Plymouth Prowler. Any color as long as it’s purple–at least until December when yellow is added for those wanting to paint flames on this retrospective ’50s hot rod.

Seats two. Top drops. Styling masterpiece. The 3.5-liter, 214-horsepower V-6 propels you from 0 to 60 in about 7.5 seconds, probably quicker if it weren’t for the torque steer that keeps you from holding a straight line when putting pedal to the carpet.

And certainly quicker next year, when the 3.5-liter, 250-h.p. V-6 offered in Chrysler’s ’98 LH sedans will become the Prowler power plant.

Some will argue Prowler would be more of an attraction with a V-8 in keeping with its hot-rod heritage. Lift the hood and you’ll realize why there’s only a V-6–no room.

Viper’s job is to be the rubber-burning roadster in the Chrysler lineup. Prowler is quick, but it’s meant for cruising, sitting back and relaxing and reliving memories of days gone by.

A year ago (Transportation, Sept. 1), we wandered through the Wisconsin countryside in a Prowler prototype. Now, we’ve slipped behind the wheel of a preproduction model in Chicagoland.

The prototype was a bit crude. The suspension was stiff, the seats hard, and squeaks and rattles drowned out the radio.

The preproduction model is still a bit crude, yet more civil. The suspension is far less harsh though you are sitting on slightly stiffer run-flat (nowhere to put a spare) tires–17-inch upfront, massive 20-inch treads in the rear.

Watching the front fenders rise over rough pavement is a bit startling. But while you find yourself bouncing a lot, it’s not as much a jarring, snapping movement as it is a gentle, if continual, roller-coaster ride. Rather than the prototype’s feel of doing the macarena on a marble slab, the preproduction model feels more like traveling on a trampoline.

Seats are softer and more forgiving. The cabin, though seating only two, is comfortable once you master entry and exit. The Prowler cabin is basically a bathtub. If you owned a Corvette before the 1997 model remake, you’ll understand what it’s like having to fall in and crawl out of a car. Sinkand slink.

The squeaks and rattles have been toned down considerably, though after you drive at length and park, Prowler’s exhaust manifold and catalytic converter sound like a coffeepot percolating for several minutes as the components cool down.

The brakes would stop a 747 in mid-takeoff–one reason Chrysler opted not to offer ABS; the other was to keep the cost down. Even with the higher horsepower engine next year, ABS won’t be added.

Such modern musts as air conditioning, power windows/locks/steering, AM/FM stereo with speakers behind the headrests and dual air bags are standard in this $39,000 roadster.

The 3.5-liter V-6 is peppy, but playtime is limited by the steady drain on the 12-gallon fuel tan k. The mileage rating is 17 miles per gallon city/23 m.p.g. highway. The rating’s not reality. Perhaps when the 250-h.p. V-6 arrives, a larger fuel tank will be needed.

One thing didn’t change between the prototype and the real thing. People stop, stare, scream, cheer, jump up and down and make U-turns to follow the car. Perhaps the most pleasant part of the test drive was that Prowler causes young and old to lift thumb upward in admiration of the two-seat purple roadster. Been a long time since we saw that finger used on the roadway.

Nothing else like it for attracting folks. Put a Prowler and a Dodge Viper side by side on the pavement, and people will pass the Viper to get a glimpse of the Prowler.

Most folks who went out of their way to catch a peek at Prowler were men. Few women paid attention, except a couple of blondes who seemed transfixed when the machine rolled by. Of course, being blondes, it is impossible to determine whether it wast e car causing the eyes to go glassy, but we’ll give Prowler credit.

Glad to get into a Prowler?


Happy to drop the top and cruise on a summer evening?

Bet the house on it!

Wanna run right down to the store and buy one?

Please repeat the question.

Fun, to be sure, but more so when Prowler was pure fantasy and irresistible because it was a concept you couldn’t get your hands on. Much of the allure was in the anticipation of it becoming reality. Remember how good that beer tasted when you were 18, and how it lost a little when you turned 21?

The car stirred more emotion in us when it was sitting on a turntable at the Detroit Auto Show as a concept than it does now that it soon will be available as a ’97 model through Dec. 31 and bypassing ’98 and becoming a 1999 model starting in January.

A word of warning to those on the waiting list. It’s a toy to play with over a weekend, but until more appear on the road, the novelty item is best enjoyed on back roads and side streets and during the evening hours, when a purple roadster has less of a crowd to draw. Being surrounded on and off the road grows old real quick.

Prowler was meant to be a limited-edition vehicle (2,000 this year, 5,000 at most each year thereafter) that costs little to produce because it uses existing parts yet attracts a maximum of people into the showroom. It could have been a Dodge, but Plymouth needed the notoriety.

People will visit the showroom and ogle the Prowler but buy a Neon or Breeze or even a Voyager mini-van. And nothing would make Chrysler Corp. happier.

When Prowler no longer turns heads or prompts thumbs to rise, it will be time to move on to the next niche offering.

Cars enjoying the status Prowler did before it got the production nod are the Dodge Sidewinder high-performance concept pickup built off the Dodge Dakota and the Dodge Copperhead concept roadster (Transportation, July 6) built off the Prowler–a more BMW Z3- or Porsche Boxster-oriented two-seater than the retrospective Prowler.

When unveiling Prowler, then-Chrysler President Bob Lutz said “it’s not for everybody.” Lutz, as usual, was prophetic.

There’s a litany of annoyances, the first one being that the doors don’t open very far, which prevents easy or gracious access to its bathtub cabin.

Like those old hot rods, the Prowler top is low, the belt line high, the windshield sharply raked, which makes no difference when the top is down, but severely restricts visibility fore/aft/sideways when it is up. With the top up, you’ll duck your head to find some glass space to see out the windshield. The wraparound soft top creates a large blind spot and a hazard when backing up.

With scant top-up visibility, you’ll want to keep it lowered as much as possible. The manual top is fairly simple to store under the deck lid. But with the top stored, there’s no room for anything larger than a Prowler sales brochure there, unless, as previously reported, you buy the optional purple–or yellow–trailer that will run up to $5,000.

While Prowler captivated onlookers, an older woman employee retrieving scattered carts in the lot at the local Jewel put the vehicle into perspective. She walked over as we struggled to get out of the car, lifted her thumb and proclaimed: “Cool.”

And that’s what Prowler is all about–being “cool” in an industry that’s knownfor being conservative. It seems that dream cars were just that–dreams because they teased the imagination but never became reality until Chrysler gambled on Viper, and now Prowler and, maybe, Sidewinder and/or Copperhead.

The ’97 Corvette runs rings around Prowler and all of its quirks in terms of room, comfort, ride, handling and performance. But the beauty of a Corvette comes from driving one. Prowler prompts folks to stare, scream, heer and jam a thumb in the air when the car is sitting at a curb.

Will dealers put a premium on the limited volume Prowler? Silly to ask.

Did those who paid small fortunes for the first Viper roadsters make a killing? Not yet.

>> 1997 Plymouth Prowler Wheelbase: 113.3 inches Length: 165.3 inches Engine: 3.5-liter, 214-h.p. V-6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic with Autostick that shifts like a manual without a clutch EPA mileage: 17 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway Base price: $39,000, including $700 freight Price as tested: $39,000. No options available other than a mini-trailer sold through Chrysler’s Mopar parts division expected to run $4,000 to $5,000. Pluses: If you want uniqueness in a car, Prowler delivers. And if you like attention, this machine draws a crowd. Fun, top-down cruiser. Quick even if quirky with lots of torque steer. Dual air bags standard. Minuses: Entry/exit requires dexterity. Top-up visibility is very poor. No ABS. Mileage rating is very generous. Last car in the world you’d want to use to rob a bank. >>

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