Raising the strakes For Chrysler

2007, Chrysler, Sebring

In adversity, a family comes together. Chrysler Division is facing adversity. It is hemorrhaging the green stuff as pump-weary consumers turn their backs on big trucks and sport/utes and opt for smaller sedans and coupes. And so the Chrysler family has no alternative but to come together.

If you¹re an enthusiast, you¹ll recall the 2002 debut of Chrysler¹s sleek Crossfire touring coupe. It remains a stunning example of automotive sculpture, even if sales are disappointing. The Art Deco lines may date to the 1920s and ¹30s but their combined effect gives Crossfire a timeless beauty. Subtle raised creases on the long hood, "strakes" as they are called, lend a dignity to the car that is, alas, perhaps, too formal for today¹s casual-Friday world.

But Crossfire is family, and now its distinctive hood strakes are migrating to a pair of siblings in a gesture of familial solidarity. Chrysler¹s first sport/utility vehicle, the Aspen, introduces strakes where only bling has existed before. And with the completely redesigned Sebring midsize sedan, humble commuters can enjoy the same hood strakes once reserved for toffs in their open-road tourers. Clearly, for the Chrysler brand, the strakes couldn¹t be higher.

Where Aspen¹s timing is suspect, Sebring¹s is downright propitious. Long the anonymous fodder of rental fleets, Sebring now boasts a redesign for 2007 that may well have the limelight glinting off its hood strakes.

The new Sebring is quite eye-catching in a midsize sedan category generally notorious for ho-humminess. An unusual rear roofline beefs up the backside of the Sebring¹s silhouette, even while cleverly adding much appreciated rear headroom. Inside, there¹s comfy seating for five and several useful novelties. An optional fold-flat front-passenger seat, for example, coordinates with split-folding rear seatbacks to produce surprising cargo-carrying space.

The hot-¹n¹-cold electronic cupholder is another option one won¹t find every day. And a knock-your-socks-off audio option called MyGIG (unavailable, sadly, until later in the year) combines 6.5 gigabites of hard-disk music storage and playlist manipulation for about 1,600 downloaded songs.

What¹s more, MyGIG integrates within a single, voice-operable interface the functions of stored music playback, Sirius satellite radio, GPS navigation with real-time traffic and bluetooth telephone connectivity. It¹s a masterpiece; and, yes, it really, really works.

But cleverest of all is the new Sebring¹s subtlest of all marketing strategies. The sedan is available with three different powerplants: a 2.4-liter inline four, a 2.7-liter V6 and a 3.5-liter V6. Prices, of course, rise accordingly from $18,995 to $25,995 as the trim levels and amenities progress from Standard to Touring to Limited models.

What¹s unusual, however, is that the base-level motor is available with all three trim levels, so that a fully loaded Sebring Limited can still partake of the 2.4-liter¹s impressive 24 mpg/city, 32 mpg highway fuel economy.

Chrysler, in other words, now acknowledges (unlike so many of its rivals) that customers¹ tastes for luxury and convenience don¹t necessarily march in lockstep with an appetite for horsepower. If one buyer wants 235 hp and 19/28 mpgs from a 3.5-liter V6, another might prefer 189 hp and 22/30 mpgs from a 2.7-liter V6, or 173 hp and 24/32 mpgs from the 2.4 inline-4. But everyone still gets a crack at MyGIG, for example, and at the raft of Sebring¹s other innovative features.

Which is only as it should be, after all, if Chrysler truly is "in the family way."

It always seems like such a good idea at the time. When rivals are whupping up on you because they¹re selling something customers want but you don¹t have, you¹d better get one to sell for yourself. That¹s Chrysler¹s justification for rolling out its first sport/utility vehicle. Before the arrival of the new Aspen SUV, loyal Chryslerists had to look elsewhere if they wanted a big box SUV with room for up to eight passengers.

The die was cast, and voila! by the time the Aspen was ready for its 2007 debut, the SUV craze had degenerated into some mad melange of environmental insult, political incorrectness and impecunious madness. Howzat for timing?

And yet with a suspension of disbelief that there is room for just one more luxury SUV in a dwindling market, the Aspen does beguile with certain charms. Although aficionados will know that it shares basic architecture with the redesigned Dodge Durango, Chrysler¹s Aspen is clearly a high-society dame by comparison. And it¹s not just the hood strakes.

There are blingy chrome wheels, up to 20-inches in diameter with the "J Package" of options. There are leather seats and blond wood accents throughout the interior. There are standard side-curtain airbags front-to-rear, ABS disc brakes and electronic stability control with rollover "mitigation."

All this and a good bit more is standard, which renders Aspen¹s starting price of just $31,490 sub-standard indeed. And that¹s the pitch: swank SUV at bottom dollar. Maybe the market will make room for one last SUV after all.

In standard trim, Aspen comes with a 4.7-liter V8 underhood. It¹s a single-overhead-cam design, and it makes 235 horsepower and 300 ft.-lbs. of torque. It also drains fuel at the rate of 14 mpg/city and 18 or 19 mpg/highway, depending on whether one opts for four-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive, respectively.

Step up a notch, and there¹s a pushrod 5.7-liter "Hemi" V8 awaiting. This optional motor makes 335 hp and 370 ft.-lbs. It can tow up to 8,950 lbs. And thanks largely to Chrysler¹s multi-displacement system, it toggles seamlessly between 4-cylinder and 8-cylinder operation to deliver 14 or 15 mpg/city and 19 or 20 mpg/highway.

In other words, although the Hemi costs a bit extra, it also works harder, pulls more and, marginally at least, drinks less. A fitting cunundrum, perhaps, for the mis-timed debut of an attractive, affordable Aspen which seems to have arrived at the party after everyone else already left.

7/8-pass., 4-door; RWD & 4WD, 5-sp. auto; 4.7-liter SOHC V8, 235 hp/300 ft.-lbs.; 14 mpg/city, 18/19 mpg/hwy., w/ regular OR 5.7-liter OHV "Hemi" V8, 335 hp/370 ft.-lbs.; 14/15 mpg/city, 19/20 mpg/hwy., w/ 89 octane; payload: 1,580 lbs.; tow: 7,500-8,950 lbs; price-4.7 V8: $31,490-$34,275; price-5.7 "Hemi" V8: $32,485-$39,225

5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 4-sp. & 6-sp. auto; 2.4-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt, 173 hp/166 ft.-lbs.; 24 mpg/city, 32 mpg/hwy., w/ regular OR 2.7-liter DOHC V6, 189 hp/191 ft.-lbs.; 22 mpg/city, 30 mpg/hwy., w/ regular OR 3.5-liter SOHC V6, 235 hp/232 ft.-lbs.; 19 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy., w/ 89 octane; trunk: 13.6 cu. ft.; tow: 1,000-2,000 lbs.; price-2.4 I4: $18,995-$23,995; price-2.7 V6: $21,595; price-3.5 V6: $25,995

By Marc Stengel

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2007 Chrysler Sebring
2007 Chrysler Sebring
2007 Chrysler Sebring
2007 Chrysler Sebring
2007 Chrysler Aspen
2007 Chrysler Aspen
2007 Chrysler Aspen
2007 Chrysler Aspen