Low-Mileage Retro-Mobiles: 1998 VW New Beetle vs 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser

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Good morning! On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re looking at a couple of old cars that were made to look like classic cars when they were new, but now they just look old. (Did that make sense?)

First let’s finish up on our imported hot hatches from Friday:

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Close one! And I was watching the votes on Friday – it was tied several times. I had a hunch the Honda City was going to end up winning, but apparently the Alto had enough of you singing a different tune to give it the win.

So: Onward. There was a fad in the late 1990s and early 2000s that you may have noticed: Automakers jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon with both feet. Everything from the Mini Cooper to the Ford Thunderbird was given a retro makeover, and new models were introduced with old-school design elements. Some were wildly successful, some not so much. The two we’re going to look at today enjoyed huge popularity when they were first introduced, and in the intervening two decades have become fixtures on the used car market. Are they still worth a look, way down at the bottom of the depreciation curve? Well, let’s take a look and find out.

1998 VW New Beetle – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter SOHC inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 103,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

I confess I did not like the new VW Beetle when it was introduced. I think it was primarily because I am such a fan of the VW Golf, a no-nonsense hatchback that does so many things well. And here was a car on the same platform that was nothing but nonsense – all awkward proportions and wasted space. It just did nothing for me. But apparently it did something for a lot of car buyers who remembered the old Beetle fondly: VW had a hit on its hands. But the honeymoon was short-lived; the aging college professors and hippies who had been able to keep their old ’60s Beetles running with nothing but a flathead screwdriver and a John Muir book were suddenly faced with the reality of a modern Volkswagen and all its foibles.

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But the New Beetle’s charm was great enough that it hung around for twelve years, before being replaced by a new New Beetle, which stayed in production until 2019. It’s a far cry from the original Beetle’s half a century run, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. The Beetle was offered with a few different engines over the years: This one has the standard garden-variety 2.0 liter naturally-aspirated four. It’s nothing special in the performance department, but it’s probably the most reliable of the bunch.

[Editor’s Note: That black stripe the owner added on the bumper is interesting; I wonder if they were trying to emulate the black rubber strip – either tape or rubber – found on the simpler 1968 and up “Europa” bumpers ? I kinda like it. And I’ve always had a soft spot for these. My parents had a yellow turbo New Beetle, and it worked for a cute, tiny older couple zipping around in it, with a license plate that read YOLKSWAGEN. – JT)

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This Beetle has only 103,000 miles under its belt, practically nothing for a twenty-four year old car. It looks pretty good, too: I see one scrape in one door, but no other damage, and the interior looks clean. We don’t get much information about its mechanical condition, but it has current registration, which bodes well. A buyer would probably find a few things that need fixing (it is a late ’90s Volkswagen, after all), but it looks like a respectable little car.

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I’m personally still not sold on the New Beetle’s styling, but I’m coming around, especially for prices like this. Secondhand Golfs are still more appealing, but Beetles are easier to find. If I were ever to return to my water-cooled VW days, which I have threatened to do a few times, a Beetle like this wouldn’t be a terrible choice. At least they made it a hatchback.

2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser – $2,300

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter DOHC inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Clackamas, OR

Odometer reading: 98,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

We’ve talked about the Chrysler PT Cruiser before. In fact, it was the subject of the very first Shitbox Showdown that I wrote, back in April (which feels like either last week or ten years ago). I’m a fan of the PT; despite the unorthodox styling and baffling NHTSA classification as a truck, what it really is is a small tall station wagon, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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All PT Cruisers in the US were powered by a 2.4 liter four, or turbocharged variant thereof. This one lacks the turbo, and it also lacks a clutch pedal (sorry). Out of the more than one million PT Cruisers sold, I would wager that the majority were equipped with the naturally aspirated engine and the automatic. Nothing wrong with it, but small cars are more fun with manuals. But hey, you can’t have everything.

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What this particular example does have to offer is an odometer still on five digits (barely). It’s an early model, with the ugly gray plastic bumpers, and they haven’t weathered the years too well. The paint looks great, however. With this few miles, I suspect, and hope, that the seat covers and dash covers and big rubber floormats are precautionary, and the seats and dash look like new underneath. I could be wrong – it could be trashed, but I doubt it.

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There isn’t much information to go on, again, so a careful inspection is a good idea, as well as a timing belt change if there is no record of it being done already. The only thing that worries me a little bit is that it looks like more than one wheel has a missing lug nut. I’d like to know what the story is there. With that caveat, this looks like a decent deal on a reasonably good car.

I know a lot of you will take one look at these and say, “Ew, neither.” But set aside the hokey nostalgic styling, and what you’ve got here are two pretty decent little cars. Sure, you’d have to be seen in them, but for cars this clean and low-mileage, I think I’d be willing to make the sacrifice. What say you, Autopians? Which cheesy retro-mobile do you choose?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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65 Responses

  1. Oh man…the year was 1999, I was 27 years old, the internet still hadn’t imploded yet and was going gangbusters and I had just leased a brand new 2000 New Beetle GLX Turbo 1.8T/Manual. That car was a freakin’ BLAST to drive!

  2. When the PT Cruiser came out, I was travelling a lot for work. I got stuck with them as rental cars pretty regularly (after the initial demand disappeared, they all went to the rental lots). They were awful in every way. Small, rough ride, weird seating position. A turbo with 5 speed might have been OK, but the NA engine with auto just sucked any joy out of driving.

    I worked with a guy who was a Type A project manager who never backed down from an argument and used to regularly get involved in road rage incidents. One time, he got a new beetle as his rental car. It was hilarious watching this aggressive jerk in a “chick car”. It was just such a dichotomy – angry aggressive male/cute friendly car. No matter how aggressively he drove, people would just smile and wave at him.

  3. New Beetle!
    I always loved the Beetle, and when I was a kid around 1994 there was no Internet where I lived. I saw the Concept 1 on a newspaper (I still have that clipping somewhere), and I was amazed! It was just after Jurassic Park (circa 1994), and I was also into dinosaurs (because of course I was). The whole thing felt like a resurrection, and I started to collect every bit of info I could get my hands on.
    Around 1995 I got the opportunity to use The Internet at school, and my very first query on Altavista was – of course – about this car.
    I built scale models out of paper, clay and later epoxy (I got quite good at it, BTW), and could only dream of the day that this car would arrive at Brazilian shores. I remember that when I got my first PC in 1997 or 1998, I had precisely one “real” image – a JPG of a blue New Beetle, that was, naturally, my wallpaper.
    When the car got released, though, I was dealing with puberty, so my interests shifted toward other things. When I was old enough to consider owning a car, neither money nor practicality would allow me to buy one. Today I firmly believe that anything that can’t haul at least seven butts is a waste of automotive real state, so I probably won’t own one now either, even though they’re affordable and my wife also loves them. But I will always have a soft spot for this Golf with a fancy suit with no pockets… I swear that I even considered buying a VW Caddy and grafting a Beetle front end to create a New Fridolin 🙂
    Ah, I also heard about the PT Cruiser at one point. Eh. Don’t hate it, but never saw one IRL to have an opinion. People seem to hate them, though?

  4. I’m a fan of the PT… IF it has the manual transmission. The automatic is poorly matched to the 4cyl resulting in a combo of unimpressive performance and unimpressive fuel economy.

    So I’m going with the VW on this one. The 2.slow might not be the best engine for fun, but at least it’s durable and reliable.

  5. In this instance I would take the PT. But only for the express purpose of killing it as a field car/ battle car/ gambler.
    The VW would be too emotional for me. I’d become attached to it. I’d name it. I’d give it a rally suspension and maybe look into an engine swap (or an Audi TT AWD swap)
    But the PT. I could treat it like the genital wart to the automotive world that it is.

  6. The biggest criticism I’d heard about the New Beetle was that it failed to embody the characteristics that made the original Beetle so appealing.

    The original was very affordable, had economical fuel consumption, and was simple to repair. The looks of the New Beetle were reminiscent of the original, but that was about it. It was pricey compared to similarly sized cars, it wasn’t particularly fuel efficient, and mechanically it was… well, it was a late ’90s VW. Some original Beetle drivers dove in because the looks reminded them of their old cars (and now had the disposable income to spend on it), but many were upset because the new car didn’t exhibit what they loved about their originals — to them, it felt like a superficial imitation.

    It would be like if Toyota were to come out with a “New Prius” that’s kinda-sorta shaped like the original but starts at $45k and pulls 25mpg.

    1. The soul of the original Beetle was truly lost on this design. I agree. VW missed their opportunity to launch a user friendly cost effective model with a huge after market catalog. I do get why the went with front engine, but borrowing the boxter power plant would have been glorious!

  7. Huh. You guys REALLY hate these. That strikes me as so weird, based on the stuff you actually profess to love (or at least have weird nostalgia for). I confess I wanted both of these when they came out. Yeah, nostalgia. I was born in 1969, and Bugs were everywhere throughout my childhood and young adulthood. And also I liked those weird 1990s throwbacks like the HHR and PT Cruiser and Prowler and T-Bird and SSR (though that one annoyed me since my dad had a ’52 Chevy 3100 pickup when I was little and the SSR was too cartoony and not useful enough nor badass at all). I liked them because they reminded me of Hot Wheels I’d owned, and vehicles my dad had owned (he once calculated that between 1953 and 1970 he’d briefly owned about 300 cars… generally one or two at a time. He and his buddies traded them like used skateboards. That ’52 pickup he bought for $60 and a case of beer.)

    Anyway, this was a tough choice for me. I’m aware of their limitations, and I certainly would prefer a stick shift, but in the end the PT Cruiser wins it for me because it would be more useful. The interior of both of these, while well-preserved, was never any good at all, but I genuinely prefer four-doors, and I like having cargo space. The Bug might be slightly more fun to drive, and might have barely edged out the PT Cruiser if it weren’t white. And since they’re both shitboxes that I can expect to spend time under the hood with, I bet the Chrysler is cheaper and easier to work on.

  8. While I don’t hate either of these nearly as much as a lot of y’all, I certaily have no desire to own either one of these things as well. I voted for the Beetle, just because of the seat covers on the PT Cruiser. Those are truly awful!

  9. I voted Beetle because manual.
    I know we love to hate the PT, but if you come across a manual GT PT, give it a ride: I was quite surprised by my friend’s when test-driving after a shift cable(I think??) replacement. It was competent and almost peppy. The HVAC was quite good by my (80s Subarus) standards.

    Yes; I am damning with very faint praise.

  10. We bought a new PT Cruiser the first model year and within a few months made a long road trip to Vermont. I have fond memories because we were celebrities in that car. We had to talk to strangers about it every time we stopped for anything, and we loved it. In two different states cops pulled us over to ask about it. Near Talladega, Alabama a Ferrari driver slowed down to study us, gave us a huge grin and a thumbs ups, and motored on. That’s a lot of ego stroking for $17,000.
    My mother had an old Beetle and I bought John Muirs book. It (the book) was hilarious and indispensable. Whenever a family member told me that I kept Mom’s Volkswagen running I’d always tell them “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” was responsible. I think I’ll buy another copy (if still for sale) for old times sake. At the end of the day, the Volkswagen will be more fun to drive.

  11. Dispite the loss of popularity of the next gen Bug, they did amazing on the rally circuit. The interior acoustics made lower wattage sound symptoms punch above their class. Only VW could mess up it’s potential. They should have went economy on design at a lower base and threw out an aftermarket catalog to make up for the $ up front. They would have established a cult following and would have made more in the long run.
    So no to the PT Crapper from me.

  12. My mostly uninformed opinion is that the PT will drive further broken than the VW will if constantly repaired, but based on a clutch and the PT Barnums dynamics I still voted Slug Bug over Cruiser Bruiser.

  13. I chose the VW.

    I want to do a psychedelic ’60s style paint job on an odd-style vehicle. This VW is that rare combination of cheap enough to do whatever you feel with it, and enough life in it that you’ll get to drive it around and show it off. The PT would be appropriate for that kind of paint foolishness, too, but the advantages of better utility don’t apply in this situation.

  14. Either of these would make for a solid, cheap daily. In fact I’ve had my eye on both of these (PTs and Bugs) for a little while because they seem to come up again and again at relatively attractive prices. Years ago I test drove a PT with a stick and was surprised how much I enjoyed driving it. That deal fell through though as apparently the college student I was buying it from hadn’t okayed actually selling it with his dad, who was the one with the title. That’s some real hate for the PT – trying to sell it out from under another family member.

    On the other hand, I have no experience at all with the “new” Beetles, but manuals are usually more fun and my daughter loves these things, so Slug Bug White from ALL CAPS CRAIGSLISTER is what I’d take my chances with this round.

  15. No shame in either pick, really, but the PT is way more useful, and I still see a relatively large number of them on the road, which suggests some durability. Plus, an old VW sounds like it would become un-charming really quick.

  16. The turbo GT was basically a Neon SRT4 wagon with a muffler (and you could even get a convertible GT too)

    The convertible was so popular that Nissan copied it to make their CrossCabrio 😛

    But even as a NA 4-door, it’s better than any VW of the time.

  17. There is nothing that would get me to buy a New Beetle. I would tale one for free, or get paid to drive one to get crushed.

    The PT Cruiser is not a great car, but at least has more usable space and seems to be in absurdly good shape.

  18. Jesus, this is like choosing to spontaneously shitting yourself randomly twice a week or shitting yourself on a set schedule. They’re both bad options. The 2.4 on the PT isn’t the greatest but I’m not a fan of those electrical gremlins in VW’s of that period. I feel the PT would be more useful.

  19. This is a rare shitbox showdown where I think both cars are good options. It sucks that $2500 only buys a 20+ year old New Beetle or PT Cruiser, but that is the reality of today’s used car market. While both seem like decent choices, I would pick the PT Cruiser. It is a nerdmobile and its styling has aged poorly, but it has a ton of cargo space. If you need a small, reasonably fuel-efficient vehicle that can haul a lot of stuff, a PT Cruiser is a decent choice. The Beetle is less practical. The back seat is useless for an adult (at least an adult that hasn’t been decapitated), and it is hard to access for cargo. It is effectively a two seater with a small, awkwardly shaped trunk. It may be more fun (and less embarrassing) to drive than the PT Cruiser, you are giving up a lot of utility to have a car that vaguely resembles a classic Beetle.

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