EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view

It’s almost unbelievable, this street-legal hot rod called the Prowler.

First, it’s hard to believe someone could build such a car under today’s strict safety and emissions-control regulations and make it street legal and still so cool.

The Plymouth Prowler

And cool is the word that best describes what is possibly the most outrageous production vehicle ever built.

For a baby boomer such as myself, this car is a throwback to the cool ’50s and early ’60s when I was growing up, an age that still lives in the music we hear daily on the most popular radio stations, golden-oldie outlets.

Driving down the road in my bright yellow Prowler test car, with the top down, I kept the radio blasting — mostly tuned to a AM station that plays the oldies “in mono like you remember them.”

The music seemed to fit the Prowler like a glove. Of course, the sound system in the Prowler — with 320 watts of power — is designed to share the music with everybody else as you cruise down the road and sit waiting for traffic lights to change.

But you really don’t need the loud radio blasting out the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” to get attention in the Prowler. The only other car I’ve driven in 15 years of auto reviewing that has come close to drawing this much attention is the new VW Beetle, but people were just curious about it; they were passionate about the Prowler.

Wherever I stopped — even at traffic lights — people would roll down their windows or walk up to the car, look it over, and start asking questions.

The first one, usually, was “What is it?” Even with all the media attention, most people had never heard of the Prowler and didn’t know it was made by Plymouth.

Second, of course, was, “How much does it cost?” I would show them the sticker, which lists the price as an even $40,000 (including $700 transportation), but then I had to tell them: “If you really want to buy one, get on a waiting list and plan to pay at least double that.”

Then I explained Plymouth has built only about 2,000 Prowlers, and that until production at the Detroit Conner Avenue plant cranks up to the promised 5,000 a year, these babies are going to be in short supply. Each dealer that qualifies to get Prowlers will be lucky to get two this year.

The next most popular question, which came from the few who had heard of the Prowler, was, “How did you get a yellow one? I thought they only came in purple.”

The Prowler interior

Here’s a bit of Prowler history and trivia for you: The first ones, the 1997 model, came only in purple. There was no 1998 model; and now, the 1999 models are on the market and they come in purple and yellow. Later in the ’99 model year, they also will come in black and red. (I haven’t seen either of those yet.)

For 1999, the Prowler also gets more power. The 3.5-liter V-6 engine has been retuned and beefed up from the original 214 horsepower to a whopping 253, and torque has increased 15 percent to 255 foot-pounds.

I t drives like a dream, although I have to admit it is a bit rough on the bumps. People are surprised the car has only a six-cylinder engine, but believe me, there is plenty of power. Road-handling is crisp and sure, thanks in part to the Indy-car-style suspension and bicyclelike front wheels and the huge rear tires (20-inch wheels).

Another surprise is that the Prowler comes only with an automatic transmission. The four-speed gear box does have an automatic stick-shift mode, however, so you can manually run it through the gears if you choose. But you don’t have to worry about a clutch.

Practical, the Prowler is not. The trunk holds 1.8 cubic feet of stuff, but that’s big enough for a briefcase and a jacket or two — no suitcases or golf clubs. For cross-country cruising, you can buy a matching trailer that looks like the huge rear end of the car. It costs about $3,500.

There are just two seats, of course, but the 1999 model has a passenger-side air-bag cut-off switch, which a owed me to take my 11-month-old granddaughter for a ride in her rear-facing child seat. (I mean, you really should have a babe beside you in this car!)

The top is operated manually, and can’t be lowered until the trunk lid is opened (it’s actually the whole rear of the body, and it releases and tilts up toward the back).

Since this is technically a luxury car, there are standard amenities you would expect in one: power windows and door locks (with remote), leather seats, air-conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, dual power mirrors, full instrumentation, four-wheel disc brakes, security system, power rack-and-pinion steering and more.

The frame is made of aluminum, and the body is a composite plastic. It looks like a new body could be bolted on in minutes in case you should break the old one.

The exhaust system is tuned to make the car sound like a hot rod without breaking local noise ordinances, so it really does sound cool.

The audio system includes an AM/FM stereo/cassette in-dash unit with a separate six-disc CD changer mounted behind the passenger seat. There are seven speakers.

No factory options are offered for the Prowler except the little trainer; everything else is included.

Cruising range is quite limited: The gas tank holds only 10 gallons, and the car gets just 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. I was having to refuel every 160 miles, which would be a real hassle on a cross-country jaunt.

So who would buy a Prowler? Bored middle-aged dentists, mostly? Chrysler says the target buyers are men ages 35-49 with annual household incomes of $125,000-plus. Only 25 percent of buyers are expected to be female, the company says.

Heck, I think most of us would buy one if we had the dough.

1999 PLYMOUTH PROWLER

The Package: Two-door, two-passenger, six-cylinder, rear-drive convertible-top hot rod.

Highlights: The coolest car on the road; it catches almost everyone’s eyes, it’s fun to drive, has lots of power and even sounds like a hot rod.

Negatives: Not the most practical car around: there is virtually no trunk, it jolts your kidneys on bumps, and the gas tank is too small. The sticker price is decent, but dealers are getting double that and more.

Major competitors: Nothing comes close, but two-seaters in this price class include the Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK Kompressor and BMW Z3.

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 23 highway.

Base price: $39,300 plus $700 transportation.

Price as tested: $40,000, including transportation.

On The Road rating: A (for originality).

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