Fresh air never looked better than this. by Mike Knepper
Chrysler single-handedly brought the convertible back to the automotive scene in the mid-'80s, when Lido Lacocca realized he had a really good thing in the K-car, and could use its basic bones to make just about anything, short of a school bus. He had noticed a tiny little blip on the automotive continuum caused by a couple of shops in California that were turning out more and more convertible conversions on such vehicles as the Celica. Ever the shrewd marketer, Lacocca sensed a niche emerging and jumped in. Since then, Chrysler has been the leading seller of convertibles in a slowly expanding market.
The LeBaron convertible, the last survivor from Chrysler's K-car era, led the segment for a decade, an astonishing record.
We think the new Sebring convertible could very well match that record, and perhaps even beat it.
Chrysler design has turned out an unbroken string of stunners in recent years, and this new ragtop may be the best-looking of them all. The Sebring convertible is the most obvious example of the benefits of cab-forward yet. That new design school puts the wheels out at each corner, with the base of the windshield extended almost over the front wheels.
The hood has a dramatic slope, ending in a slanted grille flanked by thin, flush headlights and turn signal/side marker lights that wrap around into the fenders. Large driving lights flank a chin spoiler and air scoop. With the rear wheels positioned so far aft, the rear deck is a bit, uh, truncated, and there's not a lot of space under the lid. But the design is so compelling it's hard to care about practical things like trunk volume.
Long nose, short rear deck and a wide stance give the Sebring a masculine, almost aggressive look, softened by elegant sculpting and smooth, flowing lines.
The Sebring Convertible is available in two models, JX and JXi. The difference between the two lies in equipment and an optional V6 for the JXi, which was our choice for this test.
The standard engine for the JX is a 2.4-liter double overhead cam 4-cyl. that produces 150 hp. The JXi comes with a Mitsubishi-supplied 2.5-liter single overhead cam V6 of the same displacement, rated at 168 hp. Both engines are also used in the Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus Sedans. Unlike Cirrrus and Stratus, the only transmission offered with either engine is a 4-speed automatic.
Chrysler wanted a replacement for the LeBaron, but didn't want to go to the expense of creating an all-new chassis for it. Surprisingly, the Sebring Coupe platform, derived from the Mitsubishi Galant sedan, wasn't selected. Its technology, Chrysler explains, wasn't easily transported to the convertible's assembly plant in Mexico.
So the Cirrus/Stratus sedan platform was chosen as the basis for the convertible. However, Chrysler made enough modifications to this chassis for convertibilization--including extensive measures aimed at restoring the chassis rigidity that goes away with the loss of the steel roof structure--to give the new car a separate platform designation of its own: JX.
The independent suspension system is double wishbone, front and rear. In front, there are shock absorbers, coil springs and a stabilizer bar. It uses rubber isolators for mounting points to help keep road shocks from reaching the passenger compartment.
At the rear, upper A-arms and transverse links attach to a cross-member for precise alignment. Like the front underpinnings, the rear assembly also uses soft rubber bushings to smooth the ride and reduce noise and vibration that can find its way through suspension components.
The Inside Story
The interior reinforces the theme established by the exterior: flowing lines, handsome design and a feeling of solidity. Chrysler's exterior and interior design teams work literally side by side and there is a constant interchange between the two. It's a practice that eliminates the old "Here's the instrument panel, make it fit in your body," school of design.
The instrument cluster is simple with dials and gauges gathered under a prominent cowl that flows smoothly off the right side into a vertical section housing the air conditioning vents and the usual in-dash controls. In the JXi, the controls are surrounded by very good simulated woodgrain.
The darker top half of the instrument panel contrasts with a lighter colored knee bolster which matches the color of the door panels and the seats. Leather seating surfaces are standard in the JXi, and we give them high marks for both looks and quality. Overall, the JXi has the look and feel of luxury, which is, of course, what the design team had in mind.
Although the seats don't provide much lateral support, the padding is firm and they offer plenty of squirm-around space--just right for boulevard cruising. Chrysler figured that seats designed to keep driver and passenger centered in hard cornering wouldn't be appropriate here. After all, this is not a sports car.
An interesting feature of the front seats is their integrated belts. The upper anchor is hidden inside the outside upper portion of the seatback, and automatically adjusts for the height of the user. It's a clever and thoughtful touch that eliminates the awkward reach that's normal for belts in most convertibles.
A main advantage of the cab-forward philosophy is increased interior room within a given body length. The JXi has good front leg room, and enough leg room in the rear to make seating for four a reasonable proposition. Although the Sebring Convertible has no structural commonality with the Sebring Coupe, the two share the commendable trait of a useable rear seat, something that's rare for cars in this size class.
The convertible top is power-operated and has a glass rear window in both versions. The JX top is fabricated from vinyl, while the JXi has a higher-grade cloth top in either black or camel. The lighter-colored top looks very spiffy indeed, particularly with a saddle-tan leather interior.
Standard JXi features include air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, power driver's seat, keyless entry, power mirrors and speed-sensitive wipers.
Ride & Drive
The level of refinement that Chrysler has built into the Sebring Convertible is remarkable. As we suggested earlier, the convertible engineering team went to great lengths to match the chassis rigidity that distinguishes other Chrysler cars, and the result of all the hard work is very impressive.
The new convertible is generally just as solid on the road as Chrysler's other entries in this size class. And with the top up, it's nearly as quiet as a sedan.
With the top down, there is surprisingly little wind buffeting, although your hairdo will undergo some rearrangement as speeds increase. Then again, what's a convertible with some buffet? Wind-in-the-hair, sun-in-the-face, right? That's part of the fun.
The 4-cyl. engine should be perfectly adequate for most tastes, but the additional power and smoothness of the V6 adds another layer of pleasure to driving. Although the Mitsubishi V6 isn't the strongest in its displacement class, it produces decent acceleration and effortless highway cruising.
It also produces a fair amount of noise as the tachometer nears redline, and full-throttle shifts are a bit abrupt, but these traits are hardly noticeable at routine speeds.
The wide stance and rather sophisticated suspension system pay off in a couple of ways. The quality that drivers will notice--and appreciate--most, is a ride that's comfortable and generally free of harshness and vibration. Second, drivers with a little sporting spirit in their blood will discover that this car also handles quite well and feels sure-footed in the twisty bits. The steering is not over-assisted and transfers road feel in the right amount, and the suspension, though supple, keeps body roll to a minimum in all but the hardest cornering.
Although the JXi's emphasis is clearly on luxury, there's a lot of fun to be had here, too.
The Sebring JX convertibles don't really have much competition. The Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire combine good looks and relatively low price, but they're not in the same size class, and rear seat space is restricted. The Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and Ford Mustang thrive on muscle car image, and are also cramped behind the rear seats.
The JX and JXi aren't road-burners. But they do offer exceptional roominess for ragtops, and when it comes to elegant good looks they stand alone.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.