- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

One sure way to get the most out of these waning days of sun: Drive America’s most popular convertible.

Chrysler’s Sebring retains its top-down fun and honest-to-goodness seating for four. Its class-leading 11.7-cubic-foot trunk is there, ready for two sets of golf clubs, too.

Now, for the 2004 model year, the Sebring two-door soft top also has a revised front appearance, new, stylish wheels and a realigned model lineup.

As it has for nearly all of the past six years, Sebring last year bested all other new convertibles in the United States.

Sales in calendar 2002 totaled 43,809 and Sebring holds a 12 percent share of the U.S. convertible market, a company spokesman said.

It’s a commendable showing for a vehicle that debuted originally in spring 1996 as one of the few convertibles on the market that could carry more than two persons and more than just a suitcase or two.

In the ensuing years, new models have entered the convertible segment, but most have only two seats and less cargo room than the Sebring.

In 2004, the Sebring convertible remains affordable, with starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $25,435 for the base 2004 model.

Note the Sebring base price is for a four-cylinder model with automatic transmission.

Riders get the benefit of Sebring’s 193.7-inch length and 106-inch wheelbase when interior space is factored in with the sizable trunk space.

The test Sebring brought looks from several neighbors, all of whom noticed the more upscale appearance of the front end.

Along with a revised grille and new position for the Chrysler winged badge, the 2004 Sebring has scalloped edges on its headlamps.

Chrysler officials said they want the Sebring soft top to more closely reflect the premium image they’re striving to build in all Chrysler vehicles.

The tester was the top-of-the-line Limited, so it had new aluminum wheels with a shiny chrome appearance that also added a fancier look.

Doors are long on this convertible to help ease entry into the back seat. But I also had to be careful opening them in parking lots.

Gauges in the Limited are similar to those in other Chrysler sedans and easy to read, with a soft green illumination at night and a white background during the day.

The Sebring’s base engine remains a 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder. But the newly aligned uplevel models — the GTC, Touring and Limited — all come with the more competent 200-horsepower, 2.7-liter, double overhead cam V-6.

Torque is 190 foot-pounds at 4,850 rpm and seems ready to come on no matter the road situation.

There was no real jerkiness in the engine power delivery during the test drive, just a satisfying, responsive feel, even on long uphill climbs.

In city driving, the Sebring Limited moved with purpose into and around traffic with nary a sense of sluggishness.

But I wish the engine sounds hadn’t included that whir I heard each time I accelerated.

I also could control the shifts of the four-speed automatic, if I wanted, with an AutoStick that let me go from gear to gear without depressing a clutch pedal. The gear shifts weren’t done quite as smoothly with AutoStick, however.

The Sebring continues to ride on the same platform it has had for years, which meant it didn’t take long for me to notice some cowl shake as I went over bumps on city streets.

On rougher bumps, riders felt quite a few vibrations and a busy-ness under the car floor as the suspension sought to damp and hold down any tendency for bounciness.

It wasn’t the most sophisticated feel to a suspension, but the Sebring convertible still handled well on curvy roads in the mountains. I loved how the fabric top went down in a mere 7 seconds. All I had to do was unlatch the roof at the top of the windshield and push a button.

The boot, or cover, over the folded top has to be installed manually, however.

Be careful as you back up, because the fabric top’s rear window pillar can block much of the side rear view.

The Sebring seats are nicely cushioned, even the two back seats. But backseat riders have no head restraints.

I also noticed that the glovebox didn’t have a lock in this open-top car. So I had to squeeze valuables into the center console storage area, which did have a lock.

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