From the moment I first saw a photo of the new Sebring Convertible some months ago, I suspected that Chrysler had styled a head-turning automobile. When a gorgeous maroon Sebring Convertible arrived a few weeks ago, I gave it The Test. I took
it to Park Avenue in Winter Park, where Central Florida's fashion mavens and culture vultures gad, shop and dine. If a car can get noticed there, where packs of Jaguars prowl the streets regularly, it means something. Chrysler's Sebring Convertible
proved to be a real head-turner. People in Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs slowed and gave it the once-over. Passers-by stopped and looked. Most said they liked the styling, and more than one person said the rear of the Sebring was reminiscent of the Chevrolet
Camaro. In any case, the classy Sebring Convertible is one of those rare cars that conveys a prestigious image that makes people think it costs more than it does. Most people I talked to guessed its price to be in the low to mid-$30s. When I told them
it was around $25,000, they were impressed and pleasantly surprised. The Sebring Convertible is virtually alone in the marketplace. Now that Oldsmobile has stopped production of the Cutlass Supreme Convertible, the Sebring - which replaces the LeBaron
and arrives in late January - is the only true four-passenger convertible available starting at $20,000. Chrysler says it can build 60,000 Sebring Convertibles a year. I predict the company will have no problem selling every one of them.
PERFORMANCE Chrysler will offer two models of the Sebring Convertible, the JX and the more expensive JXi. I tested the JXi, which comes standard with a 2.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine that makes 168 horsepower. It is coupled to a four-speed
automatic transmission. JX models are equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder power plant and a four-speed automatic; no manual transmission is available in either car. The way I see it, the Sebring's engine is just one improvement away from
excellence. When accelerating, the hoarse-sounding V-6 undermined the classy, luxurious persona of the Sebring. The engine is fairly quiet until you require quick acceleration. Although the V-6 delivers the goods and provides the power, it does not accept
such commands quietly. Chrysler spokesman Jeff Leestma says the engine's growly noise is a sporty sound that's been put there on purpose. But to my ears, the engine sounds unrefined. In any case, the single-overhead-cam engine runs smoothly. The
four-speed automatic is just about as good as they come. Shifts generally were smooth, even when the transmission downshifted quickly as I passed slower traffic. HANDLING Chrysler got this right. The Sebring looks like a sporty luxury machine,
and it rides like one too. The four-wheel independent suspension is bolted to a super-rigid body that does not flex much over bad roads; that's a major improvement ove
r the LeBaron. I particularly like the way the Sebring steers and stops. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system is terrific. It is nicely balanced and weighted, making the car feel very solid. The turning circle is a bit wide at 40 feet,
but the steering wheel requires only 2.8 turns from lock to lock, so response is quick. The Sebring is downright fun when you put it into a sharp curve at about 40 mph; the 3,400-pound car easily handles such maneuvers. Even though the Sebring
comes with rear drum brakes (instead of more-efficient discs), the car stops quickly and without much fuss. The anti-lock system kicks in at just the right time. FIT AND FINISH The beautifully styled, wonderfully comfortable front bucket and rear
bench seats define the Sebring's luxurious nature. In fact, I think it's the seats that really make the car look far more expensive than it is. Up front, the seat belts are built in to the seat. They pull out fromt
e the top part of the seat frame - just like those in a Mercedes or BMW. The soft tan leather in o ur fully loaded test car looked great and felt wonderful. The seats offered excellent support of the lower back. Electric switches that adjust the
seats are on the side of the lower cushions, where they are a bit difficult to reach. It's the immense expanse of the rear seat that may hold the most appeal for potential Sebring buyers. There is no other ragtop I know of that starts at $20,000 and
can comfortably transport four adults. Further, the extra room in the rear didn't force Chrysler to sacrifice space in the trunk. Sebring's trunk is deep, wide and long. Visibility is another area in which the Sebring excels. From the driver's
seat, you have a clear view of the road in front, to the sides and in the rear, even when the top is up. The dash holds a set of cleanly designed analog gauges. However, the odometer readout is electronic and can be hard to see when the sun hits the
instrument cluster. The smoothly styled dash is attractive and smartly designed. Controls for the radio and air conditioner are less than an arm's length way. The switch that raises and lowers the power top is located on the center console.
Unfasten two latches and press the button, and the top will lower in less than 15 seconds. Were it not for the noisy engine, the Sebring easily could pass for a Honda or Toyota. This classy, high-quality car is built tightly and designed well.
Truett's tip: The new Sebring Convertible is all you could want in a mid-size ragtop. It seats four people comfortably, has a huge trunk, looks great, and performs well - all for a price in the mid-$20s.