Sebring ragtop has style to spare

This has been the Summer of the Convertible for us.

We've shuttled in and out of what seems like a constant parade of convertibles, including the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Volkswagen New Beetle and such upscale models as the $82,500 BMW 645 Ci.

But one of our favorite rag-tops is the 2004 Chrysler Sebring. It stands out in a crowded field because of its roomy rear seat, understated styling and relatively affordable price tag.

We tested a top-of-the-line Sebring Limited with a $1,275 luxury group package that included a six-disc in-dash CD changer, heated front seats, and a full-size spare. Bottom line: $32,815.

SHE: I have always hesitated to buy a convertible because they seem like such a novelty. That's why the Sebring convertible is such a breath of fresh air. It's one of those rare convertibles that could actually function as a year-round car. And its subtle and elegant styling should appeal to men and women. I don't think you'd run the risk of buying it and getting rid of it the next summer.

HE: You nailed it. The Sebring is one of the most versatile soft-tops on the market -- not to mention one of the roomiest. You can also have plenty of fun in it, even at the oddest times. I picked up our older son Dan from the airport a couple weeks ago, and on the way home we popped the top and drove home at midnight in the open air. I should also mention that he had a copy of a new demo CD that he and his brother, Phil, had just cut with their band, and that made the ride home even more of a hoot. It's one of those summer memories that feels even better in a convertible.

SHE: My one hesitation is that the Sebring lacks a couple of things that I like to see in a year-round car -- or any car, for that matter. Namely, side air bags and a navigation system. Granted, the Sebring Limited does have some excellent standard safety features, including four-wheel antilock brakes and traction control. And I was shocked to see such a roomy trunk and relatively spacious back seat. The back seat is actually livable -- right down to the two cup holders.

HE: I thought the Sebring had a decent ride and was easy to maneuver. It's no sports car, but you won't feel like you're piloting a stodgy sedan, either. The car could use a little more muscle, however. Our Sebring Limited was outfitted with a 200-horsepower 2.7-liter V-6 mated to an optional four-speed AutoStick automatic transmission with manual shift capability. Acceleration felt not much better than adequate for passing and merging. On the bright side, the Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy numbers are generous -- 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 on the highway.

SHE: We should point out that the 2004 edition of the Sebring has a restyled front end with scalloped headlights, a revised grille and new wheels. I also like the fact that you get such practical features as all-season tires, plus a compass and an outside temperature readout on the instrument panel in the Limited.

HE: I would hesitate to make the Sebring my year-round commuter, especially if I were using the car as my mobile office. With the top up and at highway speeds, I had some trouble hearing cell phone conversations. And the Sebring convertible does have a bit of cowl shake, the perpetual bane of convertibles. But even with the top up, the Sebring has lots of headroom, and the power top is relatively easy to operate. You unhook the latches on either side of the header and press a switch on the console to lower or raise the top. One person can do it easily. And the Sebring has a glass rear window, which helps to improve visibility and adds to the feeling of a year-round cruiser.

SHE: I found the cabin to be unusually elegant, with attractive two-tone taupe trim accented by touches of wood. The gauges are quite stylish, too, along the lines f a fine watch to match the character of the exterior. Again, everything is understated, but that makes you feel like this is a classic convertible that will retain its looks and charms over many years. In other words, this is no quickie summer romance that will fade when the weather turns cold.

2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger convertible

Price¹ : Base, $30,845 ; as tested, $32,815

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6; 200-hp; 190 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/28mpg highway

Key competitors: Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible, Ford Mustang convertible, Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, Toyota Solara convertible, Volkswagen New Beetle convertible

12-month insurance cost²: $1,577

Where built: Sterling Heights

1: Includes $625 destination charge; 2: Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record.

Anita's rating:

Likes: A rare convertible that can function as a year-round car. Subtle and elegant exterior styling. Cramped, but usable rear seat. Like the seat belts built into front seats. Attractive seat fabric with faux suede inserts. Deep rear parcel shelf. Compass and outside temp readouts on IP. 7-year / 70,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Dislikes: No side air bag protection. Navigation system not available.

Paul's rating:

Likes: Relatively affordable. Easy-to-operate power top. Enormous trunk. Lots of headroom with cloth top up. Glass rear window. Limited has good standard features, inc. air conditioning, antilock brakes, leather-wrapped steering wheel and steering-wheel audio controls.

Dislikes: Noisy -- could barely hear cell phone conversation on highway. Some cowl shake. Engine is a bit underpowered.