Not-So-Hot-Hatches: Malaise Masterpiece or Much-Maligned MPV?

Image (13)

For today’s Shitbox Showdown we have a choice to make make between two American cars that have only two things in common: both come from near-luxury brands, and both are hatchbacks. Aside from that, they couldn’t be more different.

Hey all! Mark here. I’m new. But the site is still new, so aren’t we all? I mean, they haven’t even taken the plastic off the screen yet. Makes it hard to read, to be honest. 

First, I want to thank young Thomas for getting the ball rolling while I worked things out with Jason and David. I ended up having to bribe them with a “vintage” box of Teddy Grahams Bear-Wiches that I found behind the seat of my truck to let me do this. (Seriously, guys; don’t eat those.)

Between Thomas’s excellent choices yesterday, it appears the Scirocco is the clear winner, no matter how many times David Tracy banged the TC By Maserati vote:

The Scirocco would be my choice too; the TC is just too much like a LeBaron, and I wouldn’t want a LeBaron unless it came with its own Veronica Mars.

1975 Buick Skylark – $2000

I chose this car for personal reasons. It makes me think of my grandfather, who was a Buick Skylark man. (Not a Buick man, mind you; a Buick Skylark man.) He had a brown ’76 similar to this that I still have fond memories of. I also briefly owned a ’78 Chevy Nova coupe that was just about the same car. This one looks pretty sharp in pale yellow with a white vinyl top, and its two-door fastback body holds a secret: It’s a liftback.

Isn’t that awesome? More cars should open up wide in the back like this. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every modern stubby-trunk sedan or coupe should be a liftback. Down with mail-slot trunk openings! Give us room to load stuff!

There is the matter of the transmission, mentioned in the ad, but seriously, it’s a Turbo 350. You can probably fix the thing with a hammer and some strong language. Worst case scenario, you end up replacing it, but they’re approximately as rare as black leather jackets at a Judas Priest concert.

Just make sure you get one with the Buick/Olds/Pontiac bellhousing bolt pattern, because unliike the later years of this generation of X-body, this one does not appear to be packing a Chevy engine. Judging by the location of the oil filler neck, that’s an Oldsmobile V8, which in this car would have displaced 260 cubic inches and put out  – wait for it – 110 horsepower. (How the hell did they manage to break the transmission with… oh, never mind.)

But none of that matters as soon as you open the door. Just look at this interior.

Yep. Those are white vinyl bench seats. And they look as comfy and inviting as any conversation pit ever built. I’m going to be honest; I kinda love this car. But let’s take a look at its competition:

2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser – $2500

Front left three-quarter view of a red PT Cruiser

It’s hard to imagine these days, when there are a dozen of them in every buy-here-pay-here lot, but when the PT Cruiser was introduced, there was a waiting list for it. The first one I ever saw in person was in early 2001 on a dealer lot; it had a $4000 markup on the sticker, and it was already sold. Madness.

Right rear three-quarter view of a red PT Cruiser

But I’m not here to pick on the PT Cruiser; plenty of people have done that already. I actually quite like the idea of it: a small, tall wagon that gets respectable mileage and is more or less reliable. You can haul a surprising amount of stuff in it. It’s stubby, so it fits into tight parking spaces. And these days, it has zero appeal to thieves, so you can park it in a sketchy neighborhood and be reasonably sure it will be there when you get back. What’s not to like?

Oh, right. That face.

Front three-quarter shot of a red PT Cruiser

I chose this particular PT Cruiser for one reason: It’s a manual. And if you look closely, someone appears to have replaced the plain round ball shift knob with a chrome skull:

The grey interior of a red PT Cruiser viewed from the passenger side door opening

This is a nice touch, because otherwise, apart from those two body-colored inserts on the dash, the rest of the interior is that soul-sucking industrial gray that US automakers seemed so fond of 20 years ago. But at least it looks to be in decent shape. That five-speed manual backs up the standard-issue 140 horsepower four, which won’t set the world on fire, but it’ll probably handily outrun the Buick.

The grey driver's seat of a PT Cruiser

So. Those are your choices. Generally-hated Cruiser that’s really not as bad as its reputation, or a bright cheery yellow cruiser from the darkest days of the U.S. auto industry. The winner will join yesterday’s Scirocco — along with Wednesday’s and Thursday’s choices — on Friday to battle it out for Shitbox Of The Week, the highest of Autopian automotive honors.

Images by sellers (Craigslist)

QuizMaker

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit

72 Responses

  1. In 1991 I bought a ’62 Skylark for $400. Sold it six months later for $600. It didn’t run great, but I found out right before the buyer showed up that two of the spark plug wires were misrouted, so suddenly it ran great. Kinda regret selling it, but not really. It was a second-owner car when I bought it; the original owner was a supperannuated old fart who installed two extra mirrors on the fenders (giving you a total of five rear-view options) and curb feelers on both sides. I found a newspaper in the trunk from a week before JFK’s assassination that mentioned his upcoming trip to Dallas.

    Anyway, that’s the kind of Skylark I appreciate. This one here… it’s just ugly and weird. Maybe it’s just barely old enough to be smog-exempt, but at 110hp, it requires too much effort to make roadworthy, and nothing will ever make it look good. The PT at least looks no worse than any other PT (and I don’t hate them, in fact I liked them when they were new), and the stick shift, overall cleanliness, and gearshift knob ended up selling me. God knows what anyone sees in the Buick.

  2. Easy for me, even with a manual the PT is never the answer. I would take a Buick with a shot transmission over that.

    Maybe if you paid me $2500 to take the PT off your hands…..I would that that in the Buick and sell the PT for the tranny and other work.

    Side note: I once moved a friend’s PT Cruiser so it would not be towed. I did the walk of shame and people saw me getting out of it.

  3. Hey, my 93 year old mother has a 2001 PT Cruiser that she bought new and loves to death. The car looks and runs like new in all it’s pimped-out purple and custom pinstripes. She’s managed to put a whopping 45K miles on it in 21 years, that’s a lot of trips back and forth to the Piggly-Wiggly and it’s never once been in for service. I change the oil twice a year and fill it up for her once a month. A tank lasts her a whole month. It’s on it’s 2nd set of tires only because the first set dry-rotted. It’s a great car, but do I ever hate that once a month trip to the gas station, not because of the pointing and laughter, but the four old guys at the station who want to talk forever about this great little car

    My vote 100% is for the PT Cruiser

  4. Skylark, hands down. Paint it black, shoehorn in an LS or a big-block, and you’ve got a competent street bruiser that looks like nothing else out there, even if it is a bit ugly.

    I can’t come up with such a plan to make the PT desireable, even to me, and I own Mustang IIs.

  5. A ’75 Skylark was my first car. It was 8 years older than I was and beat to shit, but ran well. I wish I still had it, but I came out of work one day to find a boot on the wheel for unpaid parking tickets I didn’t realize I had. Cost of the tickets was more valuable than the car at the time. I put my key in the ignition and left it for whenever they eventually came to get it. 🙁

  6. A Neon-based vehicle classified as a truck and equipped with a real transmission vs a rolling couch with a non-working transmission….. It’s close!

    Winner is PT, because while the focus was given to the lift back the hatch of the Cruiser makes it a remarkable hauler while also having a roof low enough for good rack usage.

  7. The PT, hands down. If we’re just looking for something to get us back and forth to work in reasonable comfort and with reasonable MPGs, the PT wins on every practical level.

    Yes, it’s goofy AF styling is embarrassing, and yet, if you’re buying a $2,500 car, you should be well past worrying about how cool you look, right?

  8. The Buick would be a fun project, the pt would be a decent daily, both are weird in a forgettable way. For me it comes down to this, would you rather be the weirdo in modernish wagon, or the weirdo in the *Vintage* hatchback. I know which I would prefer.

  9. I once had the 1977 Chevy Nova (coupe, straight 6, plaid cloth seats) cousin of the Buick. It was truly The Car That Would Not Die and survived four years of high school-college vehicular tomfoolery. Finally finished it off when I took the Banksville Road exit too fast, caught air, and came down hard on the front end. Lasted a few more months until my younger, more foolhardy brother managed to bend the unibody somehow. Even then, my father was still able to trade it for a Pontiac Parisienne.

    Despite the sentimental attachment to the Buick/Chevy I voted for the PT Cruiser. Apparently I have learned nothing.

  10. I had a PT as a daily driver; PITA but I loved it. Had moon rims on it that I had to caulk to keep them on. Would warp the rotors but I liked the look. A number of times I remember loading up 2×4’s or something like that at Home Depot, then closing the hatch. People would see that and be like “what the hell?”. Was pretty handy for hauling, especially when you’re young and don’t have any money.

  11. I have to go with the Buick – my parents had a PT Cruiser when I was in high school (it was later handed down to my younger brother, who wrecked it twice, the second time permanently), and it isn’t a bad car, exactly, especially in the context of the domestic auto industry in 2001, but the Buick has way more character and will actually be comfortable. Instead of sitting bolt upright, on lightly padded bar stools, you can sink down into it and relax.

  12. So this is a bit conflicting. When my daughter, who recently turned 17, was needing a car I went thru every permutation of the safety/cost equation. I’m not saying that there is nothing more important than my daughters safety on the road but her drive to school and back is about 2.5 miles and on roads with a 40mph top speed. With that sort of daily drive not crashing is a lot more about personal accountability and serious injury is unlikely. Possible, but not likely.

    As we were shopping around for her daily driver I shortlisted the PT Cruiser because it had a lot going for it in terms of cost/practicality/safety and it could be found with a manual (yes I taught her to drive stick in my car). Maintenance would be pretty straightforward and the cost of keeping something like that on the road would be minimal. In other words; a cheap, safe(ish), cheap, intersesting(ish), reliable, cheap car that was readily available.

    Or we could look for something more interesting that we could wrench on together.

    Suddenly, out of nowhere a 1977 El Camino fell in our lap that we could not walk away from. Close to the Skylark in age and condition, except with a working trans. The previous owner had removed anything that would make it go slow and added a few things that would make it go fast and the entire car had about 70,000 original miles.

    So needless to say that is what she is driving to school and back each day (except when she lets dad borrow it to “test” something we worked on). (Tests often require burnouts, but that is the price of “science”).

    So I would go for the skylark. No manual. Yes… sad. But reasonably well kept and old enough to be interesting. I don’t completely understand what happened with cubic inches-vs-liters or net-vs-gross hp in the 70’s but I know that when I stand on the pedal in the 77 El Camino (Ellie Maye) she will leave a very long pair of black lines on the asphalt behind that a PT would never ever do

    1. I wish my family was as cool as yours. The best car we ever had was a 2000-era Grand Marquis that snapped an axle on the way to the village library where I socialized and educated myself over the internet because I wasn’t put in high school and I didn’t have real-life friends who could have conceivably did something about the alcoholism and domestic abuse in my household.

      1. Well, okay, I guess there was the bubble car Taurus my mother let me “drive” as a 4 year old on a family friend’s private road, where I sat in her lap and she still did the actual steering but kinda let me pretend I was driving.

  13. I m not sure how anyone could vote for the PT.

    The Buick is ugly but it is a well-supported platform suspension-wise. SBC is practically a bolt-in swap to a common engine easily modified to make good power.

    Grandma styling makes it a perfect sleeper.

  14. I think the PT Cruiser is objectively the better deal as an actual, usable car so that’s how I voted. The manual transmission certainly doesn’t hurt.

    However, even with the horrifying memories of owning an ’81 Buick Skylark if I had to spend my own money it’s the Buick by a mile. Bench seat, V-8, the odd liftback, the pukey yellow color, all definitely more in keeping with my Jalop style.

  15. My father’s ex-wife had a PT Cruiser. It was horrible. The interior was made out of Playskool plastic, the engine overheated constantly, it got shockingly bad gas mileage for its size and vehicle class, and the design was lumpy and completely failed in its mission to look retro. Shit like this and the Sebring is what drove Chrysler to bankruptcy, and I can certainly see why. With all that said, taking the Buick seems the more sensible option.

Leave a Reply