Chrysler Sebring: Is it Poised to Inspire?

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On Chrysler’s web site, they describe the new Sebring as “poised to inspire.” VehicleVoice and AutoPacific staff were among the groups of journalists that the Chrysler Group invited to Palm Springs, California, to experience first-hand the all-new Sebring, as well as the Aspen, to find out for ourselves.

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The drive route took us from Palm Springs, where we were staying at the Parker Palm Springs and sightings of supermodel Tyra Banks were rumored, to Borrego Springs, California, where we lunched at La Casa de Zorro Resort before dashing back. The roughly 160-mile round trip provided the opportunity to drive Sebring on twisty roads, flat straight state highways, Interstates, and through various elevation changes. The Sebring was a comfortable companion throughout the drive, whether driver or passenger.


Poised, Yes. Inspired, No.
Sebring buyers choose between a 172HP 2.4L I4, a 189HP 2.7L V6, and a 235HP 3.5L V6. The Touring and Limited get the I4 standard, with Touring offering the 2.7L as an option and the Limited offering the 3.5L. Expanding availability of the four-cylinder to all trim levels means that insisting on better fuel economy doesn’t require giving up creature comforts. A new strategy for Chrysler, but not new to the mid-size sedan market.
Sebring’s pricing overall is terrific. The Sebring’s $18,995 (including destination) base price is lower than that of the Pontiac G6, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, or Mercury Milan. The four-cylinder Limited can be had for about $24,000. Options pricing, as indicated by the $1700 price tag for the MyGIG navigation and audio hard drive, Sirius, and UConnect setup, is reasonable as well.

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I went first for the keys to a Touring with the 2.4L I4 and worked my way through the range. This is the same 2.4L in Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass, though mated to a four-speed autobox instead of a CVT. According to Larry Lyons, Chrysler’s Vice President, Small Vehicle Development, reasons for staying with the traditional automatic include production capacity for the CVT and the decision to keep all Sebrings in stepped transmissions. The CVT doesn’t behave like a stepped transmission, so acceleration in the Sebring is more obvious than in Caliber. The 2.4L brings another 22HP and an 8 percent improvement in fuel economy compared with outgoing I4, both of which customers can appreciate. It provides strong four-cylinder performance and good fuel economy (24/32 city/highway).
Next up was a Touring 189HP 2.7L V6, a carryover engine with improvements that increased torque to 191 lb-ft and made it available earlier in the rev band. This engine provides a step between the base four and top-level V6, but also keeps a flexible-fuel option in the Sebring range. The 2.7L V6 is well suited to the sedan. It offers only 17HP more than the I4, but its extra torque helps for stronger acceleration. Sebring with the 2.7L V6 is perhaps the most nicely balanced, though the four-speed automatic was more obtrusive and seemed to have a harder time finding the right gear than it did mated to the 2.4L I4.
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Last I drove the Limited with the 3.5L V6. Though the 100-pound penalty over the 2.5L V6 is noticeable, the 3.5L offers solid power and the six-speed automatic is smooth and refined. The 3.5L V6 isn’t a class-leader in the power output, though. Saturn Aura, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Pontiac G6, and Toyota Camry all offer significantly more power from their top V6 than does Sebring.
Sebring’s middle-of-the-road powertrains are supported by a middle-of-the-road chassis. The car is quiet and the ride is comfortable, but Sebring is missing the nimble handling found in a Ford Fusion or Mazda6. Pushing the car through elevation changes and twisting roads revealed a solid, competent performer, but not a particularly engaging one. Sebring proved itself a terrific cruiser on the last leg, though, as I dashed across California Highway 86 past Salton Sea, one of the few salt-water lakes in the world. That last stretch was in the 3.5L V6, with plenty of mid-range power for passing moves, and it settled happily into high-speed cruising.
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New Features to Heart of Car Market
The Sebring brings some nice convenience features to the mid-size sedan market, even if it does not push the envelope in powertrain or driving dynamics. In terms of safety, all the necessary boxes are checked but no advances are found. But in fun stuff, Sebring brings more to the table. These aren’t must-have or why-buy features, but they will improve the daily experience of living with the car and thereby improve the ownership experience and perhaps increase owner and brand loyalty down the road.
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Along with the MyGIG hard-drive navigation system (click for our discussion of that technology), Sebring brings a heated and cooled cupholder, LED interior lighting, rear-seat DVD entertainment system, and express-down front windows on the key fob. Chrysler is third behind GM and Toyota to add remote start, putting it on the Sebring’s options list. The heated/cooled cupholder feature reminds me of when heated seats first started appearing. If you hadn’t experienced it, you couldn’t see what the fuss was about or why anyone would pay for a warm butt. For commuters and those just taking longer road trips, once they have the ability to keep drinks hot or cold, they won’t want to give it up.
Though the pre-production Sebring we saw in June had a hard, rough dash, the production car uses a softer material with more give to the touch. The selection of colors and trim materials make the cabin an inviting and comfortable space, though there are so many clever design elements that it can feel a little fussy.
Styling A Weak Point
As we mentioned in our coverage of the June reveal, the Sebring’s design takes more from the family-oriented, people-hauling members of the showroom floor than the 300. Though in development, Chrysler did take a run at a baby 300-type Sebring, the result fell flat. The 300’s proportions didn’t work well with the transverse, front-drive package of the Sebring, so they started over.
Though we can imagine that a baby 300 may not have worked, we stand by our prior conclusion: Chrysler has missed an opportunity to further develop a passenger-car theme or to offer a sedan that really could inspire the mid-size segment in the way 300 did the large-car segment. Sebring offers lots of highly styled and jewel-like elements in an athletic package, but it does not capture presence and personality on the road like the 300 does. Though mid-size sedan buyers are said to be conservative, that had long been said about large-car buyers when 300 arrived. The “Wow! Gotta have it” factor is missing, as is a love-or-hate-it element. Whether you positive or negative, reactions to Sebring’s styling don’t seem strong. Rumor is that the Sebring’s designer is working on a beefed-up version for SEMA in November. Maybe that version will have more punch.
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