First Drive: 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible

2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible First Drive

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2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible

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

The 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible doesn't have to be a true luxury car to hit the mark in its segment, but it sure wouldn't hurt.

Up to now, you've most likely encountered the Chrysler Sebring convertible on a rental car lot. Middle-management executives across the country invariably anticipate a summertime business trip with the refrain, "We can take the Sebring!" Unfortunately it's not necessarily a gesture of respect, especially when it comes out of the mouths of people like the self-absorbed boss featured in The Office.

It's no wonder the all-new 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible is clearly reaching several steps above the outgoing model in terms of features and design. It has to succeed, or face a troubled future as a punch line in a mean-spirited joke.

Realizing its full potential
Punch line or not, the Chrysler Sebring has had a lot of takers. It's been the best-selling convertible in the U.S. for seven of the past 11 years, so maybe the joke's on us. Some might dismiss its success as a product of fleet sales to rental car companies, but can you imagine flying into Honolulu or Miami without the option of a Sebring rental? So let's admit that this is an important car for all of us, even if we encounter it only on vacation.

The 2008 Sebring Convertible comes a lot closer to the luxury car it's always wanted to be. It comes not only with a folding cloth top but also with an optional full-on folding hardtop. When it comes to interior luxury, there's a hard-drive-based navigation system with music storage. And the Sebring Limited convertible features a 3.5-liter V6.

Of course, the Sebring convertible has some competition these days. The Ford Mustang, Pontiac G6 and Volkswagen Eos are all bidding for serious consideration as four-passenger convertibles, and at an affordable price besides. The Toyota Solara convertible comes closest to the Sebring in spirit as well as dimensions.

Make your choices from the menu
As it has in the past, the Sebring carves out its own niche in this segment with a wide range of choices, beginning with a soft convertible top or a folding hardtop.

In fact the Sebring gives you the choice of no fewer than three different convertible tops and three different engines. The $26,145 base model comes with a 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a soft vinyl top. Once you step up to the $28,745 Touring model, there's a 189-hp, 2.7-liter V6 (with flex-fuel capacity). The vinyl top is standard for the Touring, but the cloth top is a no-cost option, while about $2,000 gets you into the retractable hardtop.

Once you step into the $32,345 Sebring Limited convertible, the 235-hp, 3.5-liter V6 is standard. The cloth top is the standard item, and the $2,000 hardtop is optional.

Hard or soft top, a power hard-cover tonneau is standard, so retracting or deploying the top is just a matter of pushing a button. And when you choose the Touring or Limited, the key fob will trigger the whole process for you.

Though the installation of the optional windscreen is a little clunky, the cabin is absolutely serene once the screen is in place. We drove around Los Angeles on a damp, chilled afternoon in spring, and the Sebring interior was comfortable and pleasant. Even our female driving companion had no complaints about the temperature, and there wasn't enough wind turbulence to invite any concerns about tangled hair either. Basically, the Sebring convertible with the top down is a win-win for everybody.

Still a few steps away from top-down heaven
Compared to the Toyota Solara convertible, we think the 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible has a better drivetrain, better driving dynamics and more interior features. Plus, the Sebring convertible's retractable hardtop makes this car as quiet and weatherproof as a coupe, and as fresh and fun as a convertible. The Pontiac G6 has a hardtop's versatility, but it's neither as elegant nor as refined. The Volkswagen Eos drives well, but it's short on interior room, and expensive besides.

Still, the Sebring convertible isn't without its drawbacks. For example, the hardtop that quickly and easily converts the car from cozy coupe to spring fling makes its presence known when it's stowed in the trunk. The new Sebring convertible's luggage space is limited, whether the top is up or down. In addition, you can feel the presence of all that steel in the trunk when the top is retracted, as the tail of the car bounds up and down when the pavement rolls, and the back of the car also wants to follow its own path when the corners are fast.

We'll also tell you that we could feel the 330 pounds that the 2008 Sebring Convertible has gained, a matter of an additional 3 inches in length as well as structural reinforcements, plus the hardtop itself.

Not that the Sebring convertible aspires to be much of a sporty car. Smooth and stable is what this car is about. This car shines on the highway, not on the back roads. There's very little cowl shake, which makes the Sebring seem even better. All this structural reinforcement has even managed to cleanse this car of the dorky, upright, based-on-an-SUV feel of its sedan counterpart.

The 2.7-liter V6 does an adequate job when paired with the four-speed automatic transmission in the Touring model, but the 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic that come with the Limited really wake up this car. In comparison, the 3.5-liter V6 delivers a far more composed experience, plus a little bit of an exhaust note that gives the car some worthwhile personality.

Style, comfort and even technology
The real bright spot in this car's personality lies in the audio and navigation system. It's possible to rip music from a CD or USB device and store it directly in the 20-gigabyte hard drive (although only about 8 gigs are available for music), while the navigation system's updated graphics are nearly as crisp, clear and colorful as those found in the new Toyota Camry. The hard drive also includes Gracenote organizational software, as well as a DVD player that lets you listen to DVD-A discs or watch a DVD-Video disc while the car is in park. The options sheet also includes Boston Acoustics speakers.

Features like this make the Sebring convertible different from other convertibles. And when you consider that the car itself is decent if not outstanding, well, maybe we should rethink what the Chrysler Sebring is really all about. Is it a wannabe luxury convertible that falls short? Or is it an affordable hardtop convertible that delivers great value in a fairly competitive segment?

It might be a little of both. Those looking for a four-passenger topless sports car will be disappointed. Those looking for a comfortable all-weather convertible with a premium flavor will be pleased with the Sebring's look and interior features. Once you ante up for the Limited with a hardtop and MyGIG navigation/entertainment system, the Sebring suddenly seems as if it's almost a luxury coupe.

The 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible isn't a real luxury convertible. Then again, it doesn't have to be. As long as all of us are happy to pick up the keys at the rental car counter for our summer business trip, then probably that's all we can ask.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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