CORNWALL, N.Y. What was remarkably ordinary and even pleasant in its normalcy became miserable midway up Mine Hill Road, which rises nearly 1,500 feet above sea level.
The telltale signs of an overburdened four-cylinder engine presented themselves -- coughing, wheezing and egregiously downshifting. Until then, I was prepared to argue with the many critics of the thoroughly ordinary Chrysler Sebring sedan.
It's not such a bad car in an unstressed driving environment -- say, along a straight highway on a day of mild weather and middling traffic. It can handle that. In fact, it excels under such circumstances, almost becoming likable in the mind of a charitable critic.
The car, driven in its leather-bedecked Limited version for this column, most certainly is comfortable. The fake tortoise-shell accents in combination with brushed aluminum along the instrument and interior door panels are attractive, albeit not terribly well mounted.
Brian Armstead, my longtime friend and often partner in automotive evaluations, decided to poke and prod one of the instrument panel's tortoise and aluminum pieces before I left Northern Virginia for these parts. He wasn't being nasty or abusive. He's a big fellow, a man of National Basketball Association proportions, who was just being Brian -- touching and pushing everything he can touch and push in an automobile to see if it would hold up.
In the 2010 Sebring Limited sedan in our possession, it didn't. It gave, almost to the point of detachment. Brian uttered an expletive, translatable to "Cheap dung!" But, even then, I was prepared to give the compact, front-wheel-drive Sebring the benefit of the doubt.
My reasoning was this: Ordinary isn't bad simply because it is ordinary. Ordinary can be good, if only to set the stage for the possibility of excellence. And that possibility exists in the Sebring.
Exterior styling is attractive. It is a sleek, beautifully sculpted car, an American piece with hints of European aristocracy, most probably the result of its recent, now failed vehicle-development association with Germany's Mercedes-Benz.
The interior appointments are good to look at, as long as that does not involve aggressively touching and pushing them after they've spent hours in a 90-deegree summer sun, thus, apparently, weakening their adhesives.
There is adequacy in the Sebring's 2.4-liter, in-line four-cylinder engine (173 horsepower, 166 foot-pounds of torque). It will carry you to work and back in straight-lane, sea-level traffic with something approaching aplomb. But adequacy in a field of excellent rivals is a vice. And that viciousness manifests itself as incompetence in the 2010 Sebring sedan when it is asked to do anything difficult.
Getting up Mine Hill Road here can be difficult for many cars and trucks. But most make the ascent without threatening to pass out, or laboring with such drama that the driver seriously considers turning around and heading downhill instead of continuing forward.
Such performance would be bad enough if the 2010 Sebring sedan offered exceptional fuel economy. But it doesn't. It gives you 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 miles per gallon on the highway, which is nothing to cheer about.
I beg you, dear reader, not to conclude from my misgivings that the Sebring is an awful car. It has excellent government crash ratings for survivability in front and side collisions. Rollover crash protection is quite decent at a four-star (with five stars being tops) government rating. And if a Chrysler dealer is willing to offer the 2010 Sebring Limited sedan at a base price of $19,000 instead of the listed $22,115, it's a steal.
Otherwise, the bottom line for this one is dismal. Italy's Fiat, Chrysler's new owner, is going to have to markedly "up" the Sebring's game to render it competitive in a midsize/compact sedan market in the United States occupied by the likes of the Ford Fusion and Focus, Toyota Camry and Corolla, Honda Accord and Civic, Chevrolet Malibu and Cruze, Hyundai Sonata and Elantra, and Nissan Altima and Sentra.
The Chrysler Sebring does not top any of its rivals in any area of build quality or road performance. And that's just plain unacceptable.
Brown is a special correspondent.