different from anything out there right now. It's just got this nostalgic charm. We're so excited ... there's an appeal to being the first on the block in this small town.''
Brian Campbell, a software consultant in Malibu, Calif., saw the PT Cruiser in magazines and at the Texas State Fair last October. Campbell shopped around at dealerships willing to put him on a waiting list; he said one California dealer quoted him a price $5,000 over the sticker, citing high demand.
Campbell eventually placed an order with a New Mexico dealer for about $140 over the sticker price.
''I've been looking away from SUVs because of gas prices and some of the new prices on SUVs have been high,'' he said. ''When I saw the (PT Cruiser's) price, the first thing I said was, hey, this is something I could afford.''
Several signs indicate demand for the PT Cruiser will outrun supply this year. Chrysler has logged 250,000 requests for information on the car, but will build 60,000 for the United States this year.
Outside of low-volume sports cars, to find a similar demand for an American car ''you can go back to the first Mustang, the first Camaro or first Firebird,'' said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., an industry research firm. Those muscle cars from the 1960s ''were really the first incarnation of that high-image, reasonable price vehicle, something that people would stand in line for.''
In recent years, only a few foreign models such as the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Nissan Xterra sport utility vehicle have proven so popular with buyers. When the New Beetle went on sale in 1998 with a base price of about $16,000, several dealers made markups of a few thousand dollars. Some private sellers reported selling Beetles fresh from the dealer for $25,000.
Automakers discourage such practices, afraid they will anger customers, but are powerless to stop them. Dealers take a different view.
''Hey, when you got a chance, why not? You've got supply and demand,'' said Lee Cavanaugh, co-owner of Cavanaugh Motors in Alameda, Calif. ''We had a lot of people come in and want to give us deposits. This car is going to be a winner.''
Since the PT Cruiser was introduced at the Detroit auto show in 1999, Chrysler has been collecting names of potential buyers, teasing them with packets of information every few months.
It took the unusual step of showing off prototype PT Cruisers at college football games and state fairs last year. And it kept the price tag low enough that the vehicle was accessible to younger buyers.
''We were trying to keep these consumers interested in vehicles as information became available,'' said Chrysler spokeswoman Carrie McElwee. ''We were trying to communicate to them at an earlier time, before they were actually seeing it in the newspaper.''
Chrysler will build about 100,000 PT Cruisers this year, with 40,000 exported from the factory in Toluca, Mexico, to markets around the world. The company plans to build about 180,000 a year once production is up to full speed.
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