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

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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)


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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. The site is having some issues today. But you know that right? The BUICK is red, old and interesting, but that interior looks like it may smell like an old pair of Melania’s panties and not in a good way…Also like Melania, parts may be hard to find.
    The Cruiser just makes my head hurt. Sometimes choices just suck.

    1. That’s what I came here to say. They both look like pretty good deals—one is a classic with good cosmetics but a busted transmission, the other is a basically-modern but deeply uncool car that is ready to take you to work and back. Are you looking for something to wrench on for fun, or do you just need to quickly replace your previous shitbox so you don’t lose your job?

      1. I’m from Europe, and really never understood the dislike of PT cruisers in their homeland. We have them here in the EU also, and they’re just shitboxes, but people don’t hate on them and there is no uncoolness stigma. Plus, they didn’t aged that bad, in my opinion. Cultural differences, I guess?

  3. So in addition to a weekly Shitbox Showdown winner, perhaps the most voted of the bunch earns the “Shitbox of the Month” title, and then have a 12-car “Shitbox Shootout” at the end of the year for the coveted “Shitbox of the Year” title.

  4. Look, both cars are massively overpriced. The internet hates the PT Cruiser, so it’s going to lose this contest, but it’s the better choice. Now I’m going to out myself by saying that I owned a PT Cruiser 5-speed just like that one. Bought it new off the lot. Shut up. I loved it and I’d buy another one. Almost did, in fact. But it had half the mileage, was half the price, and had just had a once-over by a mechanic buddy of mine. The manual transmission is what makes this car the winner in my book. But at 134k, if it didn’t have the timing belt replaced recently, it’s a ticking time bomb. I’d still take it over the Skylark.

    1. Realistically, what do you think is a fair sale price for the PT Cruiser? This appears to be in good mechanical condition and looks well cared for. I don’t recall a time in the recent past (last 10 years) where a generic vehicle in decent running condition could be bought for much less than $2000. I guess I don’t see $2500 as that overpriced for this vehicle, even if today’s market weren’t bonkers.

  5. The manual made a world of difference in the Cruiser, but not enough to tip the scales here.

    Also, the HP number on an Olds V8 is a red herring. Like the I6 Ford they were made for torque delivery, not revs. (205 lb ft in this case.) That’s why they were the last carburetor fueled engine GM made.

  6. I could not agree more about the need for modern hatchbacks, even though I’d bet my last 10mm socket that this one leaks. Despite that and the broken Malaise drivetrain, I’m all in on the Skylark. Mostly because if I had the PT I’d regret not hunting a bit longer to get a turbo version.

  7. You know, I think the PT Cruiser is unduly derided and it’s actually a good idea let down by two things: It’s a Daimler-era Chrysler, and it was right at the end of the big nostalgia era when people started to get embarrassed by the openly retro designs. It looks a lot better than the internet dogpile would have you believe, and a practical hatchback with funky styling is actually a good idea.

    But the Skylark is an engine swap away from being way cooler.

    1. PT Cruser was pretty much all Chrysler before the merger – the refresh being worse in every way was all Daimler “how cheap can we make this”.

      I had a 2002 fairly recently, 2017ish, and it was much better than everyone lets on. This one with a 5 speed would be much more fun to drive and get respectable mileage compared to it’s terrible 4 speed auto counterpart (I think I averaged 21mpg in mine).

    2. We traded a PT Cruiser around 5 years ago. Granted it wasn’t in great shape, but I suspect this PT Cruiser isn’t in great shape mechanically. Few are these days. They offered $250, we countered with $500 and they accepted. It was such a god awful car it felt like we came out on top.

    3. I liked the PT exterior design . . . still do, in fact. What killed it (to me) was the absolutely miserable driving experience. I spent years in these things when they were the de facto rental car, and it seemed like everything about the interior was designed to suck. There was no way to position that seat properly, it always felt like you were driving in a dining room chair with the steering wheel positioned WAY too high and the arm rests WAY too low. For such a tall vehicle, there was NO headroom. I’m not a super tall guy, (6 foot) and my hair brushed the roof. The whole design of the interior was to put every knob and button as far away as possible, while also managing to feel super cramped. The center console was WAY too low, making it effectively useless. (Fun game, try to find a place to put a phone or GPS where you can see it). It’s a magical engineering master-class in discomfort.

    1. You know, and something just occured to me, looking at that photo again. It’s facing forward. Usually when you see those knobs they’re installed backward so the driver can see them. Maybe this is something we can get Jason to investigate: which way is the correct direction for a skull shift knob to face? Back, toward its master, or forward, facing Valhalla all shiny and chrome?

  8. The fact that a good condition interestingly styled manual wagon for cheap isn’t winning right now is proof of the curse of the Cruiser. They were totally fine novelty items that, when the veneer of style wore off, were totally adequate utilitarian boxes with slightly subpar reliability. The Skylark was worse when new and a lot worse now.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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. 🙁

  19. getting hit by a bus is preferable to the PT so I voted Buick.

    But I thought the ‘Nova Equivalent’ was the Buick Apollo? My dad bought one in 1976 and traded it in a year later for a shitbox Ford LTD. Not so much that the Apollo was bad but it was BLAND

  20. Full Disclosure: We owned a PT Cruiser 5-speed that we had for years before and after the Great Recession. I had to pry it from my wife’s grip when I insisted that we could finally afford a better car that I didn’t have to work on every other weekend. However, the car did take us all the way from Detroit to California and back without any issue back in 2007.

    My Vote: The PT has a stick at least, but my vote is 100% for the Buick. Why? If you have to ask then you probably deserve to end up with the PT Cruiser.

  21. PT all the way. We bought a 2002 manual new (looked at a turbo, but our dealer couldn’t get a manual quickly and our current vehicle was dead). The two big selling points that got us past the styling were that it fit our backwards facing car seat better than Ford Escape of that era did (we were on kid #1 at that point) and the ability to take the back seats out meant its ability to move stuff was well above its size.

  22. The manual trans on the PT is about the only thing that could make me even look at it, unfortunately there’s just not enough in that thing to let you appreciate being alive. The Buick will at least have enough soul to help you recharge after a long day at work.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. 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.

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