Even though it's nearly 5 years old, the Prowler's hot rod styling is still mesmerizing. My hat is off to Chrysler for continuing to build a cycle-fendered two-seater with an aluminum chassis that is so radically different, and so radically cool, even if sales number just a few hundred a year.

Originally a Plymouth but now a Chrysler since the Plymouth brand is gone, the Prowler was the progenitor of the PT Cruiser and the retro styling craze.

Through December of 2000, 6,775 Prowlers have been sold in North America. In the last four years, the Prowler has gone through a series of color changes. First came purple, then yellow, black, red, black/red two-tone, silver, silver/black two-tone and orange. About 14 Prowlers are manufactured daily at Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit, where they are built alongside the Dodge Viper production line.

All Prowlers built after January are badged as Chryslers, and the first one to be so named is the 2001 "Mulholland Edition" in midnight blue. Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles is one of the more famous pieces of roadway in the car culture. The midnight blue version has a dark blue convertible top and a hand-painted light-blue pinstripe around the beltline. Its sticker price is $46,000, whereas the metallic orange Plymouth I drove was $45,000.

Through its lifetime, the Prowler has had two V-6 engines. The first, at 214 horsepower, was a bit anemic, but in 1999 the same 3.5-liter, 253-horsepower V-6 engine that is used in the Chrysler 300 M was slipped inside its skinny nose. While this engine doesn't have the tire-kicking muscles of a big V-8, it does a more than adequate job of moving the Prowler with reasonable dispatch. A manual transmission might give it more performance, but the AutoStick can be shifted manually whenever the driver wants.

The Prowler is not only one of Chrysler's coolest cars, but it is a rolling test bed for new technology. It has an aluminum chassis and aluminum alloy rear disc brakes. Inboard shock absorbers like those of a racing car are used for the front suspension, and the rear tires are 20 inches in diameter. Even though it looks like a hot rod, it has sports-car handling, thanks in part to the independent rear suspension and the tremendous grip of the monstrous rear tires. Weave through a series of turns and it goes precisely where you point it. It rides quite firmly, as well, and some cowl shake can be felt through the steering wheel over rough pavement.

A car as specialized as this one requires compromises. The cabin is pretty small. The doors do not open wide, and it takes considerable dexterity to slide down into the tiny bucket seats. The dumpy top with tiny windows looks very cool, but it limits headroom considerably. Putting down the manual top is a bit of a challenge, and it nearly fills what little trunk space there is. A cute luggage trailer that looks like the back section of the vehicle is available as an accessory from Chrysler's Mopar acce ssory division for about $5,000. Chrysler says 20 percent of all Prowlers are purchased with the matching trailer, which is understandable because there is no luggage space in the car as is. My wife and I were going to take the test car on a four-day trip but declined because there just wasn't any space for overnight bags. Plus, the exhaust system that has such a pleasant bellow around town would have been pretty annoying on a four-hour drive.

That's being practical, and this car is not about practicality. It is a hot rod for baby boomers who always wanted one but could not build their own. Treat it as you would a high-performance motorcycle: great for sunny Sunday afternoons, but best left for something more practical during the rest of the week.

But, oh, when Sunday comes, what fun it is.

Price The base price of our orange test car was $44,225. Freight brought the sticker price to $45,000.

Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The Prowler is ke no other car on the road. A factory-built hot rod that is as much four-wheeled art as daily transportation. It's outrageous, yet functionally as sound as only a factory can build.

Counterpoint:The cabin is small, headroom tight and the exhaust pretty loud for extended periods, but that's also why a handful of enthusiasts will love it.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 3.5-liter, 253-hp V-6
Transmission: AutoStick Rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,838 lbs.
Base price: $44,225
As driven: $45,000
Mpg rating: 17 city, 23 hwy.
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