ROYAL OAK, Mich. -- Just 16 months after introducing its biggest automotive hit in a generation, the Chrysler Group has unveiled two new versions of its iconic PT Cruiser, hoping to keep the popular car's momentum going in a brutally competitive market.
A version the DaimlerChrysler unit calls the Woodie plays off the wood-paneled Chrysler station wagons of the 1940s, while the Dream Cruiser Series 1 looks as if it were carved out of a gold brick.
By offering the factory PT customizations, DaimlerChrysler seeks to cash in on the boom in customizing the popular retromobile that last year put Chrysler back at the forefront of head-turning automotive design.
The automaker, No. 3 in the U.S. market, also hopes to energize the flagging passenger-car lineup of its Chrysler Group -- the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and soon-to-disappear Plymouth brands -- whose sales have declined 2.9 percent so far this year.
"Our goal is to keep the car very innovative, very fresh," said Tom Marinelli, Chrysler's vice president for the Chrysler and Jeep brands. "This vehicle does great things for the Chrysler brand. It's made the perception of the brand younger, more hip, more willing to take risks."
When it was introduced in April of last year, the PT Cruiser provided a much-needed boost to the sagging fortunes of the Chrysler Group, which was torn by internal disputes with its new German owners at DaimlerChrysler and was seeing rivals eat away at its most profitable segments: minivans and large pickup trucks.
The PT's sleek, retro look prompted thousands of buyers to plunk down hefty deposits to be assured of getting one. Once the cars hit showrooms, dealers were reportedly charging hefty premiums as high as $10,000, since the car was being produced in relatively small numbers, 115,000 last year at Chrysler's factory in Toluca, Mexico.
Today, Marinelli says, most dealer premiums are a thing of the past, and waiting lists have shrunk from nine to 12 months down to 30 to 60 days.
The company is also beefing up capacity to meet the demand for PTs. Chrysler's only overseas factory, in Graz, Austria, last month began producing PT Cruisers for the European market, and the Toluca plant is undergoing an expansion so that by the end of next year the company will be able to produce 310,000 a year, bringing in some $6 billion in revenue.
The expansion of capacity should make more cars available at the low end for younger buyers with less money to spend. Since Chrysler priced the PT fairly low to begin with, from $16,000 to $20,000, most dealer orders were for the higher-end Touring and Limited models, as opposed to the entry-level model called the Basic.
"We know there's pent-up demand for PTs among younger buyers," Marinelli said at the new models' unveiling at a restaurant in this north Detroit suburb. "We haven't been able to meet that demand, because some can't afford the high-end cars or can't afford to wait. Now, we'll get a higher mix of the base PT."
The Woodie will be available as a stand-alone $895 option starting in November, with a factory-installed laminate veneer made to resemble medium-dark oak and light ash that can be put on any color PT at any trim level. Marinelli said he has seen aftermarket kits to give PTs a woodie look selling for $2,000 and more.
The Dream Cruiser will sell for about $24,000 starting in January and sport a custom "Inca gold" color for its exterior and bumpers, along with interior gold leather accents on the seats and steering wheel. Only 7,500 will be made, each numbered with a dashboard plaque.
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