If you're shy, you don't want a Prowler.Plymouth's limited production, hot rod lookalike is unquestionably the most attention-getting vehicle I have ever driven. Last spring I drove a pre-production version around Hollywood for a day and even jaded Southern Californians went ape. But here, on home turf, it was even crazier. I parked it on the street in downtown Independence during lunch, and gawkers were inexorably drawn to it like mosquitoes to a bug zapper. Old, young, male, female -- it didn't seem to matter, everyone wanted to get close. Most loved it. On the road, drivers chased me down to give a thumbs up. Something about this car resonates with people like no other. Maybe it's because it strikes a chord of rebellious individuality whose roots reach back to hot rods of the 1940s and 1950s; or, more likely, it's because it's drop-dead gorgeous. Its proportions are perfect. It hunkers down on its gigantic 20-inch rear wheels like a frog ready to leap. Cycle fenders turn with the front wheels and the compound curves in the trunk lid are beautiful. For making friends, the Prowler is the next best thing to winning the lottery. One evening my visiting brother-in-law and I went for a short ride and it took more than 20 minutes just to get out of my neighborhood because people flagged us down for a closer look. Even a passing policeman stopped his cruiser and got out for a look and a chat (better for him to see it this way than with a ticket book in his hand). In spite of its muscular looks, excessive speed really is not a problem, however, because a 214-horse, 3.5-liter V6 from the Dodge Intrepid sits under the hood. It scoots the Prowler to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds, which is quick enough, but don't expect smoky burnouts from the monstrous back tires. Pop the hood and you'll see there really isn't room for a V8. The automatic transmission is an Autostick, so it can be shifted manually when you want. It is mounted with the rear axle to equalize weight distribution for better handling. To think the Prowler is about speed, or practicality, is to miss the point. It's an image car, for cruisin' with ZZ Top blasting from the stereo or being the hot rod you always wanted but never had. It's the ultimate toy car, the kind you drive on Sunday afternoon. And it's also fun. If it doesn't make you chuckle to yourself every time you slip behind the wheel, you're a stick in the mud and wouldn't like it anyway. Now that you're intrigued, can you march down to your Plymouth dealer and get your hands on one? Not likely. They are in very short supply. Originally, about 2,000 were going to be built starting in June, with another 5,000 next year, but fewer than that may actually come to market this year. The list price is $39,000, but AutoWeek reported one of the first ones sold for $141,000 at an auction earlier this month. Dual airbags, air conditioning, power windows and 320-watt s tereo with compact disc player all come standard. Next year there will be a more powerful engine from the 1998 LHS, and a color other than purple, probably yellow, will be available. Unlike original hot rods, this car is well balanced and agile, just as capable of darting through a turn as profiling down Main Street. Up front, the suspension has inboard shock absorbers like an Indy car. The brakes are great. Run-flat tires are standard because there is no room for a spare. Because it sits so low to the ground, and because the run-flat tires have such stiff sidewalls, the Prowler rides very firmly. Smooth pavement is no problem, but the whole body shudders when you hit a bump or a pot hole. In addition to its high-profile status, the Prowler is a also test-bed for new technology and materials. Under the composite and aluminum body sits an aluminum frame. The suspension pieces are formed through semi-solid forging of aluminum, one of the first American produ ion applications of this technique. A die-cast magnesium structure supports the instrument panel and the rear brake discs are a ceramic-aluminum alloy. Even the seat frames are aluminum. Total vehicle weight is just under 2,900 pounds, which is about 21 percent less than it would have been had steel been used exclusively. Stepping into the cockpit requires a good bit of dexterity. The doors do not open very wide, and you have to slither down into the seat behind the wheel. The seats are comfortable, have good support all around and legroom is even generous. Trunk space is minimal. You might squeeze in a flat garment bag or a couple of small duffels, but little else. Mopar, Chrysler's accessory company, offers a small luggage trailer that is a replica of the car's tail section. The instruments are spread across the center of the dash, surrounded by a purple metal panel. The tachometer is situated on the steering column. Many of the Prowler's parts, such as the climate control system, window switches, audio system (including compact disc changer), steering wheel and instruments, have been snatched from the parts bin of other Chrysler products in order to hold the price down. Will the Prowler be the boon to Plymouth that management hopes? Hard to say. But kudos go to Chrysler Corp. for having the courage, and brashness, to build it. Sure, it creates a halo for the Plymouth brand, but more than that it celebrates the uniquely American spirit of automobiles. In the process, it lets the world know that great cars come from a company that likes to have fun. Price The sticker price is $39,000, and there are no options. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: I've never had as many stares and thumbs-up as I did in the Prowler. Counterpoint: A firm ride sends shudders through the body on rough roads, and the trunk is next to non-existent. Does it matter? Not really. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 3.5-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: Automatic WHEELBASE: 113.3 inches CURB WEIGHT: 2,862 lbs. BASE PRICE: $39,000 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $39,000 MPG RATING: not available
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