With sales beginning to lag for the once red-hot PT Cruiser, DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group is offering the first-ever cash rebates on the retro vehicle, according to a Detroit News story by Susan Carney. Buyers in the Midwest and Northeast can get $1,000 back as Chrysler tries to energize PT Cruiser demand, which fell 36 percent nationally in January to 8,600 vehicles. The move highlights the brutal competition and intense profit pressure facing U.S. automakers as overall industry sales soften from record levels in recent years. Chrysler has tried to keep profit-busting incentives in check by lowering prices and customizing rebates and financing offers by vehicle model and geographic region as the automaker struggles to break even this year and post profits in 2003. But aggressive discounting by crosstown rivals General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. forced a reluctant Chrysler to change strategy. Last week, the car maker began offering up to $2,500 cash back or cheap financing on most Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep cars and trucks nationwide but excluded the PT Cruiser and Jeep Liberty from the national deals. The Detroit News described the PT Cruiser, launched in the spring of 2000, as a North American Chrysler success story with 144,717 sales last year. Less than a year ago, demand was still driving prices up and forcing consumers to wait months to take delivery, according to the News. However, despite high hopes, the car has not been such a smash hit in export markets. After less than six months, Chrysler announced it was scrapping European production due to reduced demand. It has recently announced a diesel version for Europe, using a Mercedes-Benz engine. Chrysler's senior vice-president of sales, Gary Dilts, last week told the Detroit News that softening US car sales and PT Cruiser's image as a niche vehicle costing $25,000 have caused the dramatic drop in demand. The News said that Chrysler is planning a new advertising campaign to woo younger buyers and generate volume sales by highlighting PT Cruiser's $16,000 starting price. This is in stark contrast to the early days of the PT Cruiser, when some dealers were charging a $5,000 premium over list price for the then hot-selling vehicle.