A homegrown ragtop with Euro-svelte appeal.

by Kevin Ransom

It's like this: the Chrysler Sebring JX convertible is not a Sebring LX coupe with its top lopped off. In fact, the Sebring JX convertible and the Sebring coupe aren't even the same car. The two share only a nameplate and powertrains.

Some background: the Sebring coupe and Dodge Avenger are derived from the Mitsubishi Galant sedan platform, while the Sebring JX convertible is derived from Chrysler's Cirrus/Stratus platform. Indeed, the Sebring JX convertible shares its front structural components and instrument panel with the Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus sedans.

Confused? That's okay. All you need to know is that the Sebring JX ragtop is the successor to -- and a big improvement over -- the stalwart LeBaron convertible that Chrysler retired in 1996.

Despite their unremarkable styling and sleepy road manners, LeBaron convertibles flew out of Chrysler's showrooms faster than you could say "bailout" -- a testimonial to the resurging popularity of convertibles. It also didn't hurt that the LeBaron was designed as a convertible -- unlike some of its ragtop competitors, which were essentially guillotined coupes.

Chrysler product planners deduced that if a sluggish puppy like the LeBaron could incite such enthusiasm, the company could really cash in with a sleeker, more muscular topless model.

They were right. Like the LeBaron, the '96 Sebring was a true, by-design ragtop, not a modified coupe -- and buyers responded effusively to its elegantly handsome lines, its one-touch, power-operated top and its competent road manners.

Wisely, Chrysler didn't feel the need to gild the lily: other than a few refinements and new equipment options, the '97 Sebring JX convertible is largely unchanged from the '96 model. The same is true of its two-door cousins, the Sebring and Avenger.

Walkaround

The Sebring convertible comes in two trim levels -- the basic JX and the bountifully-appointed JXi. The paint job on our JXi test model -- a new-for-'97, purplish-black color called Deep Amethyst Pearl -- was contemporary without being flashy.

The '97 model boasts such additions and improvements as a quieter intake manifold on the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the AutoStick transmission on the optional 2.5-liter V-6 engine, an enhanced theft alarm system, an optional electrochromic rearview mirror, a trip computer with compass on the JXi, and the addition of trunk-unlock and panic-alarm modes to the optional keyless remote entry system.

The stylish rounded corners on the Sebring JX convertible strike an elegant contrast with the wedgier Sebring coupe and the pointy, on-the-prowl shape of the Sebring's Dodge clone, the Avenger.

Indeed, its pleasingly Germanic lines suggest that, in its soul, the Sebring JX would really like to be a Mercedes SL. (A car can dream, can't it?)

For a convertible, the Sebring JX's trunk space is respectable -- enough room for maybe a suitcase and a half-dozen grocery bags.

The top is a tight, firmly-mounted fit, and -- a quality touch -- has a glass rear window. The narrow, compact grille and sloping, contoured hood -- and headlights that squint like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name -- combine to give the Sebring JX a look that's imposingly self-confident.

With Chrysler's $545 destination charge, the JXi has a base price of $25,195. Our test car was equipped with such options as the 2.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine ($800); the AutoStick transmission -- an automatic that offers the option of manual shifting ($150); a 150-watt Infinity AM/FM/CD/cassette audio system ($340); and a $175 luxury convenience package that consisted of a HomeLink garage door opener integrated into the driver's side visor and an inside rearview mirror with the day/night feature. The ready-to-roll total was $26,660.

The Inside Story

In addition to smooth styling, the Sebring convertibles -- like the Sebring and Avenger coupes -- are distinguished by exceptional rear seat legroom. There's plenty of space for two adults back there, a rarity in ragtops at any price.

Standard equipment on the base Sebring JX convertible includes dual airbags, air conditioning, vinyl convertible top (fabric on our high-end JXi test model), rear defroster, tinted glass, front bucket seats, tilt steering column, map pockets, power windows and heated exterior mirrors.

Sebring convertibles come with a four-speed automatic transmission. Sebring and Avenger coupes have five-speed manuals with the base engine, automatics with the optional V-6.

Let's start with the operation of the top. Instead of having to refer to the owner's manual, you release two windshield latches and press a single power switch. It's a handy setup when fair weather suddenly turns foul.

Once the top is lowered, it can be covered by a boot that snugs down with easy-to-use Velcro tabs. And when the "up" button is pressed, the front-seat windows automatically slide down about three inches to prevent the windows from misaligning when the top goes back up.

The height-adjustable seatbelts are cleverly integrated into the back of the comfortable front bucket seats -- so passengers won't trip over them while climbing into the back seat.

Ride & Drive

After bombing around town (top down, of course) in our JXi test model -- which was powered by the optional 2.5-liter, 168-hp V-6 -- we don't think we'd settle for the smaller (and noisier) 2.4-liter 150-hp four-cylinder that comes standard.

In an automatic-only car, the V-6 offers far better performance, and we think it's well worth the extra $800. We'd also recommend the $150 AutoStick option, which allows you to upshift or downshift manually by flipping the lever left or right.

With the added power of the V-6 -- and the increased responsiveness provided by the AutoStick -- the Sebring JXi provided respectable hustle in critical passing scenarios. From a dead stop, the Sebring JXi jumps quickly out of the blocks, though its 0-to-60 mph times are relatively tepid, and the engine -- particularly four-cylinder editions -- isn't as quiet as some at full throttle. But the Sebring convertible, as well as the Sebring and Avenger coupes, don't pretend to be sports cars.

When negotiating hairpin turns and darting in and out of freeway traffic, the Sebring's suspension was firm enough to keep body roll to acceptable levels, and the power rack-and-pinion steering was precise enough to lend confidence to quick maneuvers.

But ride quality is really this convertible's dynamic strong suit, which makes sense to us, given the car's delightful cruising quotient.

Our first encounter with the Sebring JXi was last autumn, when the leaves were just beginning to turn, and we headed straight for roads less traveled. There's nothing quite so satisfying as twisting along tree-lined country roads with the top down, and this is a perfect car for enjoying the bucolic bliss of the rural countryside.

Visibility in all directions is unimpeded, and the windshield design helps reduce wind buffeting.

Final Word

The Sebring JX is one of our favorite convertibles, a reaction that seems to apply to America at large. The new ragtop is already a hit, and carries on the Le Baron's tradition as a best-seller. With its good looks, competent handling, smooth ride and room enough for four, it's unique in today's convertible market.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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