Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Pro bono

Pleasure lurks where Plymouth Prowler roams

By Marc Stengel

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  If I ever had any doubts, I now understand just how enriching it can be to bring joy to other people. And to think that I received this sparkling little gift of revelation just in time for Christmas.

With a profound sense of responsibility, I have spent every available moment, in the days leading up to our favorite holiday, behind the wheel of Chrysler's egregious street rod, the '99 Plymouth Prowler. Come rain or shine, in chill of night or frosty morn, I have hit the pavement to share Prowler's irrepressible good cheer with my fellow commuters and pedestrians. Their smiles and acclaim have been my gratifying reward.

Kids were obvious and easy targets--um, beneficiaries. What dewy-eyed, fresh-faced youngster can resist a bona fide cartoon car come to life, especially if it's decked out in royal purple vestments worthy of Barney the Dinosaur himself? To be honest, the accolades spontaneously greeting my youngest daughter's arrival at school made her morning drop-offs the high point of my day. The many sizes of fingerprints smeared over the car testify to the Prowler's primordial allure as a tribal totem. And I know for a fact that at least one fortune was made as a result of my pro bono dedication to duty: When Lex, one of my daughter's schoolmates, called one night to ask what I'd been driving all week, he whooped when I answered, "Prowler." "I just bet my Dad $5 that's what it was," he said.

As for the kiddies' school-mamas in their impregnable SUVs, you'd have thought there'd be no way to crack their steely-eyed scowls on the way to and from school. But you'd be wrong: In full rush-hour traffic one morning, a head popped out from the black-tinted window of the Suburban in front of me. "What's that?" the woman asked with glee, oblivious to the traffic migraine we were now causing.

None of my fellow commuters' previous reactions, however, had prepared me for the guy who sprinted up beside the car while I waited at a red light in midtown. I'd no sooner caught a peripheral glimpse of him in the wing mirror than a crazed face appeared over the passenger-side door. Just as I pondered the consequences of giving in to this carjacker without a fight, the guy reached part-way into the car with both thumbs blazing. "All ri-i-i-ght!" he said. I nodded and swallowed. "All right," I answered with a little hint of mortality in my voice.

As it turns out, there is actually a case to be made for waxing philosophic about the Prowler. Here is a car that nobody--not one soul--can look at without smiling. And yet it's absolutely useless for any practical task. It's a brand-new Plymouth, for crying out loud, based on a '36 Ford Roadster. It takes a shoehorn to insert one small driver and one small passenger into the cocoon of a cockpit. Nothing larger than a DayTimer will fit in the "trunk." The doors don't so much open as part at the seam. The roof struts rattle on those very rare occasions when the top is raised--usually in a downpour hard enough to seep past the windows' weatherstrips. In short, the Prowler is that exceedingly rare beast whose sole function is to make people happy. It is the one preeminent and exclusive Altruistic Automobile.

Of course, this begs the question about the very nature of altruism in our society: Can one be purely altruistic and still enjoy a few rewards for one's efforts? Maybe I'm just a car guy whose brains are lodged in my accelerator foot, but gosh-darnit, I say "Yes. You are allowed to feel good about doing good."

Why shouldn't I enjoy my week with the Prowler--even if I did have to endure the goofy combination of a 253-horsepower V6 mated to a hard-shifting but indecisive four-speed automatic transmission? Granted, the motor enjoys nearly 20 percent more power in '99 than when the Prowler debuted in '97. Installed in Chrysler's front-drive 300M and LHS sedans, in fact, this 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam engine evinces genuine sportiness. In an even lighter, 2,900-lb. Prowler, it launches the car with especially zippy acceleration through a rear-wheel-drive powertrain exclusive to this hot rod alone. When it comes to aural aesthetics, however, there's a bit of a drawback in having twin free-flow tailpipes tuned to emit a Disney-fied expression of "hot-roddiness." Instead of the guttural V8 sound you'll hear from most custom street rods, the V6 Prowler sounds more like a big-bore motorcycle.

And don't get me started about the AutoStick "clutchless" shifting system that wanly approximates a manual transmission in this car. Unlike other German and Japanese systems, AutoStick takes its own sweet time to shift after you tell it to. When it finally does commit to the next gear, it manages the task with a jerky thunk that'll bob your forehead.

Just the same, there are certain indirect rewards that accrue to Chrysler for the seeming altruism of producing a car that has only managed about 1,500 sales so far for '98. Most obvious is the boost in vital signs for the moribund Plymouth brand, which hasn't had a headliner since the '69 Barracuda. Even more important, however, is the fact that Chrysler's annual production goal of only 3,000 Prowlers gives the company a chance to "field test" a number of sexy engineering technologies. Among them are the 900 pounds of weight-saving aluminum components, the ultra-trick die-cast magnesium substructure for the dash, the unusual stainless-steel exhaust manifolds, and an exotic use of Kevlar (as in "bulletproof vest") to strap the molded plastic body to the car's frame. These are all design techniques that have found or will find their way into progeny of the newlywed DaimlerChrysler Corporation.

After only a week, it became clear that driving a Prowler is genuinely hard work, no matter how satisfying. You try smiling all day. And after a rain, I defy anyone to reach all of the tiny nooks and crannies filled with street grime that has flung off those cool-looking outrigger front wheels.

Moreover, there will always be certain constituencies that remain off-limits for even the most impassioned Prowler proselytizer. When the Christmas tree man walked over last week to admire the rod, for example, I admitted how much I like it. "But it's not much for hauling a Christmas tree," I added. "Naw!" he replied. "This one's for girls!" True enough. But as much as I'd like to share the Gospel of Prowler with everyone, at some point I just gotta draw the line.

Miles of smiles '99 Plymouth Prowler street rod; 2-pass., 2-door; RWD, 3.5-liter SOHC V6; 4-speed auto w/AutoStick; 253 HP/255 ft.-lbs.; mileage 17/23, city/hwy; as tested $40,000

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