When the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser went on sale in 2000, the company suspected it had a hit, but likely didn't realize what long legs the car would have. Now sales have slowed, but it remains a great value.

A testament to developing a solid product and improving it year after year, the PT Cruiser may be a better buy than the company's touted alternative, the Dodge Caliber. The PT Cruiser is a more-solid, stable highway car, and at least the equal of the Caliber around town. And with the discounts you can logically expect on the PT Cruiser, it's one of the best values in the automotive world.

The test model was a base PT Cruiser, starting price $15,015, with a few add-ons, including air conditioning ($1,000), a four-speed automatic transmission ($825), and anti-lock brakes (a pricey $625). With shipping, the bottom line was $18,105, but only the most optimistic dealer would expect close to that.

The basic design of the PT Cruiser is one of its most appealing aspects: Not just the way it looks. Given the size of the car, its boxiness means that it's roomier inside than you'd expect from a car that is just 169 inches long, 5 inches shorter than the Caliber. Its height means ample headroom.

Inside, the cockpit looks and feels moderately upscale.

As you would expect from the design, there isn't a lot of room behind the PT Cruiser's rear seat, but there's enough for some soft luggage, and if you need more, the seat folds forward. Rear seat legroom is adequate for adults.

A 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower four-cylinder engine remains the base powerplant, but its slightly rough, cobby nature has been tamed. A five-speed manual transmission is offered, but the vast majority of PT Cruisers come with a four-speed automatic, as did the test car. EPA-rated fuel mileage for 2008 is 19 mpg city driving, 24 mpg on the highway -- you can expect overall mileage of about 21 or 22 mpg. Another failing: Side air bags are optional, whereas the majority of newer cars in the class offer them as standard, and in some cases also give you side-curtain air bags.

Where the PT Cruiser shines, though, is in driving experience. Handling is crisp, the ride smooth, and there's a feeling on the highway that you're in a bigger car, in a good way. Around town, the PT Cruiser is nimble and easy to park.

There's no denying that some of its shortcomings, most age-related, must be addressed by spending some money on engineering and development.

Still, it remains a pretty attractive vehicle. Though for how much longer is anyone's guess.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com.