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Chrysler's '08 Sebring Convertible has a nifty roof mechanism. But things go down quickly from there.

August 08, 2007|DAN NEIL

To Cerberus Capital Management, the New York-based private equity firm that just bought Chrysler from DaimlerChrysler, congratulations and … what do you mean I'm being laid off? I don't even work for you guys!

So far, the company is off to a rousing start. It was widely expected that Cerberus would name Wolfgang Bernhard, former executive for Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, to be Chrysler's chairman-CEO. Instead, over the weekend the company named Robert Nardelli, former chief executive and notorious hammer of Home Depot, who recently earned glory in the annals of executive compensation when he pocketed a $210-million severance package after being kicked out by disgruntled shareholders. Unlike Bernhard, who is a car guy to the bone, Nardelli has no experience in the auto business. A company utterly besieged by bean counters has just hired Mr. Bean.

Now, much of this is inside-baseball stuff that probably wouldn't interest consumers: Can the famously abrasive Nardelli mend relations with Chrysler's alienated dealer network? Can he reach across the table at upcoming labor talks with anything other than a shiv? Will Nardelli, a Red State royalist who has held fundraisers at his Atlanta home for President Bush, get behind a national health care agenda that many in Detroit feel would give domestic automakers some breathing room?

Or will Nardelli and the three-headed dog merely flip Chrysler, which is to say, cut it down to a semblance of profitability and sell it? That would be the equivalent of stealing coins off a dead man's eyes.

Assuming that Nardelli is more than a bagman, the question then becomes: Does he know a good car from a bad one?

I can help. I recommend he go down to the motor pool and check out the keys to a 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible, preferably the Limited model with the retractable hardtop. See, Bob, that's a bad one.

Not just bad, but a veritable chalice of wretchedness, a rattling, thumping, lolling tragedy of a car, a summary indictment of Chrysler's recent management and its self-eradicating product planning, all cast in plastic worthy of a Chinese water pistol. The Sebring drop top does something I thought impossible: It makes me long for the exquisite craftsmanship of the Pontiac flipping G6.

Oh, and the Sebring Convertible is homely, too.

On a more positive note, if Nardelli wants to kick off a product renaissance at least he'll have a baseline.

The Sebring Convertible has been a segment sales leader for more than a decade, in no small part because of the tens of thousands sold to the Budgets and Hertzes of the world. These were modest cars with modest ambitions -- mid-priced, mid-size, middlebrow convertibles that were, comparatively, well shaped, with a low and rounded body style that looked cool with the top down.

The new-for-2008 Sebring Convertible is an open-air version of the taller, squarer Sebring sedan introduced last year. The sibling-driven proportions throw the convertible drastically out of whack. For instance, the new convertible is virtually the same length as the previous model but 3.5 inches taller, all of it coming in the strangely lax sheet metal above the belt line, or in empty space: Even with our Limited edition test car with its 18-inch wheels, the wheel arches looked cavernous. To make room for the car's choice of retractable tops (in vinyl, canvas or aluminum), the convertible is 3.2 inches longer than the sedan, and all of that length is cantilevered gracelessly over the rear wheels. From some angles the car looks like it's had unholy congress with an El Camino.

There was some effort to add surface excitement to the car -- the strakes on the hood, à la the Crossfire and the exquisite Airflite concept car -- but these gestures are so insincere as to be insulting.

The marketing game plan is to offer the Sebring Convertible in three trims, each with its own engine: the base model ($26,145) gets the 2.4-liter, 173-hp four-cylinder with a four-speed automatic; the Touring ($28,745) gets the 2.7-liter V6 with 189 hp, also with the four-speed; the Limited ($32,345) is powered by the company's 3.5-liter V6 with 235 hp/232 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic. The retractable hardtop is a $1,995 option on the Touring and Limited.

Our nearly loaded Limited test car penciled out to $37,755, including one of the car's signature options, the MyGig audio system/navigation system with the 20-GB hard drive. Other options included traction and stability control, windscreen and dual exhaust. All that kit easily pushes the car over the 2-ton mark (base curb weight is a rather astonishing 3,959 pounds).

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