A sleek convertible with European flavor.

by Kevin Ransom

Base Price $21,110
As Tested $27,040

The Chrysler Sebring JX convertible definitely knows how to make a splash.

Ever since it was rolled out for the 1996 model year, the Sebring convertible's elegantly handsome lines, twinkle-toed road manners and easy, push-button retractible top have made it one of the most popular convertibles in America.

Never a company to take success for granted, Chrysler not only tweaked the base-level JX and mid-line JXi for '98 -- it also introduced a new luxury model: the Sebring Convertible Limited.

The Limited offers many luxury-line features as standard equipment, including chrome-plated cast-aluminum wheels, "Rose Zebrano" woodgrain interior accents, a beige-and-agate inside color scheme with perforated leather-trim seats, a padded console armrest, electro-luminescent lighting on the instrument cluster and special "Limited" exterior badges.

For the record, the Chrysler Sebring JX convertible is not a soft-cover version of the Sebring LX coupe. In fact, they're not even the same car -- they share only a nameplate and an engine box. The Sebring LX coupe is descended from the Mitsubishi Galant sedan platform, while the Sebring JX convertible was spawned from Chrysler's Cirrus/Stratus platform. The Sebring JX convertible shares an engine and instrument panel with the Cirrus/Stratus.

The Sebring JX ragtop replaced the stalwart LeBaron convertible that Chrysler retired in 1996. From the early '80s through the mid-'90s, the LeBaron convertible sold briskly, even though it lacked pep and suffered from uninspired styling. Like the LeBaron, the Sebring ragtop is a true, by-design convertible, although sleeker and more muscular.

Besides the introduction of the Limited, and some new equipment options and cosmetic touches on the JX and JXi, the '98 Sebring convertible is mostly, and wisely, unchanged from the '97 model.

Walkaround

We tested the mid-line JXi model. Although the JXi is more bountifully appointed, the Sebring convertible is so sharp that it almost seems insulting to describe the JX as the base model. The paint job on our JXi test model -- a purplish-black color called Deep Amethyst Pearl -- was darkly elegant.

Improvements for '98 include a new engine mounting system, new ignition key lock for added security and a refined anti-lock braking system (standard on the JXi, optional on the JX), with an optional traction-control system. The JX offers new wheel covers, while the JXi sports new cast aluminum wheels, plus gold badges and wheel accents.

The Sebring JXi's sculpted corners give it an eye-catching but dignified European look -- unlike the wedge-shaped Sebring LX coupe and aggressive Dodge Avenger. Indeed, in some ways, its Teutonic-inspired lines suggest a Mercedes 450SL. The Sebring's narrow, compact grille, its sloping, smartly contoured hood and its squinty headlights give it an imposingly self-assured visage.

The Sebring's firmly-mounted retractable top is a snug fit, and is attractively decorated with a glass light in back. Its trunk space is commodious for a convertible, with enough space for six shopping bags and a medium-sized suitcase.

Including the $545 destination charge, our JXi test model had a base price of $25,575. It was equipped with such options as the 2.5-liter, 24-valve six-cylinder engine ($800); the AutoStick transmission -- an automatic that can be shifted like a stick shift ($150); an Infinity stereo system with cassette, CD player, 150-watt amplifier, premium speakers and graphic equalizer ($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 total price was $26,660.

The Inside Story

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

The Sebring may also be ordered with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the AutoStick transmission (on the optional 2.5-liter V-6), an enhanced theft alarm, an optional electrochromic rearview mirror, a trip computer with compass (JXi), and the addition of trunk-unlock and panic-alarm modes for the optional keyless remote entry system.

We loved the retractible top's ease of operation. Chrysler designers have spared us the agony of having to pore over an owner's manual and wade through a painfully sequential list of instructions. Instead, you can retract the Sebring JX's top by pressing a single power switch. (You'll need to flip two windshield latches first.) So, if you're caught in sudden cloudburst, you can raise the top while sitting at a stoplight.

Once lowered, the top can be tucked under a boot that fastens with Velcro tabs. And when it's time to raise the top -- by simply pressing the "up" button -- the front-seat windows automatically slide down a few inches allowing them to align properly with the top.

The seatbelts are height-adjustable, and are deftly integrated into the back of the front bucket seats -- to prevent rear-seat passengers from tripping over them when climbing in and out. The seats are supportive and quite comfortable.

Ride & Drive

Our Sebring JXi was powered by the optional 2.5-liter, 168-hp V-6. The V-6 was so nimble that we don't think our sportier side would be happy with the standard 2.4-liter, 150-hp four-banger. Besides being smaller, the four-cylinder engine is inherently noisier. After all, if you're in the market for a sporty convertible, you shouldn't short-change yourself in the powerplant department. The extra $800 for the V-6 will be money well spent.

The AutoStick -- for a scant $150 -- is also recommended. With the AutoStick, you can manually upshift or downshift by sliding the shift lever down, and then to the left or right. It's fun to operate on winding roads and in the mountains. Shift up early to save gas, shift up late for maximum acceleration.

The extra oomph of the V-6 -- and the quicker response offered by the AutoStick -- came in handy in critical passing situations. The Sebring JXi accelerates quickly from a dead dig, but fades a bit in the homestretch: it took more than 10 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph.

On the downside, the Sebring JXi suffers from some engine noise. Whether accelerating from a dead stop or punching it on the freeway, the engine raises a ruckus. And, of course, a ragtop doesn't filter out road noise the way a hard top would.

On the upside, the taut suspension kept body roll to a minimum in hairpin turns and the power rack-and-pinion offered precise steering response allowing us to handle these maneuvers without worry.

If you're a real convertible enthusiast -- and, in our hearts, aren't we all? -- you know there's nothing like cruising along a twisting, tree-lined road with the top down. We like the Sebring's clean, aerodynamic body lines. Based on our experience, it's a great car for enjoying the pastoral pleasures of a rural road on a sunny day.

The Sebring's smart windshield design provided unblocked sight lines in all directions. And our heads were subjected to minimal wind buffeting.

The Final Word

The svelte styling of the Sebring JXi -- and the prowess of its V-6 -- make it one of the most fun-to-drive convertibles on the market. Those factors, plus its rear-seat roominess and crisp handling, have given the Sebring JXi a strong toehold in the U.S. sporty-convertible market.

Historically, domestic-ragtop buyers gravitated to the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang convertibles. That market is no longer a two-horse race. Based on its gangbusters sales performance for the past two years, the Sebring ragtop should be enticing soft-top buyers for years to come.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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

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