By Chris Haak
A few years ago when I had the opportunity to interview Justin Thompson, the designer of the then-new 2010 Buick LaCrosse, I asked him how designers felt when their original works were refreshed via a mid-cycle enhancement (MCE). Suddenly, a piece of the car that they had labored for literally years of their life on was unceremoniously ripped off the car and replaced by something that may or may not quite mesh with the rest of the design. I also asked him which designers were assigned to do the updates, and he indicated that a separate team worked on the updates, while the “whole car” group had moved onto – you guessed it – the next whole car. Reading between the lines, the “B team” was doing the update work, while the more established designers were working on the stuff that we still haven’t seen.
With this in the back of my mind, I’m having trouble getting my head around the Chrysler Sebring/Chrysler 200. When the Sebring was launched, it was seemingly benchmarked against the previous-generation domestic offerings, and quickly found itself losing comparison tests against the sales champs of the midsize sedan segment. It had a sub-par design, sub-par interior, sub-par suspension, and sub-par powertrain. Quickly, the car became a favorite of rental car companies because of its low cost with heavily subsidized pricing, but retail buyers stayed away in droves – unless their name happened to be Michael Scott.
Today, Chrysler is much healthier today than it was at the time the Sebring was engineered, and – before reinforcements arrive with their Italian accent in the coming years. However, the company still needs to sell cars right now in order to keep the lights on until the new, [theoretically] more-desirable vehicles arrive.
The reason I’m having trouble believing that the “B team” did the updates to the Sebring so that it would become the 200 are so extensive, and improve the car so much, it’s hard to believe that the moretalented vehicle-development folks at Chrysler developed the Sebring. So I won’t believe it.
Upfront, let’s just note that neither this car – nor its sedan brethren – is likely to win a comparison test. But considering the starting point that the 200′s engineers had to work with, they did a fantastic job. The car’s hard points are all the same as the Sebring’s; designers affixed a new front clip with “light pipes” above the HID headlamp projectors to accent the car’s lines (such as you might find in a Cadillac or Lexus), and a new Jaguar-esque rear end that cleans up the cluttered mess that was the Sebring’s backside.
The upshot of the convertible 200 over the sedan is that you avoid the awkward sail panel blackout that attempts to elongate the car’s greenhouse beyond its Avenger-shared rear doors. The downside is that the sedan is reasonably stiff, while the convertible (as expected, I might add) has much more body flex. Though I had a mental block during my week with the car in which I referred to the 200 as “the Sebring” at least a half-dozen times per day, the updates really are fairly obvious and well-done. (Considering the non-blank sheet of paper here).
Inside, the design is far more attractive than the Sebring’s was. Just as the new-for-2011 Charger dropped its predecessors squared-off dashboard and door panels, so does the 200. Since the 200 is more of an update than an all-new car, there were more than a few glimmers of the old Chrysler inside, though.
You’ll rest your hands on the Chrysler’s new standard steering wheel shared amongst nearly the entire Chrysler car family (but this time with a Chrysler wing on the horn button rather than the Dodge crosshairs). Without adaptive speed control, there’s a blank area above the right-hand spoke’s button. It’s not a big deal, but perhaps a bit conspicuous in its absence. The wheel itself has a thick rim and is covered in soft, textured leather; frankly, it’s a pleasure to hold.
However, to the right of the steering wheel, the new center stack and dashboard design, there’s a familiar-looking rectangular double-din radio with Chrysler’s MyGIG system. Sadly, this outdated navigation system is outclassed by newer systems, including Chrysler’s own Garmin-derived uConnect Touch as is found in the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. Instead, the 200′s navigation system is the same one that Chrysler has been using since the middle of the last decade, and it unfortunately suffered two catastrophic crashes during one day with the car. In each of the crashes, the touchscreen continued to display at static map and was completely unresponsive to any user input whatsoever. It didn’t even respond to pushing the physical power button, and the radio station could not be changed. I turned off the car briefly (about 5 seconds), opened the door, and re-started the car, and it was still frozen. Both times, after about 35 minutes, the Chrysler logo appeared on the screen with a black background, and the system reset itself. Navigation and radio functionality returned at that point.
The upper door panels and upper dash area are covered in soft-touch, low-gloss material that lends a somewhat-premium feel to the 200′s cabin. In the interior photos, basically anything charcoal-colored was soft to the touch, and anything on the dash or doors that was the ivory color was hard plastic (with the exception of the upper door panels, which are ivory but soft). The only thing that puzzled me about the interior’s decor was the long horizontal seam between the top and face of the dashboard. Both sections were soft-touch, but the seam unnecessarily breaks up the design’s continuity. The A-pillars are clad in hard plastic with a fake fabric pattern, and at the top of the windshield, there is a really ugly circular cutout for a sensor of unknown origin. There were mold marks around it, and the opening didn’t align with the sensor itself.
On the whole, though, as long as you’re not expecting the 200 to be a luxury car (despite what Eminiem’s Super Bowl commercial may try to tell you), you’ll find that the interior meets expectations for a midsize, front wheel drive car. Though this is obviously the convertible variant and not the sedan, the interior comments would be the same for either. Controls are easy to operate and have a reasonably consistent feel from one button to another and from one knob to another.
The new 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, producing a strong 283 horsepower, likes to rev and feels quite refined even in the upper reaches of its operating range. Off the line, the Pentastar has enough torque to cause torque steer, but it seems to come into the meat of its power curve above 4000 RPMs. In terms of NVH and its power curve, it reminds me very much of Honda’s 3.5 liter V6. That is, a little light on torque, but strong on sound and passing power. Chrysler pairs the new V6 with a six-speed automatic that has AutoStick manual-shift capability. Honestly, I rarely tried it and just mashed the gas pedal instead. This engine is a jewel for Chrysler, and it will be for years. I’m very excited to see future applications that might have more displacement, direct injection, forced induction. I have a feeling that Chrysler is only scratching the surface of the Pentastar’s capabilities at this point in the engine’s life cycle.
The car’s electric power steering is a bit overboosted for my taste, yet it still enables the driver to point the car reasonably well. The Sebring had a reputation for having a serious problem with understeer, but the 200 seems to improve that a bit. The car is not a handling champ, nor is it intended to be. Chrysler has added additional sound insulation to the 200 that the Sebring didn’t have, which lowers interior sound levels with the roof closed.
Watching a retractable hardtop opening and closing used to be a source of fascination for me when I was younger. The novelty has clearly worn off. The Sebring’s roof is a two-piece affair, which infringes on luggage space more than a three-piece unit might. As in other similar vehicles, the decklid opens rearward automatically when storing the roof, and opens forward for luggage storage. The top’s operation is not elegant, with a number of noises and thumps throughout the operation. To be fair, the much more expensive Infiniti G37 behaves in much the same way, with an equal amount of thumping, but perhaps slightly quieter whirring sounds in the Infiniti.
With the top stowed, wind noise isn’t as bad as expected. You’re still putting your hearing at risk by driving a convertible with the top down (and passing trucks at speed on an expressway is incredibly noisy in almost any convertible), but it’s not completely crazy wind-wise. My son’s unoccupied booster seat was sucked forward into the back of the front passenger seat by wind at highway speeds, but that’s more of an issue with physics than with the 200′s design. The test car included a mesh wind blocker, which is reasonably easy to install, and forms an L shape that covers the rear seat area horizontally, then moves upward behind the headrests. The blocker didn’t help with noise, but did much to calm the sensation that everything in the car not tied down might blow away.
All is not bliss with the 200′s hardtop, though. While there were no leaks, I did somehow manage to confuse the indexing driver’s side window, which could have broken the glass if I had slammed the door shut. The window was confused because I had the door open to greet my children as I arrived at home with the top down, and I closed the roof while the door was open. The last step of the roof-closing operation is for the power windows to all go up, and they all did. However, when the driver’s door is closed, the window should be up all the way, but when the door is opened, the window retracts about a quarter inch so that it can more tightly seal when the door is closed. In this case, the door was open, but the window was not retracted (indexed) at all. I didn’t realize this was the case until I closed the door and it bounced back into my hand. Eventually, I solved the problem by turning the key to “on,” lowering the window, and closing the door. After that, the window again indexed properly, but that’s either a glitch or a poor design.
Fuel economy from the new Pentastar V6 was quite respectable. With a mix of about 60-40 highway-city driving, I saw an overall fuel economy of about 25 MPG, with over-30 highway jaunts a realistic prospect. The EPA rates the 200 Convertible at 19 MPG city and 29 MPG highway, and that’s quite respectable for a powerful V6 like the 200 has.
And then there’s pricing. The 200 Limited Convertible has a $31,240 base price (plus $750 destination charge). Our tester had the $475 Boston Acoustics speakers, $895 media center with GPS navigation, and $1,995 Sapphire Crystal hardtop. Included in the final MSRP of $35,355 was an array of up-level equipment including automatic climate control, heated front seats with leather. The funny thing about the 200 Convertible is that there isn’t really any direct competition for the car. There are no mainstream, front wheel drive, four-passenger convertibles on the market today.
Alternatives might be the Mustang convertible or Camaro convertible, but neither of those have the level of equipment that the 200 has. Features such as the 200′s automatic climate control and navigation can’t be had on the Camaro at any price. When comparing the 200 convertible and Camaro convertible using TrueDelta.com’s price-comparison tool, the 200 comes in $3,578 less at invoice. The Mustang convertible can be purchased with a factory navigation system, but the 200 enjoys a $1,960 price advantage at invoice.
Considering the starting point that the 200 convertible’s developers had to work with, the car is an almost remarkable turnaround. It’s not perfect – far from it – but to take the Sebring, give it a new [Pentastar] heart, a new interior, and some refined sheetmetal and turn it into a reasonably respectable car is quite an accomplishment. The interior is one of the best in its class in terms of perceived quality, and this car’s improvement (plus the dramatic change in the likes of the Charger and 300) give me optimism that Chrysler is getting its act together. Could the feast-to-famine automaker be heading away from famine finally this time?
One thing is for sure. The lousy Sebring wasn’t the fault of the “A-team,” it was the fault of Daimler’s culture of stifling Chrysler and forcing the company to go with the lowest cost components to hit a price point, with customer satisfaction or desirability taking a back seat – if they even had a seat. Chrysler is starting to sweat the details, and that’s great news.
Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.