2008 Chrysler Sebring Hardtop Convertible Review
By Roger Boylan
The Chrysler Sebring drop-top has been the top-selling convertible in the United States for seven of the past 12 years. I understood why as soon as I got behind the wheel of the gold (Linen Gold Metallic Pearlcoat, in Chryslerspeak) Touring model provided for me for a week’s evaluation by Chrysler’s press fleet. This car’s raison d’être is luxury on the cheap, Veuve-Cliquot on a Coors budget (well, maybe Guinness). Hence its popularity at rental counters in the airports and hotels of middle-class vacation spots, a popularity that has become a stigma for the hardcore gearhead contingent. Which is all very well; I like a sporting burst through the twisties as much as the next fella. But sometimes, while enduring the penance of my daily commute, all I want is a good comfortable machine that drives well without a fuss and gets good mileage. I found one here. The Sebring convertible is an undemanding, solid performer, with a certain style. Not a style to everyone’s taste; what is? But to my eye, it has a hint of European flair, or eccentricity. I was unsurprised to learn that the famed German coachmaker Karmann (of VW Karmann-Ghia fame) had a hand in the design, back in the halcyon days of the Benz-Chrysler marriage. I also fancied, wistfully, that I saw hints of a Gallic touch in the car’s lines. Citroen came to mind. Panhard, too, if they were still around, might design cars like this, alluring to some, anathema to others. True, as with the design of the old Panhards, not everything works harmoniously together. From certain angles, notably the front three-quarter view, the Sebring convertible has an odd, almost disjointed look, and I could live without the hood strakes. They recall the old Citroen 2CV and (more aptly) the late unlamented Chrysler Crossfire. But stand alongside and take a good look and things improve. The cut lines on the flanks serve to visually elongate the car (which is actually 3 in. longer than the sedan), and the absence of rear doors endows the drop-top with a sleekness absent in its slightly bulbous four-door sibling. All in all, from most angles this car looks muscular, elegant, and more expensive than it is. And from any angle it’s hard to mistake the Sebring for anything else, an advantage in itself in today’s marketplace of Asian lozenges on wheels.
The Sebring Convertible starts at $26K, but the version I drove for a week was tarted up to a sticker of $34K, according to the Monroney. Of course, no one will pay anything near that, in view of Chrysler’s parlous financial condition these days. Knock off a few grand and throw in a dealer discount and you can drive away in a brand-new loaded Sebring Convertible for $28K or less. (The VW Eos, a close competitor, lists for around $5K more.) For that price you get such niceties as the hardtop drop-top, hard-drive based Sirius satellite radio (a serious bonus), traction control, heated front seats, tire pressure monitor, automatic climate control, electronic stability control, front and rear stabilizer bars, and a remote start-up system. The interior boasts leather trim and the usual bells and whistles: MP3 hook-ups, two 12-volt power outlets, and power everything (although there’s no express-up for the front windows, a silly oversight). The seat belts are mounted on the sides of the seats, not on the car’s window pillars. This enables passengers to enter the spacious back seats without becoming entwined like Laocoön in the tentacles of the seat-belt monster. It’s always nice to preserve a modicum of dignity.
Under the hood of the Touring model is the old Chrysler standby, the 2.7-liter V6 engine with 189 horsepower and 191 ft-lb of torque, which I was familiar with, having driven innumerable Chrysler rental cars. This engine isn’t one of the most exciting powerplants on the market. In performance terms it feels more like a tuned-up four than a detuned six, being slightly reluctant out of the gate, and a bit growly when urged forward with any dispatch. But it’s a known quantity, reliable and bug-free, and it loafs comfortably and quietly in the 2500 rpm range at highway speeds of 70-75 mph. This contributes to the mileage, which I found to be excellent: EPA ratings are 18 city/27 highway, but in a 70-30 mix of highway and city driving I estimate my mileage to have been slightly better than that. Using cruise control and a fairly light foot, I got closer to 30 on the highway. Over five workaday commutes I never had to visit a filling station.
Now, I must confess that only once did I take full advantage of the convertible feature that’s so much the point of the thing. I’d been looking forward to having a drop-top, but not until the car was in my driveway did I fully realize how inimical our tropical South Texas midsummer weather is to the pleasures of an open car: either too hot or too wet or both. Nevertheless, I was determined to spend at least part of one day with the warm breezes caressing my thinning locks. But I’m always leery of fancy gizmos, so with the help of my teenage daughter (a freshman driver with strong opinions, most of them sound, on cars and driving), I consulted the driver’s manual and, taking a deep breath, hit the Top Down button. Happily, the procedure went off without a hitch, even though I found something vaguely spooky about it, as I always do when machines come to life and start doing human jobs: First the windows fell open, in silent concert, all at once; then there came a faint groan from the rear and the trunk lid rose slowly into the air, like Nosferatu emerging from the grave. With a crisp click, the top then unlatched itself from the top of the windshield, collapsed into three sections, and threw itself into the oblivion of the trunk, which promptly closed over it with the snug fit of a coffin lid. Just as the manual said, the top was completely out of sight and the Sebring became a true convertible in 30 seconds: I timed it. Having the roof tucked into the otherwise vast trunk somewhat compromises luggage space, but Chrysler assures us there’s still room for that all-important pair of golf bags.
The visual part of the entertainment over, we sped off for a drive in the fringes of the Hill Country, that Texas Provence that shimmers in the summer heat. It’s not the best place for a drive, with its narrow roads and low-water crossings that flood after a single downpour. Convertibles in my opinion are ideally made for high roads above blue horizons, like the Pacific Coast Highway or the Corniche at Monte Carlo, en route to the grand hotel and golf course. None of that in the Hill Country in August. But our drive wasn’t too bad, considering it was nearly 100°, with neo-Amazonian humidity, that day. The top-notch sound system (Boston Acoustics, 6 speakers), with its admirable selection of Satellite presets, eased the pain, and the air still blew cold, even with the top down. Best of all, after a pause for refreshment my daughter discovered with delight the coolest feature of the Sebring, and I use the word “coolest” advisedly: the cupholder that can chill your cola down to 35° F. Or, automatically adjusting to the temperature of the drink, heat up your java to 140° F. Nice touch, Chrysler.
All in all, I enjoyed my week with the Sebring Convertible. Naturally, all wasn’t perfect. I’ve already mentioned the lack of an express-up feature on the power windows. And the vanity mirrors, for some reason, have no illumination. Too, the audio controls are on the back of the steering wheel, with no intuitive way that I could discover to distinguish between volume and station selection. And the steering itself is so light and twitchy that a hearty sneeze can send you into the ditch if you don’t brace yourself. Two more speeds in the car’s aging four-speed transmission would improve things markedly. And decorwise, I wasn’t charmed by the silvery goggle-pods of the gauge cowling, or by the wide and empty plateau of gray plastic on the dashboard: Both clash visually with the pleasant beige hue of the leather seats.
But remember, this is the illusion of luxury, not the real thing. Overall, I liked this car. It’s serene, well-designed, and comfortable, with surprising and thoughtful touches like the magical cupholder and the weird and wonderful retractable hardtop. It’s safe, too, bristling with air bags, ABS, the above-mentioned traction control, etc.; and the no-nonsense Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Sebring convertible the best possible rating, “Good,” in frontal-offset and side impact crashes, no small consideration. Add the satellite radio, a cold Schweppes, and a balmy day to drive around in with the top down, and you’ve got something approaching real class. Which is all most of us deserve, anyway.
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