Open-air smorgasbord

2008, Chrysler, Sebring convertible

Talk about one-upmanship. And it couldn't be more ironical, considering that it's all about the new raft of hardtop convertibles floating their way to dealerships near you. Volvo and BMW are touting their "two-vehicles-in-one," since the C70 and 3-Series convertibles, respectively, double as coupes or cabriolets depending on whether or not their tops are popped.

Volkswagen takes it one step further with its three-in-one Eos, whose retracto-metal lid even makes room for a sunroof. That way, the thinking goes, the roof can be opened, closed or port-holed.

Domestically, Pontiac has led the way with the hard-top convertible version of its G6 coupe. It now has formidable company in the form of Chrysler's dramatically redesigned 2008-model Sebring convertible. But whereas Eos and G6 retain bragging rights for sneaking in (by a whisker) under the $30,000 mark with their hard-top cabrios, Sebring may well trump them all with the only convertible line-up that features a choice of vinyl, cloth or metal toupées. Or, to put it in mercenary terms, it's a convertible line-up that ranges in price from $26,145 to $34,340.

But Chrysler hasn't stopped there. The four-seater Sebring Convertible is also available with three different powertrains. There's a 2.4-liter inline-four mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Output is 173 hp and mileage is 20 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway, using regular. A "flex-fuel" 2.7-liter twin-cam V6 also pairs with a four-speed auto, and it's certified to burn E85 ethanol interchangeably with regular gasoline. Output is 189 hp and mileage is 18 mpg/city, 26 mpg/highway. Finally, there's a 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam V6 with a six-speed auto that delivers 235 hp and achieves 16 mpg/city and 26 mpg/highway using either mid-octane fuel (preferred) or regular.

In the abstract, it's a bit of a spreadsheet nightmare, since the pop-tops and the powertrains mix and match in various ways. The base model-that is, the $26,000 one-combines the smallest motor with the vinyl top. The smaller V6 can be had with either a vinyl, cloth or metal top as a "Touring" model; whereas the large V6 comes standard with cloth, optional with metal and wears a "Limited" badge.

Whatever the combo, however, all three convertible roofs are fully automatic and hands-free. With the push of a button and 30-seconds' worth of patience, they all fold gracefully into the trunk and disappear under a gently curving hard tonneau cover. Trunk space remains astonishingly ample. With the top up, the 13 cubic feet of cargo space compare well with many compact sedans. Once the roof is stowed, the 6.6 cubes that remain will still swallow two full golf bags. And, unlike the new BMW cabrio, the trunk lid operates normally whether the roof is up or down.

For years, the Sebring convertible has been a suburban staple of open-air motoring. Its chief attractions have been affordability and relatively spacious seating for four. But the convertible being replaced was also notorious for wet-noodle handling and Play-Doh styling, so enthusiasts generally gave it a wide berth.

For 2008, this Chrysler has improved on virtually all counts. It's still very affordable (particularly as a base model); and it's still roomy, albeit rear seating is easier on kids or short adults. The stiffness of the car is dramatically better, so that there's no noticeable shimmy-shake at the front cowl when hitting speed bumps or potholes, for example. And instead of former styling that might best be described as "extrusion aesthetic," the 2008 Sebring convertible is elegant, distinctive and-dare one say it?-classy. It looks all grown up; and with the hard-top in particular, it looks like it's ready to do serious battle with its Euro rivals who now have a lot less to be patronizing about.

Except, that is, in the sporty handling department. For all of the Sebring convertible's worthy improvements in looks and engineering, it remains a bit of a slouch on a curvy back road. For one thing, it plows with noticeable oversteer, and its soft suspension settings translate into vague feedback for the driver and sluggish reactions for the vehicle. But as a loping, unhurried cruiser the car is a delight. And that's the point, after all-taking your time to smell the roses with your head full of wind-in-the-hair.

There's one other footnote to disclose about these new Sebrings. Since they're 2008 models, they must adhere to new, tougher EPA fuel-mileage calculations. Temporarily, this puts these models at something of a disadvantage to their 2008 rivals, since the Sebrings' mileage numbers are two and three miles-per-gallon lower across the board. For example, the 2.4-liter model's ratings would be 23 mpg/city, 31 mpg/highway under the current testing regime. It's an important distinction, because all three of these Chrysler powerplants represent important strides in fuel efficiency that are, unfortunately, obscured by an accident of regulatory timing.

Along with updated powertrains, refinements of styling and the gee-whiz engineering of its retractable hard top, the Sebring also boasts a freshened, if not truly luxurious interior. Plastic, alas, abounds; but the dash layout is functional and unconfusing. Leather upholstery is a great complement to the interior plastic, but what's revolutionary is the availability of "Yes Essentials" fabric seating that simply defies stains and odors of all types. And for techno-freaks, there's the optional My Gig entertainment and navigation system that incorporates a built-in, 20-gigabyte hard drive and jukebox management system-voice-activated, no less.

In short, the new Sebring Convertible is a sun-hedonist's delight, what with its playlists of tunes, its top popped and the Evian bottles chillin' in the refrigerated cupholders. It's a great way to catch some rays even while standing still in a parking lot, perhaps. But unlike a chaise longue at poolside, Sebring comes with its own hard- or soft-top SPF factor cleverly tucked away in the trunk.

2-door compact cabriolet, 4-pass.; FWD; 3.5-liter SOHC inline-6 w/ vvt, 235 hp/232 ft.-lbs., 16 mpg/city & 26 mpg/highway w/ mid-grade (89-octane) fuel; 6-sp auto. transmission w/ AutoStick; trunk: 6.6-13.1 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS & ind. suspension, 18-in. wheels, front/side airbags, opt. traction & stability control; price w/ std. cloth top $32,345; price w/ opt. hard top $34,340

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Chrysler Sebring convertible

2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring
2008 Chrysler Sebring