2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible

Chrysler's latest version of its venerable droptop offers three choices of roof and three different engines

Chrysler's Sebring convertible hasn't won much adoration from enthusiasts, but in two generations of ragtops, it's been a solid performer on the sales charts. Off and on for ten years, it's been the best-selling convertible in America , trading off in recent years with Ford's Mustang.

Much of the Sebring's success has come in rental fleets, where four-passenger seating with plenty of sun is a priority. In addition to plenty of room for adults, the folding top makes it an ideal rental car for a vacation weekend—or a business trip, or even a parade, we think. Beyond that, the last two editions have shared smooth styling and a range of decently powered engines, if not gobs of character.

With the third Sebring convertible, Chrysler's adopted a harder styling edge and a niftier premise. Three new convertible tops are being offered on the Sebring—hard, soft fabric, and vinyl—and the trio, Chrysler hopes, will keep rental markets happy while pulling the Sebring's image into the more upscale demimonde occupied by the likes of the Pontiac G6, the Volkswagen Eos, and even the Volvo C70.

A Multitude of Tops

Is there such a thing as too many tops? Chrysler thinks that one hard and two soft convertible lids will broaden the appeal of the Sebring and give it a more hipscale image, without confusing anyone who just wants a convertible when they waltz into a Chrysler showroom.

The base $26,145 Sebring comes with a base sort of top. It's a vinyl lid, but it's power-operated, and can be lowered at the touch of a button on the key fob. Chrysler expects the rental companies will order most of these, since this roof is less expensive to replace.

Sebring Touring ($28,745) and Limited ($32,345) models come with a fabric top (optional on Touring) that's nicely stitched and available in different colors. These too have keyfob operation, a solid quality of fabric and good noise blocking on the road. Both trim levels, in either top material, also feature a hard tonneau built into the lid design. When lowered, the soft-top Sebrings sport a clean shoulder line as a result.

The tour de force, though, is the hardtop option, a new arrival in the Sebring lineup. Available on Touring and Limited models for about $2000, the three-piece hardtop is also engineered by Germany 's Karmann, and also features keyfob operation.

All three top types can be augmented with an optional windscreen and a remote start feature.

Powertrains galore; basics underneath

Chrysler offers three different engine options in the Sebring convertible for U.S. customers. The base engine is a 173-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which delivers 23 miles per gallon in city and 31 miles per gallon in highway driving. We weren't able to test this example, but in other applications like the Dodge Caliber, this version of Chrysler's "world engine" has been reasonably smooth and powerful.

A 2.7-liter, flexible-fuel V-6 engine with 189 horsepower is the middle choice in the Sebring family. Teamed with a four-speed automatic, it's just adequate for most of the demands placed on the nearly 3500-pound Sebring. With two adults touring the shaky earth near Malibu , this V-6 seemed most at home toodling around the Starbucks parking lot than in passing on long uphill lanes.

We found a little more energy and verve in the new 3.5-liter V-6 in the Limited model. With 235 horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission, it's markedly quieter and more pleasant to listen to than the smaller six, though the engine's additional power isn't HEMI-obvious. It's nearly as fuel-frugal as the 2.7-liter six, too.

If you're driving in Europe, you'll be able to sample a diesel-engined Sebring, and a right-hand-drive version as well, but the diesel isn't going to be sold in the States, even though Jeeps left and right are being prepped for diesel.

Rounding out the Sebring's conventional running gear are MacPherson struts up front, and a multi-link suspension in back. The brakes are wired with anti-lock on all models along with stability control, and side airbags are standard as well.

Room for a quartet

To increase interior room quite significantly, Chrysler stretched the car's wheelbase by 2.9 inches. The Sebring Convertible is also 3.5 inches taller and more than two inches wider than before. It looks it, too—not only is the long, low form more imposing than the old Sebring ragtops, it's bigger than the new Sebring four-door sedan that shares its assembly line.

Up front, the driver and passenger get very comfortable chairs with integrated seatbelts and enough adjustments to find a good driving position. When a big six-footer puts a front chair back, rear-seat legroom drops—but the adults in our Sebring's rear seat didn't complain about the remaining space. The rear seat's backrest is a little upright to be comfortable for hours, but among the four-seat hardtop convertibles, it feels the most spacious.

The Sebring's trunk has grown, too, so it can be used to carry bags or other types of cargo even when the top is stowed. Even when the top is down, the Sebring will be able to carry two golf bags, something we simulated with luggage and nearly, a consenting adult.

The most impressive step forward in the Sebring lineup is the new car's stiff body. For such a large convertible, the Sebring has minimal shake in its windshield and little twist in its midsection. Chrysler says it's 2.5 times less twisty and 1.5 times less bendy than the old car, and it's readily confirmed by driving a laden Sebring and taking in the calm.

Looks aren't deceiving

You can't have it all—engineers, like everyone else, known this golden rule. The net gains of a good body structure, a spacious cabin, and a hardtop option are countered in the Sebring by a forgettable shape that's just plain awkward with the hardtop raised.

The Convertible shares some of the Sebring sedan's styling elements, like a toothy grille, ribbed hood and a snub nose, that give the nose a busy look. From the sideview, with the hardtop raised, the Sebring is blocky and the myriad cutlines for the folding top scar the silhouette. They make the darker color choices the best ones, since lighter colors emphasize all the creases. Things improve with the soft-top models, and with the top down the Sebring is somewhat pleasant—but it's a marked step back from the more generically handsome car it replaces.

The cabin fares a little better, but it's an odd assemblage of shapes, textures, and colors. Sharp tortoiseshell trim is available, and the shield-shaped dash pieces are interesting, but the inexpensive plastic vents are afterthoughts, and the metallic panels on the door trims of some models looked wholly unrelated to the rest of the car. Functionally, it's about as easy to use as an iPod—which you can plug into its audio system.

It's a good thing the Sebring is laden with useful features like the MP3 jack. There's also a locking glovebox, a center floor console with dual storage bins, and a sliding armrest that moves three inches to provide a more comfortable position for all drivers. For entertainment, there's MyGIG, an entertainment/navigation system that features a 20-gigabyte hard drive, and Sirius satellite radio. A heated/cooled cupholder, stain-resistant seat fabric, and a seatback with a map pocket for storage are faired in.

Standard features include the vinyl top, a telescoping steering wheel, power windows/locks/mirrors and cruise control. The Touring model adds YES Essentials fabric, a tire pressure monitor display, a trip computer and chrome door handles, heated mirrors and 17-inch wheels. The Limited gets a standard cloth top, leather seats, tortoiseshell trim, Boston Acoustics audio, a theft alarm, and 18-inch wheels.

The new Sebring Convertible arrives in showrooms in the spring.

2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible

Base price: $26,145; Touring, $28,745; Limited, $32,345

Engines: 2.4-liter in-line four, 173 hp/168 lb-ft; 2.7-liter V-6, 189 hp/191 lb-ft; 3.5-liter V-6, 235 hp/232 lb-ft

Transmission: Four- or six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 193.8 x 71.5 x 58.5 in

Wheelbase: 108.9 in

Curb weight: 3432 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 23/31 mpg (2.4-liter four); 20/28 mpg (2.7-liter V-6); 18/28 mpg (3.5-liter V-6)

Standard safety features: Anti-lock brakes; dual front and front side airbags

Major standard features: Sixteen-inch wheels; remote keyless entry; tilt/telescoping steering; power windows/locks/mirrors; power front seats; cruise control

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles