There are at least three good reasons why the Chrysler Sebring convertible is, by far, the bestselling ragtop in the nation. The first is obvious: beautiful styling. Here's a sleek and classy-looking ride that benefits well from Chrysler's signature cab-forward design, looking both aggressively poised and elegantly modern. The second has to do with something the Sebring has that other midsize convertibles don't: a usable back seat. Regulation-size humans can sit three abreast and even have a place to put their legs. The third is probably the top reason: moderate price. The Sebring's not cheap, but you get a lot for your money, especially in terms of a distinctive automobile that is fun, practical and beautiful (see reason No. 1). Our fully equipped version topped $28,000, but the lesser bestowed JX version starts at about $8,000 less. In 1997, Chrysler sold more than 53,000 of these things, fully one-third of all convertible sales and more than twice as many as its closest rival, Ford Mustang. The rear-drive Mustang is a sportier critter, especially in its high-performance GT trim, and appeals to a younger crowd. Compared with the Mustang, the Sebring is a boulevard cruiser, more show than go. Still, the Chrysler's steering and handling are above average, and its V-6 engine will get you there, though not in a big rush. Like many drop-tops, it will shake and shimmy on rough surfaces, especially in curves, though not excessively. But sporty performance and sophisticated road manners have little to do with why people buy these things (see three reasons, above). None of that stuff really matters in the cool of the evening with a brilliant sunset overhead. Or when your friends behold you stylin' and profilin'. And the Sebring has a much better back seat than the Mustang (see reason No. 2) so you can take some of those friends along for the ride. Restyled last year, the Sebring has an improved appearance, smoother and more appealing. Designed on the Cirrus sedan platform, the proportions on this car are really nice, from its short, low snout to its broad rear end. There's a practical side, too, with the Sebring having better trunk space than most convertibles with the top stowed. The leather interior of the test car was solid, roomy and comfortable, with a shade of retro appeal in its black-with-white-inserts color scheme. Comfort is the key, and the tall boys in the back seat certainly appreciated the extra space. Top up, the Sebring is quiet and snug, with scant wind noise or flutter. Top down, well, some convertibles are just nicer than others, something about how the breeze curls around the windshield and how special it makes you feel. The Sebring is one of the nice ones. That top, by the way, has a glass rear window instead of a fragile plastic one. In Arizona summer heat, which tends to turn plastic rear windows into brown potato chips, that's a major plus. The top slides down easily with the touch of a button, requiring the human occupants only to unlatch it from the windshield frame. The fabric tonneau cover is a pain, though, requiring you to haul yourself out of the driver's seat and attach it. At least that's what I hear, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who didn't bother installing the tonneau over the stowed top. Not a good idea, really, because the folded fabric can get weather damaged if not covered. More-expensive convertibles, such as Mercedes-Benz's new CLK320 and Volvo's recent C-70, have hatches that open and close automatically as the top glides down. But that's one of the things you pay the big bucks for (see reason No. 3). Those high-end jobs also have safety roll bars that snap up into place in the event of a rollover. The Sebring lacks this safety feature, though it is well-equipped with safety equipment otherwise. Just don't flip it. The test car was equipped with Chrysler's Autostick shifting system that allows drivers t o choose between f ull automatic or manual gear selection. I didn't really feel that the Sebring lent itself to the kind of performance driving where the Autostick option is best appreciated. Because I spent most of my test-driving time around the urban area, the tranny stayed in the automatic mode most of the time, which worked out fine. The few times I used the Autostick, I found it operated well and made it easier to hustle into and out of turns. Most drivers will try the Autostick a few times, then leave the transmission in Drive from then on. But for those of us who miss real stick shift, the Autostick is there attempting to fill the void. Chrysler has had a great run of cars and trucks in recent years, with such notable performance machines as the Viper; excellent family cars such as Intrepid, Concorde and LHS; the popular new Durango sports-utility vehicle; the big Ram pickup with its tractor-trailer styling; and the superb remake of the classic Jeep Wrangler. The Sebring is not a new car for Chrysler, neatly replacing the LeBaron, but the latest upgrade keeps it modern and right in there with the best of them. Witness its booming popularity (see reasons, above). 1998 Chrysler Sebring JXi Convertible Vehicle type: Five-passenger, two-door convertible, front-wheel drive. Base price: $25,040. Price as tested: $28,095. Engine: 2.5-liter V-6, 168 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 170 pound-feet of torque at 4,350 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic with Autostick. Curb weight: 3,406 pounds. Length: 192.6 inches. EPA fuel economy: 18 city, 28 highway. Highs: Handsome styling. Usable back seat. Moderate price. Lows: Modest performance. Body shake. Tonneau trouble.
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