Chrysler's small sedan grows up to be a baby 300M.
by Bengt Halvorson
Since its 1995 introduction, the Chrysler Cirrus and its stablemate the Dodge Stratus (as well as the now-extinct Plymouth Breeze) have been overlooked, competent compact sedans that offered a lot of equipment and value for the money -- if lacking the refinement of much of the competition.
Last fall, DaimlerChrysler introduced a completely redesigned version of these sedans. Time for a revisit, we said, to see just how extensive the changes are and how the newly updated four-doors stack up against the competition in the midsize sedan segment.
With the discontinuation of the Plymouth brand, the Breeze model is now gone, while the Chrysler Cirrus sedan has been incorporated as a Sebring model. The sedans are on a different platform than the coupe and share no significant common parts. To make up for the exit of the Breeze, the lower-priced, entry-level models of the Chrysler are now offered, whereas before the Cirrus was only available as the upscale, top-line model of the three cars.
The Sebring sedan takes its basic shape and design cues from the larger 300M. The new lines transform the Sebring into a stylish compact sedan that looks both elegant and athletic. While the wide-mouth lower grille in front resembles that of the Concorde, LHS, and 300M, the raised, squared-off rear end and vertical taillights are all 300M-inspired.
Our test car was a Chrysler Sebring LX, equipped with the optional V-6. Sebring is available in two trim levels, LX and upscale LXi. A 150-hp, all-aluminum 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is standard on the LX sedans (not to be confused with the Mitsubishi-supplied cast-iron-block 2.4-liter four offered on the Sebring coupes). A 200-hp, 2.7-liter V-6 engine is optional on the LX and standard on the LXi. The V-6, a downscaled relative of the 3.2- and 3.5-liter V-6s used elsewhere in the Chrysler lineup, replaces the Mitsubishi 2.5-liter V-6 used on the last-generation cars. A four-speed automatic is the only transmission available.
Strong, smooth, quiet
The new powerplant makes its peak 200 hp at a high 5900 rpm, with the peak torque of 192 achieved at an also-high 4350 rpm. On paper, one might guess that it doesn't have much low-rpm grunt, but it does. It's a fairly flexible engine, and in the Sebring it's tuned to be quiet and unobtrusive. At full wail at the top of first or second gear, it makes a pleasant exhaust note. The former 168-hp Mitsubishi-supplied 2.5-liter V-6 was often criticized for being coarse and loud at high rpms; the 2.7 isn't quite as vibration-free as the 2.5 at low revs. At idle in Drive, especially when the engine was not yet fully warmed up, our test Sebring transmitted noticeable vibration into the steering column and footwell, especially when the engine was still cold.
While the old-generation cars shared engines and some undercarriage parts with Mitsubishi, the new Sebring has no Mitsubishi pieces. Chrysler says they kept the same overall dimensions and body structure but optimized it for an improvement in stiffness. Various suspension revisions were introduced, along with a recalibrated steering system. Larger, 15-inch tires and wheels replace the 14-inchers as standard (with 16-inch available), and four-wheel disc brakes are now standard.
Chrysler engineers also aimed to reduce noise and harshness throughout the car. Windshield and door molding, mirrors, and wiper arms were redesigned to minimize wind noise, while door glass was thickened to cut other noise from outside. Doors and hollow underbody pieces are now injected with foam, to aid sound insulation.
The result of all these efforts is that the interior is much quieter in terms of wind noise -- possibly best in its class. On smooth pavement surfaces, the cabin is peaceful at 70 miles per hour, with a remarkable absence of wind, engine, or road noise. On coarse surfaces, while the suspension does a fine job in isolating the roughness, the Sebring's body tends to transmit more road noise than expected into the cabin: Rough patches of asphalt on mountain roads are heard more than they're felt.
Ride tuned for comfort
The Sebring's handling is confident and competent for any situation, but not class-leading. On low-speed corners and tight hairpins, the sedan feels unusually nose-heavy, making turn-in sluggish. On-center steering feel isn't so great either, but overall roadholding at higher speeds is good. This figures as part of its new marketing, in which DaimlerChrysler is emphasizing luxury, comfort, and a European styling influence for Chrysler and bold sportiness for Dodge. DaimlerChrysler tuned the Sebring's suspension slightly more for comfort, and in that respect the Sebring does well. Ride comfort is excellent in the full range of road conditions.
Sebring's automatic transmission does the job well, with smooth shifts, but it sometimes gets confused about what gear to be in and it doesn't downshift on its own going down steep hills like many other newer-design gearboxes do, nor does it seem to change its shift pattern to throttle habits. For those who want to shift for themselves, or at least have control of when the shifts are made, an AutoStick manumatic feature is available as an option on the LXi but not available on the LX.
Inside, the new Sebring gets the 300M's "clockface" gauges and a totally redesigned interior. Those familiar with the old Cirrus, Stratus, and other Chrysler products will note that interior plastics and materials are actually getting a lot better in Chrysler cars, after years of griping from automotive journalists about too many hard surfaces and textures that don't match. The interior, in terms of aesthetics, is still not close to that of industry-leading mass-producer Volkswagen, but it's a big improvement. The interior feels like it was more thought out, and less as if it was assembled of pieces from the company parts bin. The faux-wood plastic trim strip across the dash and doors still looks a bit garish, though.
Sebring has a very roomy, accommodating interior. The cabin feels very spacious -- more so than its compact dimensions would suggest. All controls are within easy reach, and the new all-rotary ventilation controls are an improvement. One complaint, though: The standard cloth LX seats are flat and obscenely wide, with short low cushions and little, if any lateral or lumbar support. They feel optimized for short, stocky people and not at all comfortable for my slender 6'-6" frame, although I'll admit I'm outside of the norm.
A particular annoyance in driving the Sebring is its very touchy, degressive throttle. With just a slight touch of the accelerator, the Sebring lurches ahead. Smooth, gentle takeoffs are difficult at first, as is parallel parking. It's not until you get well into the throttle that you realize that with a slight bit of pedal travel you're already at half throttle, and kicking it to the floorboards won't give you that much more power. Whether this is a trick to make people on test drives think that the car has more power, we don't know, but we've criticized many Chrysler vehicles across the line for this behavior.
Improved ABS, side bags optional
Two useful safety devices, anti-lock brakes and side airbags, are optional on the Sebring. The anti-lock braking system, a $565 option, is now called ABS Plus, incorporating a yaw-sensor system and improved braking on split surfaces. Curtain-type, headliner-mounted side airbags are a $390 option. The Sebring received five-star frontal crash ratings from the federal government in both driver and passenger protection.
At $19,420 with the V-6, the Chrysler Sebring LX is bargain-priced (the V-6 is an $850 option). Additional $1000 incentives currently apply, and the price is likely to be discounted even more by dealers due to the current buyers' market situation. While these deals can be had on the Sebring, they certainly won't be had on V-6 Accords, Passats, or Camrys -- vehicles likely to demand nearly full price, in the $23,000-to-25,000 range. The Saturn L-Series V-6 ($19,995) and the Hyundai Sonata V-6 ($17,934) also offer high value in this category of smaller V-6 sedans, but the Sebring feels like a much more substantial car.
Overall, we like the Sebring much better than the former car, the Cirrus, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the greatest improvement is in ride quality. The Sebring doesn't have the stiff, small-car pitching motions that the Cirrus had, with no real compromise in handling, and the suspension stays composed on rough roads. The whole car feels more refined, mature, and upscale. Additionally, the powerful new V-6 makes it an attractive alternative, from a value-for-the-dollar standpoint.
If you want something sportier (with an available five-speed manual) that's also a good value, the Nissan Maxima might be more for you, but if you're looking for a good ol' American sedan, this Chrysler deserves a look.
2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan LX V-6
Price: base $17,975, as equipped $20,950
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 200 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 108.0 in
Length: 190.7 in
Width: 70.6 in
Height: 54.9 in
Weight: 3317 lb
Fuel economy city/hwy: N/A
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, optional anti-lock brakes and side airbags
Major standard equipment: Power windows, locks, and mirrors, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection