If you were of car-buying age back in the 1970s, the idea of a luxury sports coupe is part of your automotive heritage. Distinctively stylish and almost always sporting in nature, the "personal luxury coupe" was the driving force behind the American car market a quarter-century ago. By the mid-70s, these high-style, high-performance luxury coupes were the top-selling cars for nearly every American manufacturer.
Those were the days when Oldsmobile's Cutlass dominated the sales charts. Chevrolet's Monte Carlo became immensely popular, and Pontiac's Grand Prix turned into the division's biggest success story. The Ford Thunderbird of the era broke sales records (the 1977-79 "Basket-Handle" T-Birds were the best sellers in the nameplate's history), and even its sister car, the Mercury Cougar, enjoyed a resurgence.
For Chrysler Corp., the appeal of the Dodge Charger grew to legendary proportions (even its successors, the Magnum and Mirada, experienced short-lived success). Chrysler dealers had the Cordoba, whose interior was clad unforgettably in "rich Corinthian leather," and before the Fury took over, Plymouth had a gussied-up midsize called the Satellite Sebring.
The 1999 Chrysler Sebring LXi Coupe is a direct descendant of those personal luxury coupes of yore, holding true to its roots in a very '90s sort of way. But instead of being a young man's object of desire, today's Sebring Coupe is being purchased by 38- to 44-year-olds, 58 percent of them female. And the entire "Middle Specialty Segment," as it is now called, is downright miniscule, drawing less than four percent of the total U.S. market. The Sebring claims success with about five percent of that segment, but at 30-some-thousand units a year, that's less than a tenth of what it took to be a hit 25 years ago.
If you've ever wondered why the Sebring Coupe looks so different from the Sebring Convertible, it's because, well, they are different. In fact, the Coupe has almost nothing in common with the Sebring Convertible, which happens to be the top-selling ragtop in America. The Coupe's underpinnings are based on the Mitsubishi Galant, while the Convertible is built on Chrysler's JA platform, which is the basis for the Cirrus/Stratus/Breeze compacts.
Why is Chrysler building sister versions of the same nameplate off two entirely different chassis with different drivelines? Perhaps the justified death of the LeBaron nameplate left the company with two similarly sized cars with two different niches to fill, so Sebring simply became an umbrella brand for both. In any case, it's too bad there's such a small demand for big coupes, because Chrysler's entry is a pretty good effort in both design and execution.
The big appeal of the Sebring Coupe rests mainly in its exterior sheetmetal. Its prominent, scooped-out nose leads up to a gently sculpted hood and a low-slung greenhouse, which flows gracefully into a stylish tail. Rakish and purposeful looking, Sebring's fresh, sweeping shape is aided by dual-straked flanks and raised rear haunches, making for a decidedly sporty stance. The look is high style, more classy than brash, yet more bold than beautiful. Halogen headlamps, integral fog lamps, tinted glass, power mirrors and a trunk-lid spoiler are all standard fare on the LXi, and add to its curb appeal.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages this big coupe has over its competition is a roomy interior that seats four full-sized occupants in relative comfort. Despite a steeply raked windshield and a fastback rear roofline, headroom fore and aft is adequate even for six-foot-plus adults. With its generous glass area, the cabin is remarkably airy - even more so with the optional ($640) sunroof wide open. The doors are big and wide, so there's room to get in and out of the back seat, where legroom is good until you power the seats all the way rearward. Split-folding rear seatbacks and the largest trunk in its class add needed versatility when cargo-carrying ability becomes a concern.
Better still, the LXi version adds a host of upmarket amenities that provide a premium touch without the entry-luxury price tag. Air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, tilt wheel, and speed control are all standard. So is a six-speaker AM/FM-cassette stereo with compact disc player. Then there are extras such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel, woodgrain interior trim, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, keyless entry with security alarm, front and rear floor mats, remote fuel door and trunk lid release - even front and rear climate control outlets.
Mitsubishi's modified double-wishbone suspension at all four corners provides nimble handling for a car this size, even when pushed. Ride is controlled yet not harsh, though we'd prefer that less tire boom and road noise found their way into the cabin. The power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering is engine-speed sensitive, generally something many enthusiasts can do without. While we found steering effort to be light, it wasn't overly vague at speed, so there is enough road feel for a little point-and-shoot freeway maneuvering.
Handling is helped out by 215/50HR-17 performance rubber riding on a set of nice-looking alloy wheels. Our test unit came equipped with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, which are a $600 option. Brake performance in and around town was more than adequate, with good modulation and pedal feel. Overall, everything about the driving experience leans to the sporty side of the equation, except for power.
While the Sebring LXi comes with Mitsubishi's 2.5-liter, SOHC 24-valve V6, the motor is no barn-burner. Its 163 horsepower builds smoothly and it makes nice induction noise under hard throttle, but there's not a lot of off-the-line muster until the revs pick up. Maximum torque of 170 foot-pounds is delivered up at 4350 rpm, and things get breathless soon after that. Most drivers will find acceleration adequate, with zero-to-60 sprints arriving in less than 10 seconds, but we wouldn't call the Sebring LXi a performance car.
The fully electronic four-speed automatic transmission shifts smartly, although some enthusiasts would have much-preferred that a five-speed manual were made available. Mercury's Contour-based Cougar can be had with a V6 and stick shift, and if power is your thing, Pontiac's Grand Prix Coupe can be equipped with a delightfully stout 3.8-liter six underhood for kicks. Certainly, a more powerful, manually shifted drivetrain would do much to promote the Sebring LXi's sporting image.
Many automotive analysts believe there will be a rebirth in the coupe segment. Some see strong potential for models that combine high style with sporty performance to draw a new wave of young buyers. Notice we didn't mention high style with luxury touches, which happens to be the Sebring's marketing strategy. Given the Sebring Coupe's relatively low production run and the Convertible's high profit margin, we wonder how long Chrysler will be willing to absorb the costs of building two separate Sebring models in this era of cost-saving platform consolidations. This will truly be a market to watch in the near future.
At roughly $23,000 for a loaded LXi, the Sebring still competes well against various midsize coupes from Japan. And while there's a new Monte Carlo due from Chevrolet in 2000, other manufactures are looking to abandon the Middle Specialty Segment altogether. If a high-style personal coupe like the Sebring LXi floats your boat, you may wish to jump aboard soon before the winds of change plot a course toward a new breed of more sporting coupes on the horizon.