by Bill Cawthon
Scott Burgess touched off a firestorm when he resigned over edits to a car review he had written for the Detroit News, in which he claimed that Glenn Beck was right (that American automakers should have been liquidated instead of rescued) and that the Chrysler 200 was uncompetitive and “a dog.” He wrote, “I get mad as hell when anyone pumps out a car that forces me to recommend the Toyota Camry over it.” Was he rightly condemning a bad car, or was he being trendy and unfairly beating up on a car he didn't expect anyone to defend, as The Truth About Cars suggested? We have one review comparing the Chrysler 200 to the Camry; in this review, Bill Cawthon goes one step further and compares the much-maligned Chrysler Sebring to the best-selling Toyota.
The Truth About Cars' Jack Baruth compared Scott Burgess' review of the 200 to his earlier review of the 2008 Sebring convertible. That's the same car that Jeremy Clarkson called "almost certainly the worst car in the entire world." There were more automotive pundits who leaned toward Clarkson's opinion than Burgess', though perhaps not quite as viciously (at least, not until after Clarkson's statement was uttered).
TTAC was critical of Burgess for failing to deliver "a single direct qualitative or quantitative comparison to any other car ever made... ." That misses the point; Burgess was comparing the 200 to what he believed it should have been and what he saw as the entire line of competitive vehicles. It's a subjective evaluation, as are most reviews because that's what reviewers offer.
Pat noted that Car & Driver's 2008 comparison had the four cylinder Avenger (the Sebring's twin) falling just a tenth of a second behind the Camry in 0-60. It was half a second quicker than the Ford Fusion. The quarter mile trap speed tied it with the Malibu and Camry. The Avenger also tied the Camry for best as tested fuel economy, indicating that the Sebring and Camry were at least similar in powertrain. Burgess himself had few specific criticisms; those were focused on the powertrain, looks, and UConnect controls.
You can get all the objective data you want by comparing manufacturers' data or results compiled by magazines that do rigorous testing. But no one with a pulse ever bought a personal car strictly by the numbers. Well, perhaps numbers like "426" or "440" combined with words like "HEMI" or "Wedge" have inspired a purchase or two, but cars are sold on subjective evaluations and that's why car reviews are important; they communicate the feel and experience of a vehicle. Combined with the dry numbers, the review can help a new car buyer winnow down the 300+ different light vehicles offered for sale to a number that can actually be personally examined.
With that in mind, what follows is subjective, based on my experience and having driven a lot of cars over the past 40 years.
I have not driven the new 200. From what I have read, I would like to because if the new 200 is an improvement over the Sebring, then it should be quite a car. You see, in my opinion, the Sebring was already a better car than the Camry. This is based on a week with both a Camry and a Sebring parked in our driveway. It wasn't voluntary; a careless motorist rear-ended my wife's car and when I was on my way to pick her up from the insurance adjuster's office, another careless motorist did the same to me. Marge got a black Sebring; I got a red Camry.
The two cars were perfect for real-world comparisons. Cars supplied to reviewers are generally well-equipped, top-of-the-line models. Our rentals were base models with automatic transmissions, air-conditioning, the basic sound system, and can't-possibly-upset-anyone-gray interiors. We're talking the plainest of plain vanilla. The Sebring was only a two-way radio and siren switch away from being a perfect unmarked police car. A coat of yellow paint, a rooftop sign, and a meter would have set the Camry up as a taxicab. [Side note: the vast majority of Camrys sold are indeed the four-cylinder automatics.]
The Camry couldn't be the cop car because it couldn't catch a cold: pressing on the accelerator had little impact on what the engine actually did, and downshifting was not one of the tricks in the transmission's repertoire. Steering was more of a suggestion than a command: you used the wheel to supply your input and, after due consideration, the Camry would eventually wallow in the desired direction. "Wallow" is the appropriate word; handling was much the same as one would expect when piloting a waterbed.
The Sebring, on the other hand, was as responsive and nimble as one might expect from a compact sedan with a four-cylinder engine and no sporting pretensions. I didn't expect to be pushed back in my seat by acceleration, and I wasn't, but I felt like the gas pedal had more than a nodding acquaintance with the engine operating system. The Sebring would handle a freeway interchange ramp at speed, meaning I could use the steering wheel and accelerator at the same time.
Both cars were comfortable but the Camry was points ahead on interior fit and finish. The Sebring wasn't bad; it was just painfully obvious that it was designed to please bean-counters, not customers. And that has been Chrysler's problem as a brand; you can't slap a gold seal on a Plymouth Plaza and expect anyone to believe it's a Chrysler.
But I could live with the interior of the Sebring; I couldn't live with the drivability of the Camry. The only reason I can find for the Camry's continued popularity is that for most people, driving is something one does to get from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible and the Camry isn't quite as homely as the Accord, the other favorite flavor in Vanillaland. I have always regarded driving as one of life's pleasures and believe that a car is more than a privately operated people mover.
So if, as everyone says, the new 200 has addressed the main issues that caused complaints, then I would have to say it's a better car than the Camry, as well. And with more goodies still to come, it will get even better. Given the short time they had to make as many changes as they could, Sergio Marchionne, Olivier Francois, Ralph Gilles and the folks in Auburn Hills and Sterling Heights have delivered a car they can be proud of and, contrary to Scott Burgess' contention, one that can run with the pack on any level playing field.
I read the Sebring vs Camry article with much interest because my wife and I experienced a very similar situation.
We have rented both a 2011 Camry and a 2010 Sebring and lived with them for over a week. The rental agency and our friends thought it was great that we were able to put the first 1000 miles on the new Camry and everyone thought we should love it. Wow, what a surprise! My initial complaint was the roofline, we were constantly banging our heads while getting in and out of the front seat. The quality seemed good, on par with the 2000 Accord that I owned for over 200k miles.
Once we were on the road everything was smooth and quite, too smooth and too quiet, it was the most boring car I have ever driven and we hated it! It was like driving an oversized marshmallow while sunk down inside! It didn't have any power to pass at highway speeds and was downright scary when pushed a little on any curve.
Once in the city we thought it would be back into its element, but the parking lots suddenly seemed so crowded and the streets so narrow. We could not tell how far anything was from the corners of the car. It felt really big and we felt really small. We could hardly wait to get our Malibu back!
After and week of living with it we could not imagine why they are so popular, unless people just buy them because "everyone" says they are great cars. After several days of driving I found myself not caring that it was new, it was just a boring appliance to get from point A to point B. Everyone must not shop around and try other cars, unless they just like to feel like they are driving a slightly modernized 1978 Buick Electra.
Then, around three weeks ago, we were a little disappointed that the only car left at the rental agency in my assigned size class was a Sebring. We had not heard much good about them. This car had close to 30k miles on it. Entry and exit to the front seat were much better than the Camry, so that was an initial "positive." Once inside we found everything comfortable and convenient, just kind of cheap feeling. I really don't know why, the switches felt more solid than the Camry, maybe it was the textures or the crisp edges on everything.
The engine was a little raspy, but you could tell what it was doing and the impression of having power was evident at low speeds. I felt connected to the road, not like a sports car, but a much more of a German feel. I was comfortable and confident while driving in town and it only got better once on the highway. The little engine would pull nicely on the entrance ramps and when passing, I didn't have that feeling of wondering if it had the guts to drive normally (mildly aggressive).
The ride was comfortable for the long trip and the drive was engaging, I actually found myself having fun driving a plain vanilla rental sedan. It even had a decent radio with some bass that was completely missing in the Camry. This little car had some personality and guts to it. After several days, I started to feel like I was driving something much more expensive and would look back at it as I walked away in a parking lot feeling some pride in my little sedan and be some what humbled that it was really was only a, much maligned, Chrysler Sebring.
If the 200 is better than my Sebring was, then I can't imagine a person who thinks for themselves not liking it over the Camry!
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