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BEHIND THE WHEEL

The Cool Ragtop With the Hot Handle

February 02, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eyebrow-raiser attached to Chrysler's newest convertible is its handle: Sebring.

As it was with Dodge Daytona, Pontiac Le Mans and similar usurpers named for international racing circuits, the designation churns up thoughts of exhaust-hot sports cars, more horsepower than Budweiser commercials before frogs and, always, Stirling Moss.

This Sebring is gentle enough for Kate Moss.

Even the stronger, optional engine is a Mitsubishi-built V-6 developing just 168 horsepower, all of it averse to hard labors. That's fewer ponies than the Honda Accord or Ford Probe. Or even Mitsubishi's middling vehicles.

But, counters Chrysler, the Sebring is not intended to arm wrestle with muscle-car convertibles. Nor is it a roadster for those slender of butt who don't double date. Rather, it is an affordable, purpose-built, unhurrying, traveler-friendly, feminine-biased, wind-reduced convertible with ample room for four big people.

In other words: If you don't have the grit for a Camaro Z28 ragtop or the bread for a canvas-covered Mercedes, check out this Sebring. Then thank God that nobody on the design team was from Alabama or we might be living with the Chrysler Talladega.

Chrysler's rooting among coupe and sedan owners in search of converts to convertible motoring is an interesting move. Especially as it involves marketing more-than-pleasant, unhurried daily passages offering little challenge to one's fortitude.

There's price: Sebring stickers bottom at $20,000 for the four-cylinder JX and reach to $26,000 for the V-6 JXi. That's cost-competitive with Mustang and Camaro.

There's engineering: Despite a name shared inexplicably with the Chrysler Sebring sport coupes, this is not a decapitated version of an existing car. Nor does it borrow much of anything from the Chrysler Cirrus / Dodge Stratus sedans.

Sebring's chassis is an original; built beefier to resist flexing, ragged handling and panel squeaks that produce greater personal pain than tennis elbow. The top is double-lined with a solid rear window--even a defogger--and tailored as a roof to reject weather and noise; not a bonnet that barely slaps aside wind and rain.

And when designing from scratch, there's greater engineering freedom for fixing the traditional casualties of convertible motoring: back-seat room and cargo space. Head and leg room for Sebring's rear riders are only one inch less than a Chevy Lumina mid-size sedan, while the trunk has 10% more space than BMW or Mercedes convertibles.

There's styling: Sebring's fresh, rakish lines, with top up or down, fluctuate from handsome to gorgeous and are lust at first sight. Stirring such warmth and a sense of individual freedom, frankly, is what convertible motoring is all about.

Finally, there's value: Our Sebring test car, a JXi glowing as red as a midway candy apple, was a better bargain than Malibu real estate in 1958.

It is stickered at $25,700. But that includes the bigger engine, keyless entry with alarm and panic button, leather bucket seats, anti-lock brakes, cast aluminum wheels, fog lamps, three remote controls for linking to garage doors and home lighting systems, cruise control, and an eight-speaker Infinity sound system with CD player.

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Sebring also scores well in the things that matter about convertibles. The power top is a two-latch, one-button affair that goes up as fast as raindrops come down. Although no canvas lid seals tighter than grandma's Mason jars, the Sebring's ragtop does reduce winter's drafts and urban din to better than tolerable.

With top down and windows up, nature's disturbances are little more than a ruffle and a flutter. But with windows down, start reaching for the head scarves and No Fear baseball caps, and forget about listening to the radio.

Chrysler has been particularly thoughtful in filching from Europe and attaching front shoulder and lap straps to the seat frames, not window bollards. That has tremendous worth to all who have climbed into the back of a convertible, tangled themselves in the damned straps and tumbled into the back seat with less grace than Houdini's last student.

We have already established, of course, that the Sebring will steal no sales from convertible manufacturers who promise supersonic slipstreams through our locks.

When the Sebring runs to freeway speed it's more of a stroll. Pounding the revs produces gagging grumbles because the transmission is a bread-and-olestra automatic. Also a hand-me-down from the extinct Chrysler LeBaron that has been the nation's best-selling ragtop since 1987.

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The interior is predictable and convenient: instruments and controls precisely where eyes and fingertips should find them. A Leatherette-knobbed shifter is mounted in the center console for at least a suggestion of the sporting life.

But large dents for cup holders slop Jamaica Blue Mountain better than a centrifuge and likely were designed by the Dry Cleaning Institute of America.

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