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Chrysler Sebring Convertible

Few convertibles were designed for their chief function, that is, driving around with their top down. Most are simply sedans with body reinforcement and a cut-off roof.

When the Chrysler Cirrus was fresh and new, Chrysler decided it would be worth using it as the platform for a brand new convertible, one actually designed to be a convertible, one which would have more space, fewer rattles, and better handling. The oddly-named Chrysler Sebring Convertible is the result. For a ragtop, it has very good body stiffness, so it handles surprisingly well, and has fewer funny noises and leaks.

Just to prove that little has changed since the days of the LeBaron, a label once given to three different cars in the same year, Chrysler called the convertible version of the Cirrus the Sebring Convertible. This would not have been so bad if the Sebring Coupe had not been an elongated Mitsubishi Eclipse...but it is. Export models, by the way, are called the Chrysler Stratus Convertible, after the Cirrus' twin, the Dodge Stratus.

As with other convertibles, the loss of the roof as a structural support, and the need to have a place to store the roof and folding mechanism, lead to less space and more weight, which hurts gas mileage, acceleration, cost, and handling. Interior space is not exactly cramped, but it is more like an Altima inside than a Stratus. There is enough structural support for surprisingly good handling and a relatively smooth, comfortable ride, but acceleration and gas mileage suffer.

The 2.5 liter Mitsubishi V6, the only available engine, provides adequate acceleration with about 21 mpg in combined driving. Our model had an AutoStick transmission, an easy way to downshift and take advantage of the engine's high-rpm power. Without the AutoStick, acceleration on the highway requires a generous push of the pedal. The AutoStick is no substitute for a manual transmission, but it is better than a straight automatic.

One consolation for those who did not want to spend the extra cash for the AutoStick is the fact that the automatic transmission eventually adapts to the individual driver's style, so if you want it to downshift more often, you should be able to get your wish - eventually. We would prefer more sporty programming to get the most out of the engine.

We found the ride and handling to be superior to the (much cheaper) Chevrolet Cavalier Convertible. Thanks partly to the smoothly shifting transmission and tuned exhaust, acceleration does not seem much greater. The Sebring generally feels more refined, with or without the top. Its suspension easily soaks up bumps and pavement irregularities for a smooth, cushioned ride, without giving up road feel. It did surprisingly well on rough cement surfaces at highway speeds.

The leather seats are fairly comfortable, and provide a lot of support. The driver only has to press a single button to open the convenient center console. Because it is a convertible, the center console can be locked, and the trunk release is inside the console. It won't stop a determined thief, but it can make your belongings safer from a prying valet. There are also map pockets on the doors and a decent-sized glove compartment.

The controls are logical and feel well-made and well-designed. The cruise control is mounted on the steering wheel, and includes a cancel button. The horn requires a fairly firm press, which can be a problem.

Visibility is excellent when the roof is down, but when it is up, there are two nearly-blind spots in the rear - a common problem with convertibles. The standard side mirrors provide visibility for those spots.

As with other modern convertibles, the driver and front passenger are relatively well insulated from wind when the windows are up. The price for this is a steeply raked windshield. With the top up, there is still room for tall people, but the top of the windshield may seem a little low.

The Sebring has some quirks whose persistence is mysterious, unless one considers Chrysler's policy of only changing features at pre-specified times:

We don't know if those quirks are going to be addressed in the completely-redesigned 2001 models, due later this year.

For the most part, the other controls are sensible and well designed. Base models have standard white on black instruments, while the Limited Edition comes with black on white guages with understated bezels for a fairly classy look. A small but readable trip computer, which tells outside tempature, direction, gas mileage, etc., is easy to see and operate on the dashboard.

The AutoStick's operation is fairly obvious, as are the vent and driver controls. Air conditioning is strong and fairly quiet.

The optional Infinity stereo provides strong bass even at loud volumes, with four independently powered speakers. Wind noise easily drowns out the acceleration except at low speeds, when the engine has a pleasant, V-8 style rumble quite out of synch with its actual performance.

The top can easily be taken down without reading the instruction manual. There are two clamps, one on each side of the car, which must be released (or closed), which is easier than with the Cavalier. Then a single switch opens and closes the top, in roughly ten seconds, including the time it takes to clamp or unclamp. The mechanism is fast and quiet, and the clamps can be operated quickly and without excessive effort.

If you take it easy on the options, the Sebring Convertible can be reasonably priced. The ride is smooth, and there is space for four actual people - unusual in convertibles in the "not outrageous" price range. The V6 provides enough acceleration, and the handling is good even for a car with a roof.

On the other hand, if you absolutely need the shiny alloy wheels, AutoStick, Infinity stereo, and other doodads that come wih the Limited Edition, you can spend nearly $30,000 - roughly the list price of our test car. (To be fair, a smart buyer would probably not pay over $25,000, excluding tax and title, given rebates and an Internet buying service like carbuyer.com.)

The simple fact is that convertibles cost money, in both purchase price and gasoline. The least expensive Sebring Convertible costs more and is slower than the large Dodge Intrepid. On the other hand, it's pretty fun to drive around in the elements.

2001 will bring substantially redesigned Sebring Convertibles, whose main new feature is the Chrysler 2.7 liter V6, producing 200 horsepower and commensurate torque. Prices on 2000 models will be cut with incentives as the 2001s are introduced.

Overall: It's a fun car. We think you'll like it.

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