PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- When the 2007 Chrysler Sebring was in development, designers considered doing a "junior" edition of the ultra-popular Chrysler 300.
It would have been a no-brainer in many respects, as well as a tactic taken from such German brands as Audi, which is famous for its lineup of stair-step vehicles with look-alike features.
"A junior version of the 300 was nice, but nice isn't the adjective you're looking for," said Mark Hall, the Sebring's senior design manager. "It's not going to get you noticed in the marketplace."
So Chrysler veered off in another, albeit softer, design direction from the macho 300. It took exterior styling cues for the new Sebring from the 2003 Airflite concept, morphing that model's hatchback form into a sedan body and incorporating the flowing hood "strakes" or character lines from the Chrysler Crossfire.
The result is an intriguing family sedan that is larger and more powerful than the outgoing model, with a good chance of standing out in the super-competitive mid-range market against the likes of the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
I drove two versions of the Sterling Heights-built Sebring at the media drive here.
The first was a Sebring Touring model with a 2.7-liter V-6 engine and $2,725 worth of options, including a power sunroof and 18-inch aluminum wheels. It had a sticker price of $22,920, including a $675 destination charge.
The second Sebring was a Limited model with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine and $5,320 worth of options, including cupholders that can heat or cool beverages, a GPS navigation radio system and Sirius Satellite radio. Bottom line: $29,315.
The base Sebring with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine starts at $18,995, including destination. The sedan is on sale now and a retractable hardtop convertible Sebring is due out next spring.
Unlike Camry and Accord, however, you can't get a hybrid version of the Sebring, nor can you get the 2.0-liter diesel Sebring that is offered in markets outside of North America.
One of the first things that sold me on the new Sebring is the interior, which is contemporary and clean, with some unusual cabin treatments.
The automaker introduced a tortoiseshell trim on the 300 and also offers it in the Sebring as a standard item on the Limited model. In fact, Chrysler skipped the fake wood entirely on the Sebring, which makes the car seem a lot more hip and youthful than many of its competitors.
The Sebring's cabin is roomier than its predecessor and now ranks in the same league as the Accord, Camry and Ford Fusion. The front passenger seat has an optional fold-flat feature, and there are split-folding rear seats to handle longer cargo, but the trunk is a bit smaller than most of the competition.
Tech-lovers will enjoy a raft of gadgets, including the new MyGIG audio/navigation system. Developed by Harman Kardon, the MP3 system has a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can store up to 1,600 songs, plus addresses and photos. The next-generation nav system features real-time traffic rerouting, voice-activated controls and a 6.5-inch thin-film-transistor display with a touch-screen panel. Streaming movies can be played on the screen when the vehicle is parked, and motorists can use the system to record messages up to three minutes long.
My two Sebring test cars seemed very well-built with no gaps or issues with fit-and-finish.
The Sebring offers buyers three choices under the hood.
Standard in all three trim levels of the Sebring is the much-publicized "World Engine," a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 173 horsepower -- an increase of 23 horses over the base engine in the '06 model -- and 166 pounds-feet of torque.
The base engine, which is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, is a good choice if you're concerned about fuel economy. The EPA says the 2.4-liter engine returns 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 miles per gallon on the highway -- nearly as good as the fuel economy you get in the base Camry.
The Sebring's 2.7-liter V-6 produces 189 horsepower and 191 pounds-feet of torque and is flex-fuel capable, which means it can use E85. This engine gets 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
A third powertrain option is the 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 235 horsepower and 232 pounds-feet of torque. It is coupled with a new six-speed automatic transmission with a clutchless shifting feature. This combination returns 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 miles per gallon on the highway.
My Sebring with the 3.5-liter V-6 was an impressive performer on the highway, with lots of power for passing and merging.
Despite being taller and wider than its predecessor, the new Sebring is still easy to park and maneuver and has excellent road manners. The ride in my test cars seemed just right -- firm, but not enough to make your back hurt.
Standard safety features include side curtain air bags that protect all outboard passengers, front side air bags and antilock brakes. Electronic stability control and traction control cost extra and adjustable pedals are not offered.
Chrysler says the bulk of Sebring buyers -- 55 percent -- are female and many have small families with young children.
These buyers should appreciate features like the Yes Essentials fabric, which is standard on the Sebring Touring model. This fabric is stain- and smell-resistant and should go along way toward keeping the car's showroom looks.
But you'd never guess at its practical side from its upscale exterior. Sebring deserves a lot of praise for being a stealth family car.
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