Convertible sales have dropped significantly as the economy has stalled and fuel prices have spiked.

One reason automakers suggest is that convertibles often are third or fourth cars in a household, not everyday vehicles, and therefore are subject to being left off shopping lists when disposable income falls.

That's particularly true of two-seaters of any price, and high-end models that might do well when the stock market and other personal-wealth generators are in good shape.

Many of these vehicles are impractical to use as daily transportation, so they're not easy substitutes for the cars we choose to drive the kids to school or to make our regular work commutes and shopping trips (ever try to get a load of groceries into a Saturn Sky or BMW Z4?).

There are a few practical convertibles on the market, though, that can be used for most routine trips.

One of those is the Chrysler Sebring, which got a complete remake for 2008, including its first retractable metal top.

The '08 rides on the same all-new chassis that carries the Sebring sedan that was redesigned a year earlier, although Chrysler has added parts to the convertible to boost structural rigidity with the top down. That helps eliminate the body shakes and shimmies that often occur when convertibles run over bumps in the road.

Surprisingly, with the top down, this convertible feels almost as sturdy as its sedan counterpart.

Chrysler reinforced the body in exactly 100 places to make it stronger, and high-strength steel was used in many of the braces and reinforced areas.

This new Sebring became just the second convertible to offer a choice between a standard soft top and a retractable metal top. The two-seat Mazda MX-5 Miata added a similar option for 2007.

But of the four-seat convertibles that compete with the Sebring, none has that choice. The Pontiac G6 and Volkswagen Eos convertibles, both of which arrived for 2007, have only hard tops.

Chrysler's market research found that some convertible buyers would have only a soft top, while others would buy one with a retractable hard top. With a choice of tops, the Sebring can satisfy either customer.

And with the soft top, there is an additional choice - the base vinyl top or a cloth top. Changing to the three-piece retractable hardtop adds $2,000 to the price. That top is available only on the midlevel Touring model or the top-of-the-line Limited.

The base model, which comes with the vinyl top, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, and four-speed automatic transmission, starts at $26,850, including $675 freight. It comes with 16-inch wheels.

Our tester, though, was the midlevel Touring model, whose price begins at $29,305. It comes with the vinyl top, along with a 2.7-liter V-6 engine, four-speed automatic, and 17-inch aluminum wheels.

The Limited, with a starting price of $33,065, comes with a 3.5-liter V-6. But it also gets a more fuel-efficient six-speed automatic transmission, the cloth top, 18-inch aluminum wheels, and leather upholstery as standard equipment.

Adding all of the available options, including the hard top and Chrysler's new MyGIG navigation/audio system, the Limited model rings up near $40,000.

But it's not necessary to spend that much to have a nicely equipped Sebring convertible. With a few extras, our tester's sticker was $32,185, but the base model can be bought for several thousand dollars less, and is quite livable even without all the extras.

The base model's four-cylinder is the most fuel-efficient. Rated at 173 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque, its EPA ratings are 20 miles per gallon city/29 highway.

Our tester's 2.7-liter V-6 had 189 horsepower and 191 foot-pounds of torque, which was plenty of power for my everyday driving, including uphill freeway on-ramps. EPA ratings are 18 city/26 highway.

The hardest sell with gasoline prices so high will be the 3.5-liter V-6, which generates 235 horsepower and 232 foot-pounds of torque. Mileage is 16/26.

While the soft top is fine even in rainy weather - ours didn't leak a drop even during some severe thunderstorms at highway speeds - the metal top gives the Sebring the feel of a coupe, and is suitable for all weather conditions, even winter's snow and ice in the frozen North.

Chrysler says it's a "365-day-a-year vehicle," serving as both "a stylish coupe and a beautiful top-down convertible."

The metal top also adds a measure of security lacking with a soft top. Thieves find it easy to break into ragtop cars just by slashing the roof, a quite expensive proposition even if nothing is stolen from the car's interior.

All of the Sebring tops use the same electric retracting system, which folds the top into the trunk. The metal top takes 30 seconds to raise or lower, while the cloth top goes up or down in 27 seconds. There is one switch, on the dash to the left of the steering column, that controls the whole process, including lowering or raising the windows. The top also can be raised or lowered by pushing a button on the remote control that locks or unlocks the doors.

After pushing the button to unlock the doors, a separate button on the remote is used to operate the top. The button must be pushed twice in a row to start the top operation, a precaution to keep people from inadvertently opening or closing the top.

When the remote button is pushed to lower the top, the windows open first, and then the trunk lid lifts up from the front. The top then unlatches from the top of the windshield, folds, and tucks into the trunk. The trunk lid closes, and the top is stored completely out of sight.

The convertible's body was stretched three inches over the length of the sedan to allow for more trunk space with the top down. Although space is still limited when the top is in the trunk, there is room enough for two full-size golf bags.

With the top up, the Sebring also has best-in-class trunk space - 13.1 cubic feet.

Inside the trunk is a cargo separator that must be in place for the top to operate. It keeps cargo out of the area where the top rests, and has a switch that prevents top operation if the separator is not in its proper position.

Optional is a wind deflector that pops into place over the rear seat, cutting down wind flow inside the car at highway speeds with the top down. While this device is quite effective - and even lowers the noise inside the car significantly at highway speeds - it does make it impossible to use the rear seat. The deflector stores in the trunk when it's not needed or when the back seat is being used for passengers.

Seatbelts are mounted completely to the seats so the annoying belt flutter common in other convertibles is eliminated at highway speeds, Chrysler said. Still, in our test car, the rear seatbelts made that fluttering noise anyway, so it doesn't work exactly as designed.

One plus from this arrangement, though, is that rear passengers don't have to climb through the front seatbelts to get into or out of the car.

The seats are two-and-a-half inches higher than those of the previous Sebring convertible, giving passengers a better view, Chrysler said. But the rear seats have virtually no legroom - even for children - when the front seats are pushed back to accommodate large adults.

Among the options is a heated/cooled cupholder between the front seats, included on our tester. At the flip of a switch, it can either heat a beverage to 140 degrees or cool it to 35 degrees.

Safety features include standard front seat-mounted side air bags and four-wheel disc antilock brakes. The Sebring convertible is built at the same factory in Sterling Heights, Mich., that assembles the sedan. Germany's Karmann builds the tops in a separate factory in Michigan.

2008 Chrysler Sebring convertible

The package: Midsize, two-door, four-passenger, front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder or V-6 powered soft- or hard-top convertible.

Highlights: Completely redesigned for 2008, this is newest version of Chrysler's popular family convertible. For the first time, it offers an option hard top for those who want the security and safety that are missing with soft tops.

Negatives: Outdated four-speed automatic transmission hurts fuel efficiency - optional six-speed should be standard.

Engines: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder; 2.7-liter V-6; 3.5-liter V-6.

Transmissions: Four-speed automatic; six-speed automatic.

Power/torque: 173 HP/166 foot-pounds (2.4-liter); 189 HP./191 foot-pounds (2.7-liter); 235 HP/232 foot-pounds (3.5-liter).

Length: 193.8 inches.

Curb weight: 3,742-3,959 pounds

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum, antilock (four-wheel disc optional).

Electronic stability control: Optional only on uplevel models.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted.

Trunk volume: 13.1 cubic feet (top up); 11.1 cubic feet (top down).

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/29 highway (2.4-liter); 18/26 (2.7-liter); 16/26 (3.5-liter).

Fuel capacity/type: 16.9 gallons/unleaded regular.

Major competitors: Ford Mustang convertible, Volkswagen Eos, Pontiac G6, Toyota Camry Solara.

Base price range: $26,160-$32,375, plus $690 freight.

Price as tested: $32,185, including freight and options (Touring model).

On the Road rating: 8.5 (of a possible 10).

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at