THE 1995 Chrysler Sebring LXi is the motorized version of safe sex -- the perfect "expressive" car for an increasingly repressive society.To look at the Sebring LXi is to drool. To drive it is to experience certain pleasantries, but nothing near what is promised by the car's appearance. It is a duplicity born of necessity, the need to find acceptability in a society that condemns sex with one hand while pocketing enormous profits from it with the other. But Chrysler says it's trying to address another duality -- the consumer's desire for a hot-looking, "expressive" sports coupe that doesn't run afoul of common sense and public decency. Forget that such contradictory requirements historically have been nonexistent for things called "sports coupes," machines once dedicated to the uninhibited pursuit of driving pleasure. But this is another world, or, at least, another country -- one in which freedom is now defined by arbitrary limits. To wit: You can buy cigarettes, as long as you smoke them outside, and preferably away from the entrance to any building. You can sell fragrances, as long as your buyers agree not to wear them in "fragrance free" restaurants or offices. You can produce sexually suggestive TV soap operas, as long as you don't support sex education in schools. And you can have your Sebring, as long as you have no desire to drive much faster than 65 mph -- in states where that somewhat reasonable speed limit is allowed. Background: The front-wheel-drive Sebring and companion Dodge Avenger replace the Dodge Daytona, a sports-coupe wannabe that enjoyed modest success in Chrysler Corp.'s lineup. The successors are clearly better. But they are exceptional only in exterior styling, which is understandable, because they are compromise cars, and compromise inevitably begets mediocrity somewhere. Here, the sellout came in performance. The tested Sebring LXi, for example, came with a Mitsubishi-designed, 2.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6 rated 155-horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Max torque was set at 161 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm. That little V-6 offers very good performance -- when it's linked to a five-speed manual transmission. But in deference to its mass-appeal personality, only a four-speed automatic is available for the Sebring LXi. The result of that engine-transmission mating is something less than impressive -- 0 to 60 in 9.3 seconds and huge, noisy downshifts whenever you push the accelerator for instant gratification. The Sebring LXi works better as a family car, though it's limited in that application by its two-door body and its seating, albeit comfortable, for four butts only. (Chrysler's publicity people say the car seats five people. They've gotta be kidding.) But trunk space in the Sebring LXi is good -- 13.1 cubic feet, comparable to the cargo area of the Honda Accord. And the car comes with dual front air bags, standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock backup, as well as power door locks and windows. Both the Sebring and Avenger are sold in two trim levels: the base Sebring LX and upscale LXi and the Avenger Base Coupe and upscale ES. The base cars run with a Chrysler-designed, 2-liter, 16-valve, 140-horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine and are equipped with standard five-speed manual transmissions. The lower cars also get standard anti-lock brakes, but their primary brakes are power front discs/rear drums. Complaints: Unimpressive acceleration; a flirtation with cheapness -- more polyurethane forestry -- in the interior. Praise: Brilliant exterior design; overall excellent craftsmanship; good trunk space; a decent highway runner, after it gets moving. Head-turning quotient: Eye-popping neck-snapper. Ride and handling: Very good ride and handling. Excellent braking. Sound system: Eight-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with optional, center console-mounted comp ct disc. Chrysler Infinity system. Excellent. Mileage: The good part of compromise. About 24 miles per gallon (15.9-gallon tank, estimated 360-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), running mostly New Jersey Turnpike with two occupants and 135 pounds of cargo. Price: Base Sebring LXi price is $19,029. Dealers invoice on base model is $17,366. Price as tested is $20,830, including $1,266 in options and a $535 destination charge. (Prices according to Automobile Invoice Service of Sunnyvale, Calif.) Purse-strings note: A good buy if you want hot looks, practicality and modest performance. A disappointment if you want performance to match the looks. Compare with Volkswagen GTI VR-6, Honda Accord EX Coupe, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme SL coupe, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird, Nissan 240SX and Toyota Celica.
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