2001 Chrysler Sebring First Drive

2001 Chrysler Sebring First Drive

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2001 Chrysler Sebring Coupe

(2.4L 4-cyl. 4-speed Automatic)

Slick, Even When Standing Still

The launch of the 2001 Sebring Coupe and Sedan represents a belief by DaimlerChrysler's brain trust that, beginning soon, baby boomers (age 35 to 55) will abandon pickups, minivans and sport-utility vehicles in favor of midsize, near-luxury sedans. The Sebring project is a critical effort for Chrysler, which lags behind Honda, Toyota, Ford and GM in market penetration--not surprising when you consider that trucks make up three-quarters of Chrysler's sales.

Chrysler didn't go into the new Sebring half-heartedly either. The company has spent $985 million on the sedan project so far (that figure also includes development of the new Dodge Stratus Sedan). Figures aren't available for the cost of developing the coupe as it was done in conjunction with Mitsubishi, but it likely cost many millions as well.

Consider it money well spent. In terms of drivability, performance, equipment and looks, the new Sebrings will make boomers happier than an inside tip on an Internet stock.

During a sunny day in June at DaimlerChrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds in Ann Arbor, Mich., a group of journalists were given a preview of these impressive new vehicles.

Sebring Sedan

Inside, the sedan is comfortable and noticeably roomy in front and back (thanks to the cab-forward design). The charcoal-leather interior of the testers was elegant, complemented by the chrome-ringed, black-on-white gauges (also borrowed from the 300M and LHS). Faux walnut burl accents lend a warm feel to the sculpted dash. The interior is more comfortable and attractive than the 2000 Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which were on hand for comparison.

Out on the test track, the Sebring Sedan is a taut performer. The body was redesigned to provide 13 percent less twist and 33 percent less bend than last year's model. The added stiffness is obvious while cornering and also provides a better connection to the road, reminiscent of European sedans such as BMW, Volvo and Mercedes. The effect is a more fun to drive vehicle.

Chrysler also worked hard to reduce noise and vibration in this sedan: aerodynamics were improved; the front door glass was made thicker; parts of the frame were injected with insulating foam; and full wheelhouse shields were added to deflect wheel noise. It worked. The Sebring is noticeably quieter than the Accord and about even with the Camry.

The Sebring's steering system was redesigned to include a front crossmember that increases stiffness for better handling and responsiveness. Rebound shocks were also added to keep the wheels more closely allied with the pavement and improve road feel without sacrificing comfort. Also, the 15-inch standard wheels (up 1 inch from last year) improve ride and handling (16-inch wheels are optional). The effect is a smooth ride that is much quieter than the Accord's, equal if not better than the Camry's, and a definite improvement over the Cirrus.

The Sebring's 2.4-liter four-cylinder powerplant (standard in the LX) is adequate, but hardly thrilling. At 147 horsepower it's no weakling, but it has to work harder to get up to cruising speeds. If you don't mind trading speed when accelerating and passing for improved gas consumption, the LX engine is a nice compromise between performance and economy.

The 2.7-liter V6 that is standard on the LXi and optional on the LX is a different story. Essentially the same twin-cam V6 used in Chrysler's larger sedans, it smoothly delivers 200 spirited horsepower (at 5900 rpm), a whopping 32 more ponies than the current 2.5-liter V6. The LXi is equipped with a four-speed automatic that includes Chrysler's "AutoStick" clutchless shifting mechanism for drivers who want more aggressive upshifts and downshifts. Most drivers will likely never use this quasi-manual shifting system, but for passing on hills or at highways speeds it works well. Adding driver input to transmission shifts can help make a mundane drive more fun, too.

While whipping around the test track at speeds inadvisable on public roads, the Sebring Sedan lent confidence to our exertions and never once betrayed an unwilling heart. Standard four-wheel disc brakes, enlarged from last year, and the optional ABS Plus system added assurance. Similar to ABS systems used in BMWs and Volkswagens, the Plus system reduces yaw (fishtailing) and prevents spinout by applying the rear brakes independent of each other, thereby making smoother, straighter emergency stops possible. Should a collision be beyond your control, dual front airbags are standard and side airbag curtains that protect front and rear passengers are optional.

Sebring Coupe

The new Sebring Coupe is an all-together different animal. Borrowing heavily from the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Galant (all three are made at the Mitsubishi Motor Assembly plant in Normal, Ill.), it looks much like a Japanese car. It shares a similar profile and styling cues with the Sebring Sedan, but is much more aggressive, starting with its lower, sharper nose. The below-bumper, elliptical egg-crate grille with built-in fog lamps is reminiscent of the Concorde's front end with more than a little influence from classic Ferrari grilles. The coupe's roofline is raked and streamlined like the sedan, but its side windows are much thinner, creating an even more aggressive need-for-speed look. And, while the Sebrings' rear ends mimic that of the 300M, the coupe's circular, inset reverse lights look sportier. If the sedan looks sleek, elegant and speedy, the coupe looks sexy, raw and fast.

The coupe's interior also reflects this difference. More sporty and less elegant, it is nearly identical to the Eclipse's interior with a few wooden accents and a more muscular than tailored look. Also, from inside the Sebring Coupe, the low profile side windows and high sills are quite noticeable, giving the impression of being in a sports car, yet the coupe offers similar comfort to the sedan--in the front seats only. As in many coupes, ingress and egress to the rear seats is awkward and would make even Fred Astaire seem clumsy.

On the track, the coupe is good fun, especially the five-speed manual. The Mitsubishi-derived, 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 provides similar acceleration to the sedan, but the coupe's aggressive profile and standard 16-inch tires lend attitude and superior road grip to its performance. Also, the coupe's single-piece body was redesigned to provide a 90 percent improvement in bending resistance and a 9 percent increase in twist resistance over the old model. This increased rigidity and an added front strut tower brace and sport-tuned suspension system give the coupe great feel and handling on all road conditions.

The coupe's AutoStick is also set up for more aggressive driving. It uses an intuitive up-down shift pattern, as opposed to the sedan's side-to-side movement. It can shift under full throttle, skip shift, and it does not share the sedan's auto upshift mechanism, which automatically upshifts before redline. The Sebring Coupe outperformed the Accord, Solara and Mustang V6 on the track, offering better performance, similar handling and superior road feel and ride comfort.

Both the LX Coupe and Sedan come with an impressive array of standard features, including air conditioning, cruise control, four-wheel disc brakes, six-speaker stereo, four-speed automatic tranny, tilt steering wheel, power trunk release and power windows, locks and mirrors. Upgrading to the LXi adds 16-inch aluminum wheels, leather seats, eight-way power driver's seat, fog lamps, remote keyless entry, compass and temperature display, and a seven-speaker Infinity sound system with cassette and CD.

Baby boomers might find that if the kids are grown and gone, rendering the days of lugging camping equipment or a soccer team around to a cherished memory, it makes sense to ditch the minivan or SUV and buy a Sebring of either stripe. But the car's appeal isn't limited to folks seriously pondering the use of Grecian Formula as part of the morning grooming ritual. Young singles will find Sebring Coupe's upscale style and peppy performance pleasing, while young families can enjoy style and grace with plenty of room to take the kids to grandma's house in the Sebring Sedan.

Whatever the case may be, the 2001 Sebring sure makes the Chrysler brain trust look like they know what they're doing.

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