It's ragtop time, America, and here's one of the tastiest canvas-topped confections going. The new Sebring JX convertible is a design standout in any crowd -- smooth, elegantly proportioned and surprisingly roomy behind the front seats. There's just one catch. Unless you step up to the premium JXi V6, which has a base price of $25,210, all that chic sheet metal surrounds a car that is in some ways disappointingly average. So-so interior materials. Yawn-provoking performance. Not quite what you might expect in a car that starts just a couple of tacos south of $20,000. To be fair, the new convertible's structure seems to be solid, the top seals well and operates smoothly, and there's a glass rear window with integrated electric defrosting. Some convertibles, including the new BMW Z3 sports car, still use plastic rear windows, which are prone to cloudiness and optical distortion. But the so-called premium cloth upholstery in our test car, which cost $95 extra, simply didn't look or feel like premium goods. Worse, although the car had traveled fewer than 2,000 miles, the upholstery already was pulling away from a plastic fitting on the upper right side of the passenger seat. Similarly, the vinyl used on the dashboard and inner door panels doesn't quite have the appearance of $20,000 vinyl, and the instrumentation looks a tad stark. The list of standard comfort and convenience features is at least average for a car in this price class. And it doesn't take long behind the wheel to see where Chrysler Corp. spent its development money. The chassis design team did an excellent job. The JX unitbody is exceptionally sturdy by convertible standards. How Chrysler got there is an interesting story. The Sebring convertible has little in common with the hardtop Sebring coupe that's made by Mitsubishi and shares a chassis with the Japanese carmaker's midsize Galant. The front half of the Sebring convertible is based on the midsize Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze sedans. The back half is unique to the drop top. As a result, the convertible's wheelbase is a little longer than the Sebring coupe and a little shorter than the Cirrus, Stratus and Breeze sedans. The convertible is assembled at a Chrysler plant in Mexico. Convertibles need extra strength in the lower part of the body to provide structural compensation for the absence of a steel top. When the reinforcement isn't strong enough, the chassis flexes too much and a phenomenon known as cowl shake can be detected as the car rolls down a bumpy road or executes quick maneuvers. The classic cowl shake symptom is when you see the dashboard or steering column wiggling around a bit. The dash seems to be marching to a slightly different beat than the rest of the car. The Sebring JX is commendably free of this undesirable trait. And stru ctural solidity also is essential in preventing the rattles and squeaks that so often afflict ragtops. However, when it comes to those quick maneuvers, the JX is a little sluggish, stiff chassis notwithstanding. It looks sporty, but it's no sports car. The suspension favors ride quality, which is smooth indeed. In any case, quick reflexes would be almost superfluous on a JX like our test car, with the basic four-cylinder engine. Allied with a four-speed automatic transmission and 3,350 pounds of convertible, this powertrain produces acceleration that falls well short of thrilling. Sluggish is closer to the mark. This same engine serves adequately as the basic power for Chrysler's minivan, where haste isn't really much of an issue. It's also the base engine in the Sebring and Avenger. But the standard transmission in the four-cylinder coupes is a five- speed manual, which does a better job of getting things moving. The optional JX engi , shared with the coupes and the midsize sedans, is a 168-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6 supplied by Mitsubishi. As small displacement V6 engines go, the Mitsubishi engine is rather ordinary, but it does get the Sebring down the street with something like urgency. Incidentally, Chrysler will offer its semiautomatic AutoStick transmission as a JX option in '97, which should lend a little more fun to the driving and a bit more verve to acceleration. Although the interior of the JX is a little underwhelming by current Chrysler standards, it does have a couple of strong points. The first of these is rear-seat legroom. Unlike most ragtops, the JX has enough room in back for two adults to ride comfortably, something that can't be said for either the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird, the Sebring's most direct competitors. The second distinguishing touch is small, but equally noteworthy. The front seat belts feed into the upper outside of the seatbacks, with the anchors and inertia reels mounted inside the base of the seat. Other convertible belts anchor behind the doors, where the base of the roof pillar would be on a coupe, with the belt feeding through a guide mounted on the upper side of the seat. The conventional arrangement makes for an awkward buckle-up reach and an even more awkward scramble into the back seat. The Sebring's belt design cures that, and it's an elegant solution. Still another nifty touch is the one-piece plastic tonneau cover that tidies up the rear appearance of the car when the top is down. It secures with a couple of elastic straps and a pair of Velcro tabs. Snugging everything down takes less than a minute -- no snaps, no hassles. And with the tonneau removed from the trunk, there's 11.3 cubic feet of storage space, which is also good by convertible standards. The Mustang convertible, for example, provides just 7.7 cubic feet under the rear decklid, the Camaro and Firebird 7.6. In addition to the security of a decent-size trunk, the JX and JXi also provide a lockable storage well in the center console, which is handy for small valuables -- sunglasses, cell phones, radar detector -- during short stops when you've got the top down. Aside from tepid performance -- to be sure, a rather large aside -- the JX makes the miles go by pleasantly enough. It's reasonably quiet with the top up, and there's not too much turbulence with the top down, a tribute to the aerodynamic efficiency of the design. Base price for base price, it's also considerably less expensive than the Mustang (about $21,500), Camaro (about $21,800) and Firebird (almost $23,000) convertibles. On the other hand, the Mustang, Camaro and Firebird all offer V6 engines as standard equipment, with V8s that create more than 300 hp available as options. In addition to its optional cloth upholstery, our test car included a spiffy gray-lilac paint job (Chrysler calls it light iris, $100 please), antilock brakes ($565) and an AM/FM/ CD sound system ($445). Although the JXi is considerably more expensive, it's also much more lavishly equipped. In addition to the V6 engine, the JXi includes leather, aluminum alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, keyless remote entry, cruise control, fog lamps, ABS and an upgrade audio system. But if budget is an issue -- and when is it not? -- the basic JX can become considerably more appealing with a simple engine transplant. Adding the V6 to the JX costs a hefty $1,365, but it includes antilock brakes and lifts the car's performance from turgid to acceptable. Base model shortfalls aside, it's clear that Chrysler has hit pretty close to the center of the target with the Sebring convertible. It's a much sturdier convertible than the one it replaces, the old LeBaron, last of Chrysler's K-cars. Ad it's already taken up the LeBaron's perennial role as the best-selling ragtop in the country. Although it's a little tame in the performance department, even with the V6, it's undeniably good to look at, and it's the only affordable convertible that can seat four in comfort. If you're not in a hurry to get where you're going, that should be enough to tip the balance. SPECS RATING: 2 wheels VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, front-drive, midsize convertible KEY COMPETITORS: Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, Pontiac Firebird BASE PRICE: $19,995 PRICE AS TESTED: $21,200 STANDARD EQUIPMENT: Dual air bags, air conditioning, AM/FM radio, power top, power windows, glass rear window, rear window defogger, tilt steering SPECIFICATIONS:
(manufacturer's data) Engine 150-hp, 2.4-liter four-cyl. EPA fuel econ. 20 m.p.g. city/29 hwy. Curb weight 3350 pounds Wheelbase 106.0 inches Length 193.0 inches Width 70.1 inches Height 54.8 inches Where assembled Toluca, Mexico
Closest Dealers Listing this Car
Featured Services for the Chrysler Sebring
- Sell your current car quickly and easily on Cars.com.
*Invoice prices are made available by Cars.com and are not dealer advertising. All prices are subject to regional variations. Prices last updated 9/23/10. Click here for more information.