Stylish new sports coupe is quick and affordable.

by Bob Plunkett

Base Price (MSRP) $19,910
As Tested (MSRP) $26,270

Chrysler has introduced a totally new Sebring Coupe for 2001. This new two-door replaces the previous coupe by the same name. But it rolls on a stiff new platform and is powered by bigger engines than the predecessor. It comes with a sleek new shell and an all-new interior.

The Sebring label also applies to a new four-door Chrysler sedan. Despite a shared name and similar styling, the sedan should not be confused with the coupe, as they do not share chassis, powertrains, or components. Instead, the Chrysler Sebring coupe shares components with the new Dodge Stratus coupe.

Consider the coupe variation of Sebring an entirely new product rigged for comfort. Powertrain choices provide two different flavors. The Sebring coupe comes out of a joint-venture assembly plant in Illinois that also produces the Stratus and the Mitsubishi Eclipse coupes; Sebring, Stratus and Eclipse use the same engines, chassis, and suspension designs.

Behind its smooth shell, the Sebring coupe provides a generous interior environment that adds a quality rare for a two-door sports coupe: Genuine legroom in the rear seat.

Another rare trait among sporty coupes concerns the bottom line, as Chrysler casts the Sebring coupe with a price that begins at $19,910.

Model Lineup

Chrysler splits the Sebring two-door coupe into two models: LX and LXi.

The base LX coupe ($19,910) uses a single-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 142 horsepower and links to a four-speed automatic transaxle.

The luxury version, Sebring LXi, starts at $21,475 with a 3.0-liter V6 charged to 200 horsepower. The V6 mates either to the standard five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic ($825) that can be rigged with Chrysler's AutoStick ($165) for no-clutch shift control. Optional safety equipment includes ABS ($565) for Sebring LX, or ABS with Traction Control ($740) on Sebring LXi when equipped with the automatic transmission.

Walkaround

Chrysler's coupe treatment for Sebring looks bold and dramatic, with uncommonly fluid lines flowing over an oval format featuring a curt prow and exaggerated cabin clustered behind so much reflective window glass. The windshield initiates a graceful arching profile that extends over sensuously shaped doors to merge thin rear roof pillars in a swoop to the high deck of a tail.

The Sebring coupe is elegant in shape and style, a slick design that clearly harmonizes with the curvy sedans in Chrysler's fleet.

Up front, the broad oval grille inset with an egg-crate pattern and round fog lamps comes off the styling chart for the LHS sedan. Above the grille, front corners carry multi-lens headlamps in oval clusters flanking the bulging hood.

Rolled side panels flare in rings around wheelwells to draw attention to large wheels, including optional seven-spoke chrome wheels.

Following the arching roofline, shapely back pillars slide down into the coupe's rear flanks to form shoulders of the high tail, which bows over bold corner lamps and the thick mass of a monotone bumper.

Interior Features

The architectural design of the Sebring carves out generous space for riders by extending the windshield forward to the firewall, increasing the length and width of the cabin, and abbreviating space for the engine.

Up front is a pair of high-back bucket seats clad in cloth fabric or optional leather. The rear bench seats three, with folding seatbacks split 60/40 for access to the trunk.

Unlike some sport coupes, the Sebring has a chassis long enough to leave room in the backseat for adult riders. To prove the point, we crawled into the rear seat and found that long legs fit neatly -- even comfortably -- behind the driver's seat. Further, we could extract ourselves easily from that space because the front seat slides forward sufficiently to permit a quick exit.

The look and tone of appointments in the Sebring coupe is sporty more than it is luxurious. A dashboard collection of instruments, tucked beneath a bowed cowl, contains round analog gauges including a tachometer. Sculptured pods on either side of the central console define notched cockpit spaces for the driver and front passenger. From the driver's seat you can easily access window and lock switches mounted on the door.

With the LXi edition, a center console cradles the shifter lever for either a manual stick or the automatic with optional AutoStick control.

Above the console, a central stack of audio and climate systems contains large rotary dials in a simple scheme.

Due to the broad and tall expanses of window glass and relatively narrow windshield pillars, the Sebring provides excellent outward visibility for the driver, which becomes a factor for safety.

Safety features begin with the rigid structure that wraps around the passenger compartment. Active devices include four-wheel disc brakes with optional ABS; passive measures include three-point seatbelts for all five seat positions and dual-stage frontal airbags.

Appointments for the base Sebring LX include gear usually offered on the list of options, such as air conditioning, and power windows, mirrors and door locks.

The V6-powered LXi brings a leather-wrapped steering wheel and premium sound system with cassette deck and CD player.

Driving Impressions

Back-to-back drives in the previous Sebring coupe and its sleek replacement quickly demonstrate that the new version feels tighter, stronger and stiffer.

We spent time in both during a day driving loop courses around Lake Washington in the suburbs of Seattle. These routes ranged from congested I-5 to stop-and-go Third Street to the residential lakeshore on Mercer Island, and provided a variety of pavement types and urban speeds. The drives revealed confident road manners. They also revealed the suspension tips toward the plush side to favor softer ride characteristics.

Sebring rolls on a new chassis that improves rigidity over the previous generation by 90 percent in bending strength and 9 percent in twisting. New front suspension elements include MacPherson struts with lower A-arms, shock tower bracing, and an anti-roll bar. In the rear are upper A-arms with lower lateral and semi-trailing links, coil springs and an anti-roll bar.

While an aggressive driver may perhaps observe that the new front arrangement results in less precision when carving a hard turn, the new Sebring performs better in straight-line action and ultimately generates a smoother ride quality than the previous model.

The new coupe also delivers more power than the former Sebring through new engines that offer greater displacement as well as strength. The base Sebring LX comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that uses a single overhead-camshaft design with four valves per cylinder and sequential multi-point fuel injection. Output reaches 142 horsepower with the automatic transaxle.

Sebring LXi shows more spark with its single overhead-cam 3.0-liter V6 that develops 200 horsepower. This engine delivers exhilarating acceleration performance; it surprised us with its authority.

The shifter lever on the console connects to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. The short-throw manual 5-speed moves effortlessly fore and aft, with smooth clutch engagement and easy up-shifts. The 4-speed automatic contains an adaptive controller tied to a computer that quickly learns a driver's habits and manipulates shift patterns to suit the driving style. Take it easy and the automatic interprets that style by shifting gently at relatively low engine speeds. Pep it up and the transmission holds it in a lower gear longer to increase acceleration performance. Tackle a long downhill descent and it drops down a gear to add engine braking. With the optional AutoStick, you can slide the automatic shift lever down to a manual mode and create a shift-it-yourself option without the hassle of pumping a clutch pedal.

Final Word

Chrysler Sebring coupe delivers a spacious passenger compartment behind the sensuous lines of a slick shell. With its powerful V6 and smooth ride characteristics, the Sebring LXi edition contains luxurious appointments yet holds the bottom line to a reasonable number.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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