Is this the greatest toy ever invented or what? It’s like one of my kids’ Hot Wheels came to life, and I got to drive it around.

Everything you want to know about the Plymouth Prowler can be summed up in three letters: F-U-N. This wedgy eggplant doesn’t have a serious bone in its chassis. Nor should it.

Here is a production hot rod built to resemble, if not perform like, the roaring custom roadsters of Americana. In case you’ve been hiding under a bridge, you must know that the resurgence of classic hand-built, high-powered street rods has hit the big time, especially in car-crazy places like Arizona.

In other words, Chrysler – now DaimlerChrysler – has the right stuff at the right time. The Prowler may be high-priced and wildly impractical, with a worthless trunk, cramped footwells and squirrelly ride, but they can’t build enough to meet the demand.

Even in its third year, the Prowler is still a massive attention-grabber. The styling looks to the past and straight into the future, while everyone you see on the street is looking back at you. Especially teenage boys, who nearly go into fits at the sight of a Prowler.

A cruise out to the Pavilions on a Saturday night is just the ticket for a new Prowler. That’s where hundreds of street rods, custom cars, antiques and classics huddle around the rock-and-roll McDonald’s, accompanied by thousands of onlookers.

Even with all the competition, the Prowler caused a stir as we cruised through to mostly positive remarks and admiring glances. Sure, there were some sneers and disparaging comments about Prowler not being the real thing, or that it’s underpowered with a V-6 rather than a V-8. Well, that’s just too bad.

When we parked, we found ourselves in the company of two other Prowlers. One was bright yellow, a new color for ’99, with red and black to come. The other was a ’97 (there were no ’98s, as a new engine was being prepared) that was customized with a subtle flame motif.

More significantly, the flame-job had its enormous front bumpers removed. This customizing act left the Prowler’s sharp, jutting profile unprotected, but otherwise made the styling look much better defined.

Really, those big, gray, ugly plastic bumpers detract from the style. I know, I know, federal mandates and all that. But still, after designing such a hip-looking rod, you’d think they could come up with a more graceful way to take a 5-mile-per-hour bump.

Other than the bumpers, the Prowler looks just great to my eye. I love the way they fitted the fenders to the front suspension, giving the appearance of an open-wheel car, even if it’s not. And the way the wide, wide rear aspect looks so aggressive, then slants downward and inward until it reaches the point at the tip of its chin.

(An aside: The more I say the name Prowler, the less I think of a cat and the more I think of some guy who sneaks around committing burglaries.)

The horsepower in the new, all-aluminum engine, also used in the 300M and LHS sedans, is up 39 horsepower from the former cast-iron engine, giving the Prowler more spunk. The exhaust is throaty, but nothing like the thunderous roar of a big ol’ V-8.

Despite the sneers from some of the hot-rod dudes, the new all-aluminum engine, one of the most powerful V-6s out there, had plenty of guts, pulling the lightweight car sharply. This mill never will light up those huge rear tires, though, the way the real rods do. The torque’s just not there.

Also, it’s hard to do hole shots without a clutch, and the Prowler comes in automatic only. The automatic has the Autostick feature, which allows the driver to shift manually. This is a poor substitute for stick shift, but better than nothing.

Handling is surprisingly nimble. Surprising because most hot rods struggle with turns, while the Prowler’s refined suspension is stiffbut compliant, allowing sports-carlike cornering.

Get into some rough surface, though, and the Prowler will dance like John Travolta, but not quite as gracefully.

The top is manual, but it flops down and up easily enough with the use of one hand. It disappears into the rear-hinged trunk, which is otherwise pretty useless because of its flat space, basically contoured just a couple inches under the sloping deck lid. That’s why Plymouth sells a matching trailer for $4,000.

Although $40,000 seems like a lot for a car, it’s actually a pretty fair price for a unique product like the Prowler.

The Prowler is one reason to admire the cool hands at Chrysler. The V-10 Dodge Viper sports car is another one. Or the mighty Dodge Ram truck. Or those new Jeeps.

And how about the collection of fantasy concept cars that Chrysler keeps popping out like Christmas cookies?

Former Chrysler head Bob Lutz showed the world how a car guy runs a car company, without looking over his shoulder and without being afraid to take a chance, and bring out the kind of cars and trucks that people can crow about.

Now, after the merger, let’s hope the serious crew over at Daimler-Benz can unfurrow their brows long enough to dig what Chrysler’s all about. And learn from it.

1999 Plymouth Prowler

Vehicle type: Two passenger, two-door roadster, rear-wheel drive. Base price: $40,000. Price as tested: $40,000. Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 253 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, 255 pound-feet of torque at 3,950 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 2,862 pounds. Wheelbase: 113.3 inches. EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway. Highs: Fun to look at. Fun to be in. Fun to drive. Lows: Ugly front bumpers. No stick shift. I had to give it back.

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