It seems like every day the internet becomes more and more obsessed with all things ‘90s. I suppose that’s probably because the children who grew up in that decade are now in their mid 20’s, a huge demographic of the internet and one which I most often associate myself with. If you surround yourself with cows you’ll hear a lot of mooing. Obviously we all love to talk about how awesome the ‘90s were; the ‘90s gave us Pokemon and RingPops and Pixar movies! There were some sweet cars in the ‘90s too; the FD RX-7, the E39 M5, the NSX, the C5 Corvette, you get the idea. Yes,truly a great decade for automotive enthusiasts! Wait… do you remember fanny packs? What about frosted tips? Am I the only one here with troves of Beany Babies in my attic, all in mint condition with little plastic sleeves over the heart-shaped “Ty” tag? It’s true, for every gorgeous 1996 Dodge Viper GTS, there was a forgettable, generic, ugly 1997 Pontiac Sunfire sedan. Yeah, just like today there are great things we’ll reminisce about for decades to come, and there are boring and cringe-worthy things that we try to forget about as soon as our memories allow us to. We’ve been trying to force ‘90s Plymouth out of our minds for quite some time now, but I think we should give the now-dead badge a second look, or at least one car in particular, the Plymouth Prowler.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Just saying “Plymouth” out loud will spark images of some of the most iconic muscle cars of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Roadrunner, Barracuda, GTX, Superbird, these are cars that will forever be cemented in the Muscle Car Hall of Fame. What about the late ‘70s? Can you name one Plymouth from the 1980s? What about the ‘90s? Some of you could probably rattle off Plymouth’s entire model history during the last three decades of its life, and those same people will probably be able to tell you why the brand is dead now; Chrysler was putting Plymouth badges on Dodge (and often Chrysler) cars, advertising them as the cheaper and sportier option, targeting the entry level market. Think of it like this, Plymouth was to Dodge as Scion was to Toyota, and we’ve recently seen how well that business model works. Actually, Plymouth was worse than Scion, because Toyota never slapped a Scion badge on a Corolla, called it a Scion Corolla, changed nothing else and then sold it at dealerships right next to a Toyota Corolla. That’s almost exactly what the Plymouth Neon was, a Dodge Neon with around 3% more unpainted black plastics and a few hundred off the price tag. Why bother having two brands when one is essentially a defective clone of the other? That’s exactly what Mercedes said, which is why the Plymouth brand was phased out of production through the turn of the century, after Daimler-Chrysler was formed, and Plymouth hasn’t been heard from since 2001. It’s always sad to see a name as classic as Plymouth go, but the death wasn’t the tragedy, it was the final gasp of breath that really gets me thinking, the Prowler.
The Plymouth Prowler came out in 1997. It was Plymouth’s attempt at riding in on the Viper’s coattails. The success the Viper brought to the Dodge brand as a marketing tool alone was enough to convince Plymouth that they needed their own sports car, and in true Plymouth fashion they made it less expensive, slower, and arguably uglier than the Viper. But hey, this car was all Plymouth, baby! No rebadging here, this was born a Plymouth and it would die a Plymouth… wait, no, no, it died while it was wearing a Chrysler badge. While the Prowler sold relatively well, all things considered, by 1999 Chrysler knew that Plymouth was on its deathbed and they invested too much time and money into the Prowler to kill it off after only 2 years of production, so after a minor refresh and the application of Chrysler badges, the Prowler finished its years as a Chrysler. Kind of a slap in the face, no? You’re a brand mocked for being an inferior rebadged model of what were already pretty bad cars, and when you finally get a cool sports car to call your own after some three decades, you get the boot and your car is the one that gets the rebadge.
It gets worse. Why was the Prowler so different than other Plymouths of the ‘90s, why would Plymouth even want such an attention grabbing, controversial, expensive car in their lineup? They were in the first phases of restructuring their brand. It’s not uncommon for a manufacturer to launch the brand’s halo car as an introduction of a new generation, design language, or direction the brand is planning to take, and those features eventually trickle down into the more consumer-focused cars, it’s the exact formula Tesla followed with the launch of their Roadster. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the PT Cruiser. Now back to the Prowler. Yup, the PT Cruiser was “Phase 2” in Plymouth’s big brand reimagining project. Scoff if you want, the PT was received not-terribly by the press when it first launched, and was a huge seller for Chrysler, making them lots of money. The two cars obviously share a design language, cramming modern engineering and amenities into a classic hot-rod inspired body. This was met with very mixed reception, and to this day the style is generally considered, well, less than attractive.
Regardless of your opinion of the styling direction Plymouth took with the Prowler, it is my opinion that the Prowler’s controversial design was possibly one of the most important, or at least most influential, things to come out of Chrysler in the late ‘90s. Why? Just look around you! The Big Three pony cars, the VW Beetle, the Mini Cooper, the FJ Cruiser, the final generation of Thunderbirds, and more recently we have the Fiat 124 Spyder. Everyone and their mothers are doing modern-retro, it’s been a phenomenon of the past 15 years. Is the Prowler single handedly responsible for making retro cool in the car world? No, Hell no, the Prowler wasn’t exactly popular, and VW’s New Beetle was set to drop almost immediately following the launch of the Prowler anyway, and it’s no secret that the Bug was a huge success for VW. Not to mention the handful of retro-inspired concept cars that dotted the auto shows of the ‘90s, retro was making a comeback whether we wanted it to or not, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so kudos to Chrysler for being the crash test dummy in the world of retro-modern cars.
To be honest, when I first started researching the Prowler, it wasn’t with a positive intent. The Prowler has a lot of cons, and people love to put them on blast on internet messaging boards, this little rant you’re reading actually started life as ammunition, some oxygen to stoke the already existing anti-Prowler fire. What I ended up stumbling across may have changed my opinion on what the Prowler is, and how we should look at it. People seem to not like the Prowler because it tries to look like a classic hot rod, but has none of the traditional bits that a hot rod needs. But what if we look at it as a sports car that just happens to look like an old roadster?
We might as well get this out of the way now: The engine. Oh boy, here we go. It was a 3.5L V6, considered by many to be the Prowler’s greatest sin. In 1997 the V6 was rated at 214 horsepower, with an update in ‘99 that saw 253 horses at 6400 RPM, now in the form of an aluminum engine block. Just forgetting the displacement and number of cylinders for a moment, what’s the concensus on the horsepower figures? Sure, they look pretty weak by 2016 standards, but this car wasn’t engineered in 2016. The 1997 Ford Mustang GT, with the 4.6L V8, was rated at 215 horsepower. By 1999 the GT was good for 260hp, which means that the Prowler’s small V6 was making just as much power as the V8 Mustangs of the same era. There was nothing wrong with 253 horsepower back then, if anything it would've been almost impressive coming from a naturally aspirated V6. But yes, the V6 didn’t sound like a V8, it didn’t have boat loads of torque at 2000 RPM, and there wasn’t a whole lot to be done on the aftermarket, but just think about it for a moment… what would you do if you were Chrysler in 1997? Your only V8s at the time were the 5.2L and 5.9L Magnums, big heavy truck engines that made 225 and 250 horsepower in those applications, respectively. Yeah, they did make significantly more torque, but the extra weight would only be the tip of the iceberg. A V8 would require a huge transmission tunnel, and the cabin was already cramped enough, and those V8s simply weren’t designed for sports cars, they’d need a deep-tissue massage before they’d be any fun in this sort of application. Not to mention other packaging issues, I’ve come across a handful of HEMI-swapped Prowlers on the interwebs over the years and the job always seems to require an obscene amount of work and money. No, the V6 was really the only option Chrysler had at the time, it was just as powerful as their V8s while being smaller, lighter, and more efficient. A V8 1997 Prowler would have been stupid, and this is coming from a guy who says the Fury Road War Boy prayer every night before going to bed.
Connected to that engine was the second biggest blemish on the Prowler’s record, its transmission. That’s right, there was only one transmission option, and it was a 4 speed automatic unit. Again, at first glance this was blasphemy to most fans, crying about how a hot rod needed 3 pedals and a row-your-own-gear stick between the seats. Yes, I agree, the option should've been there, and in snooping around on the internet I couldn’t even really find a legitimate excuse on Chrysler’s part. Now, that said, in my snooping I also never found anything negative about the transmission. The old archived reviews and tests I’ve found from publications of the time seemed to even praise the slushbox, while saying that a manual would be nice, the AutoStick would let you select any of the 4 gears you desired and the computer wouldn’t override your decision to hold 1st gear at the redline as long as you wished. The transmission was also tuned to shift fast and hard, like the old automatic muscle cars and trucks with the shift kits. It’s just so easy to see “Chrysler” coupled with “4 speed automatic” and “sports car” and just cringe at the thought, especially in 2016, but in the late 90’s the general opinion seemed to be that if it had to be automatic only, the 4 speed wasn’t all that bad.
Speaking of transmissions, Chrysler did something sort of neat with the Prowler, and you never see it getting brought up, it’s transmission was a transaxle. For anyone who doesn’t know, the quick and dirty definition of a transaxle is basically that the axle that the power gets sent to is one with the transmission, a transmission-axle. This is what most, if not all, modern FWD cars use, but it’s extremely uncommon in front engined RWD cars, and is usually reserved for the likes of Ferrari and Aston Martin. This is done to distribute the weight more evenly, moving the transmission behind the cabin instead of directly behind the engine results in better weight distribution and therefore handling. 1997 was also the first year the Corvette started using a transaxle, which it still is praised for, but again, everyone seemed to forget the Prowler did the same.
For some reason I always assumed that the Prowler was heavy. I’m not sure why, they aren’t large cars, but without looking up the numbers I probably could have went my whole life assuming them to be in the 3500lb range. I was shocked to see that they only weigh somewhere around 2800 pounds, or about the same as a Honda S2000. It turns out Chrysler engineers went absolutely nuts with aluminium on these things, body panels and parts of the chassis were built with the stuff. Considering that steel has about 250% the density of aluminum, there’s no doubt that a ton (not literally… I think anyway) of weight was saved by going this route. The resulting weight distribution was F45:R55, again way better than what I would assume. Traction came in the form of big 295 width runflat tires on 20 inch rims in the rear, with 225s on 17s up front. For reference, those rear tires are actually bigger than what Chrysler currently puts on their 707hp Hellcat twins (275s) because… 214 horsepower needs the extra meat? I’m not sure where the logic came from with the Hellcat’s shoe size, but in the Prowler’s case the result was a lot of traction and very fair handling. Plus, it’s hard to deny how badass the giant rubbers on the rear look peaking out from under those fenders.
With 253 horsepower, fat rear tires, 2800 pounds, and a quick wrist flick of the AutoStick, the Prowler wasn’t even all that bad in a straight line. With a mid to low 14 second ¼ mile and a sub 6 second 0-60, it wasn’t too far off the V8 powered Camaros and Mustangs of the era. It wasn’t breaking any land speed records, but it wasn’t slow by any means.
The handling is further supplemented with some pretty respectable brakes. To quote a Car & Driver review from October 1996, the Prowler got stopped from 70 mph in 168 feet, which they said was comparable to a Porsche 911 and even bested Dodge’s own Viper at the time. The stiff multi-link front and rear suspension worked with the hard biting brakes and fat tires to give the Prowler what most people seemed to think was somewhere between good and very good handling. We couldn’t talk about the suspension and not mention the front setup, the open wheel design is similar to what you might find on an Indy car, with a pushrod rocker, double wishbone design with upper and lower control arms. From an aesthetic point of view it’s probably my favorite feature of the car, it’s a shame that the big ugly black bumper and fenders mask the set up so much, but those are removed easily enough.
Third strike, you’re out! The Prowler has one final con, the last nail in the coffin, the reason why, I believe anyway, the car ultimately failed. In 1997, the starting MSRP of a Plymouth Prowler was $38k. That might not sound too bad at first, at least not until you consider that adjusted for inflation that’s somewhere around $53K in today-money. Looking a little less appetizing now, eh? Furthermore, in 1997 the all-new C5 Corvette, with its 345hp aluminium block LS1 V8, drop dead good looks, 3300lb curb weight and manual transmission had launched… at $37.5k. I can imagine that this would have made the purchasing of a Prowler extremely difficult to justify, as the C5 would obviously stop the Prowler in every conceivable way. The only thing the Prowler really had going for it were its outlandish looks, which were polarizing to say the least.
So if you couldn’t tell, I am still a little torn. I came into this looking for more reasons to hate the Prowler, more reasons to be angry at Chrysler for killing Plymouth and wasting a great opportunity at a unique sports car. As I researched, I started to actually like the Prowler, thought maybe the hate was unjust or that it was simply underrated. I mean, everyone in 1997 had generally positive things to say about it. I think the issue is that people get in them expecting it to have a burbly V8 and handle like a drag car, because of how it looks, and are taken off guard when it’s closer to a conventional modern sports car. It’s like if you had a cup of milk on the table, looked like milk, smelled like milk (does milk have a smell?), but when you bring the glass up to your mouth, it tastes like orange juice. There’s nothing wrong with the taste of orange juice, you might even like OJ more than milk, but the flavors are so drastically different that I’m sure that milk wouldn’t be staying in your mouth for very long, even if it does just taste like orange juice. Really, the only things I can be angry about now is the lack of a manual transmission option, and the price. As much as I would have loved a V8 in the Prowler, Chrysler simply didn’t have one at the time (and in my opinion, still don’t) that was well suited to a small and lightweight sportscar. I’d love to see them have another go at a tiny roadster, but maybe this time take a more modern approach so people aren’t let down by the lack of old school V8… I wonder if Fiat is allowed to share the new Miata platform?