- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

An enduring line in movie history came when Marlon Brando, as Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront,” blurted in frustration, “I could’a been a contender.”

Chrysler has been in somewhat the same situation in the midsize sedan field, which is the most competitive and densely populated in the car business.

The company fielded entrants in the segment — the Cirrus sedan and, later, the Sebring coupe, sedan and convertible. Except for the convertible, they did not have much of an effect against the heavy hitters such as the Chevrolet Impala and Malibu, the Ford Taurus, and especially the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

Chrysler is looking to rectify that with its all-new 2007 Sebring, which it says is a true contender in the midsize class.

It is, too. The Sebring’s designers seem to have thought about almost everything buyers of midsize sedans want, and have packaged it in modern dress with an array of choices and prices that meet or beat the competition.

The competition, of course, is extensive. It includes the Camry and Accord, and also the Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu and Impala, Buick La Crosse, Pontiac G6, Saturn Aura, Mitsubishi Galant, Mazda 6, Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Passat, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Lincoln MKZ and Subaru Legacy.

Styling, of course, is subjective, but the Sebring does not look generic. It sports Chrysler’s new and untested signature, a fluted hood, and it has flowing lines — unlike the boxy look of its bigger sibling, the popular 300C. The designers say they tried the boxy look for the Sebring, but it didn’t work.

Inside, the design mimics the retro Chrysler winged emblem, for something of an art deco look. The emblem also is prominently displayed outside on the trunk, so there’s no mistaking the Sebring as anything but a Chrysler on the road.

The Sebring comes in three versions, each available with three engines — a four and two sixes. The base Sebring starts at $18,995, including destination, and standard equipment includes antilock brakes, side air bags, side-curtain air bags, automatic transmission, air conditioning, tire-pressure monitor, AM/FM/CD audio with MP3 connector, cruise control, an analog clock and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.

Electronic stability control is an option on the Touring and Limited models, but is not available on the base Sebring.

Two standard items are noteworthy. The sun visors slide on their support rods so they can be adjusted when moved to the side. And the center console cover also slides fore-and-aft 3 inches to provide adjustable elbow support.

The standard four-cylinder engine delivers 173 horsepower, which is adequate for most circumstances, even climbing mountain roads. It is raucous under hard acceleration, but settles to a muted hum at freeway speeds. Though zero-to-60 mph acceleration takes nearly 11 seconds, the car feels stronger and faster.

The transmission is a four-speed automatic, which has ratios nicely matched to the engine’s power characteristics, so that it doesn’t get confused hunting for the right gear. It delivers 24/32 miles per gallon on the government’s city/highway cycle. For people who want a bit more pizzazz, the tested Sebring Touring is available at $20,195. It adds LED interior map lights (which don’t bother the driver when used at night), a fold-flat front passenger seat, lighted vanity mirrors and upgraded interior trim. A comparably equipped Toyota Camry LE, which certainly is no slouch, has a suggested price of about $1,000 more.

The most remarkable Sebring feature, especially for parents, is a new seat fabric called YES Essentials. It is a cloth that repels just about any stain you can dump on it, including kid stuff and red wine.

Though the test car had no options, there are plenty available, including a new voice-recognition system called MyGIG, developed with Harman-Kardon, which combines navigation, entertainment and hands-free communications in a system that has a 20-gigabyte hard drive. It accommodates as many as 1,600 songs, as well as photographs of the family, and works with Sirius satellite radio and wireless cell-phone communication.

Leather-trimmed seats are available on the top-line Limited model. For people who feel they need more power, a 2.7-liter V-6 engine with 189 horsepower and a four-speed automatic is available. At the top of the line, in the Limited model, there’s an optional 235-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic.

However, Chrysler has wisely decided to make the 2.4 available across the line, even in the Limited, because buyers in this class overwhelmingly choose four-cylinder engines.

Except for the engine growl under hard acceleration, the tested Touring model was commendably quiet, with little wind or road noise intruding into the passenger pod.

The front seats were comfortable and supportive, with good side bolstering, and the outboard seats in back offered ample head and knee room. But the center position, as usual, is cramped, with little head room and no place for feet.

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