EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Now in its third model year, the Plymouth Prowler remains the closest thing to a carnival ride on wheels.

Curiously, the appeal of this flamboyant neo-hotrod seems to be limited to two generations: Baby Boomers and kids under the age of 10. Teens, for the most part, give the Prowler barely a second glance.

Despite its shortcomings – and they are many – we found ourselves going back to the Prowler night after night for just one more ride. For warm-weather cruising with no particular place to go, it has few peers.

He: Even if I could afford the $42,000 price tag on our test car, I don’t think I could bring myself to own a Prowler. It’s totally impractical, unless you live in San Diego or South Beach, Fla. And yet I have to admit a little sheepishly that this is one of the most entertaining vehicles I’ve driven in the past year. It’s funny that Chrysler changed very little on the car this year, and yet it hasn’t lost a bit of its charm.

She: Yeah, the big story for 1999 are the color additions and the new engine. This year, you get a Prowler not just in purple, but also in yellow, black and red. We drove a black one, and here’s my enduring memory of that experience – it looks like a car the Munsters would drive. Didn’t Herman have that cut-down, souped-up hearse in black?

He: I’ve got a news flash. Herman Munster would never have been able to squeeze into a Prowler, especially with the top up. I’m over six feet, and my head was brushing up against the canvas even with the seat raked all the way back. And with the top down, the doors are so tall that even I had trouble peering over them. I also had difficulty seeing traffic lights overhead. I was constantly ducking my head to try to see through the windshield, then craning my neck to look over the windshield. Ah, heck, I suppose that’s a small price to pay for the sheer pleasure of driving such a nutty vehicle.

She: That convertible top is really a pain. It’s not a big deal to stow it in the trunk. But I had lots of trouble with those little latches. Chrysler needs to redesign them and make them bigger, so they’re easier to operate. And why isn’t there any trunk space? It looks like there’s enough room for a golf club – that’s club, singular.

He: You have to admit the Prowler is not nearly as primitive as, say, the Dodge Viper was when it first came out. Look at all the standard amenities. You get leather upholstery, air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, keyless entry, even a 6-disc CD changer.

She: Which I would have never found unless I had accidentally looked behind the passenger seat and discovered it there. Good thing there’s a cassette player in the dash.

He: Did you notice the four-wheel disc brakes and those massive 20-inch tires in the rear?

She: Hey, I liked those fancy chrome wheels, which were a $1,000 option on our test car. In fact, I saw an ad in Automotive News from somebody offering an almos t identical ’99 Prowler – black with the chrome wheels – for $56,000, which is $14,000 over the sticker. That makes me wonder if the Prowler would be a good investment. I don’t think I’;d buy one for any other reason.

He: I don’t know about you or other women, but I can tell you that guys are likely to buy the Prowler for one of two other reasons – image and performance. I was happy to see Chrysler exchange the old 214-horsepower V-6 for a much livelier 253-hp unit. The acceleration, especially from zero to 30, is sensational. And that’s with the goofy AutoStick transmission. Too bad they still haven’t put a real manual in, even as an option. Once you get past the novelty of the AutoStick, you find yourself operating it most of the time in full automatic mode – just like Mom and Dad used to do in their old station wagon.

She: Speaking of Mom and Dad, I noticed our 18-year-old and his friends seemed totally unimpressed by the Prowler. I think he took one quick test drive, d that was that.

He: Yeah, I think he’s off somewhere in his station wagon. June Cleaver would have a stroke.

She: But she could probably get a date in the Prowler.

1999 Plymouth Prowler

Anita’s rating: above average

Paul’s rating: world class

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger roadster

Price: Base, $39,300; as tested, $42,000 (including $700 destination charge)

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 253 hp at 6,400 rpm; 255 lb-ft torque at 3,950 rpm

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $3,945 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Detroit

What we liked: Totally unique, totally outrageous; terrific acceleration; irresistible appeal to Boomers and young kids; for warm-weather cruising, it doesn’t get much better than this.

What we didn’t like: Totally impractical for everyday use; taller people can’t sit upright with top up; even with the top down, you may feel claustrophobic in the cramped cabin; latches on convertible top are difficult to secure; no trunk space; almost cheaper to build your own hot rod.

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