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The Original Chrysler Sebring convertible: 1996-2000

Chrysler SebringsWith a Chrysler-engineered Cirrus on the market, and a similarly sized, Mitsubishi-engineered Chrysler Sebring as well, it only made sense that Chrysler would name its Cirrus-based convertible... the Sebring. And then proceed to report sales of both Sebrings together, as though they shared more in common than their engines. The export version, confusing matters further, was the Chrysler Stratus Convertible.

The Chrysler Sebring Convertible was very much unlike the “ragtop” that had re-created the segment, the old K-based Lebaron Convertible. It had not been a rush job, it was not outsourced, it was not built as a coupe and then surgically altered; it was engineered from the start to be what it was, and as a result, it was built at lower cost, and had fewer of the traditional convertible drawbacks of weight gain, reliability issues, and poor cornering. The body was far stiffer than a traditional “coupe and convert” model.

All Sebrings used seats with integrated three-point safety belts, rather than having seat belts attach to the body; and they came standard with dual airbags, air conditioning, tilt steering, power windows, power top, glass rear window with defroster, six-speaker cassette stereo, and console with armrest. The base model was JX, with a premium JXi level. A late (Spring) arrival sold at a premium price, the Sebring convertible nevertheless garnered well over 50,000 sales in its first year, along with the now-usual accolades.

The Sebring’s success came largely because buyers didn’t have to give up very much, other than paying for the extra cost. Rear seats were relatively roomy, and there was enough trunk space to take home groceries. The ride was comfortable edging on sporty, tuned like the Neon, Cirrus, and Intrepid; the interior controls and displays were well designed and attractive; and straight line performance was good for the time, with a responsive automatic transmission. (We tested it in 2000 along with the cheaper Chevrolet Cavalier Convertible, and found the Sebring to be much more refined, “with a suspension that soaks up bumps and pavement irregularities for a smooth, cushioned ride, without giving up road feel, even on rough cement.”)

purple sebring

According to Scott Wilkins, program manager, they originally planned to simply update the existing LeBaron convertible, but found it would be hard to move production to its new Toluca, Mexico home (also home of the Neon Coupe). Looking at the company’s upcoming cars, the Small Car Platform Team chose the midsized JA sedan (Cirrus, Stratus, Breeze) as the basis for their convertible — though the JA was done by the Large Car Platform Team. The end result was still a compact car — based on EPA methods of measuring interior space — but many competitors, based on compacts or sport coupes, ended up being classified as subcompacts.

sebring's nice interiorWhile most of the Small Car team was busy launching the Neon, they were able to spare a small number of people — Bob Marcell, general manager of small car platform engineering, said, “We literally took a page out of the Viper book, creating a dedicated team made up of representatives from engineering, product planning, design, finance, manufacturing, marketing, and sales...”  From approval to first car, the project cost just $200 million, and took a mere 29 months.

Both front and rear suspensions were modified double-wishbone styles; the body structure was reinforced using continuous rails and a reinforced sill structure. Unequal-length balance shafts were used — the right shaft was solid, the left was a tube — with similar CV joints.

Two engines were available (in 2000, only the V6 was sold). The base engine was the “minivan” 2.4, producing 150 horsepower; the Mitusbishi 2.5 V6 was optional, slightly bigger but pumping out 168 horsepower (torque for the two engines was similar: 170 lb-ft on the V6, 167 lb-ft on the four). Both provided adequate, though not thrilling, acceleration; gas mileage was rated at 29 mpg highway, with the V6 at 20 city, and the four at 21 city, on regular gas. An automatic was mandatory; in som eyears and models, AutoStick provided a manual override. The 41TE four-speed automatic transmission was adaptive, so that the it learned the driver’s style and would eventually opt for performance or comfort, depending on the driver’s habits.

chrysler convertible exteriorThe 2.5 liter engine was a modified version of the old Mitsubishi 3.0, with more power despite the smaller size, and 90% of peak torque available from 1,900 to 5,850 rpm. The 2.4 four used counter-rotating balance shafts to cut vibration and ran at a high compression ratio of 9.4:1, using Chrysler’s own knock sensor. Despite being different designs from different automakers, both engines’ heads used pent-roof combustion chambers with centered spark plugs and a “tumble” intake port design. The 2.4 has a direct ignition system with no distributor, cutting complexity and maintenance while improving the idle quality and throttle response.

For both engines, the engine computer cut power for around 1/4 of a second while shifting, to allow for faster shifts and greater transmission reliability. The new third-generation transmission computers had a 16-bit bus, rather than the old 8-bit bus, and double the memory capacity, and now changed shifts based on engine and transmission temperature. The new computer forwarded vehicle speed to the main powertrain computer, for use in various calculations as well as operating the speedometer and operator. (It also supplied a signal to the PRNDL rather than using a cable or physical switch.)

sebring - chrysler - convertible center console

Also new was the interactive cruise control, which took the cruise control and other information into account to determine what gear the transmission should be in, reducing “hunting” and improving the operation of the cruise. The system also included overspeed reduction (downshifting to third if the car was gaining too much speed going down a hill) and delaying downshifts in some cases by allowing greater throttle openings. Anti-“hunting” logic was added to the system.

A button opened the convenient center console. The center console could be locked, and the trunk release was inside the console, for security from apathetic thieves. The controls were logical and had a quality feel, including the wheel-mounted cruise control with cancel button, though the horn required a hardy push due to airbag integration. This would be addressed years later. Interior trim included automatic belt height adjusters for front occupants, integral fully-trimmed headliner, padded armrests, integral door map pockets, and a dead pedal.

Sebring Convertible

The driver and front passenger were insulated from wind when all windows were up, but this required a steeply raked (63°) windshield. (Aerodynamic tests resulted in reshaping the windshield header and pillars to avoid buffeting with the top down, and a stiffer top fabric and better top and door sealing with the top up.) To release the top, two clamps had to be released; the mechanism took about ten seconds.

There were some awkward features. Moving the top lowered the windows a little, but they did not get back up, and the ignition had to be in RUN to move the top or the power windows (no "persistence"). The switch for the rear windows was only the driver's door, and the driver’s seat did not have a placement memory when folded to let people into the back.

Base models had white on black instruments, and the Limited Edition had Art Deco black on white guages; chrome was minimized to avoid reflections from the sun. A small trip computer was conveniently placed. The optional Infinity stereo had strong bass even at loud volumes, with four independently powered speakers.

red 1996 Chrysler Sebring convertible

Standard features included dual airbags, rear defroster, side demisters, fold-away exterior mirrors, day/night mirror, and locking center console. JXi included antilock brakes, an alarm, illuminated entry, automatic locks, remote trunk release, universal door opener, heated outside mirrors, and fog lights.

2000 Chrysler Sebring convertibleIn 1997, AutoStick was launched as an option with the V6. In 1998, four-wheel disc brakes with traction control, an outgrowth of a similar system on the 1995 Neon, became optional, while the SentryKey™ theft deterrent system was implemented. In November 1997, a Sebring Limited Package was launched. Then, for 1999, the four-cylinder was dropped, a next-generation driver airbag was added, and the grille was changed to have the winged “Chrysler seal” medallion (see photo on right).

In its final year, 2000, the Chrysler medallion was added to the steering wheel trim cover; a new quarter-turn gas cap was used; additional noise barriers were added; next-generation front passenger airbags were used; an internal emergency trunk release was delivered, to be added by dealers; a brake interlock was added (so drivers had to push the brake down to shift from Park); and the 41TE was delivered with long-life, 100,000 mile automatic transmission fluid. Chrysler bragged that the Sebring Convertible had won Strategic Vision’s Total Quality Award in its class from 1997 through 1999.

The Limited model added a body-color grille, padded, sewn, color-keyed armrest, chrome interior door handles, woodgrain door accents, premium carpet, special woodgrain on the instrument panel (Rose Zebrano), unique gauge faces, leather-wrapped steering wheel and handles, standard CD player, special leather seats, AutoStick, traction control, chrome plated wheels, and standard luxury group.

under the hood of the chrysler sebring convertibleIn 2000, we wrote:

The controls are logical and feel well-made; we appreciated the sensible wheel-mounted cruise control, which has a cancel button. The horn requires too much firmness. Base models have white on black instruments, and the Limited Edition has Art Deco black on white gauges. A small trip computer is conveniently placed. The center console can be locked, and the trunk release is inside the console, which provides security from apathetic thieves; there are also map pockets on the doors.

The driver and front passenger are relatively well insulated from wind when the windows are up, but this requires a steeply raked windshield which takes some getting used to. To release the top, two clamps must be released; after this, dropping the mechanism takes about ten seconds.

The optional Infinity stereo provides strong bass even at loud volumes, with four independently powered speakers. Air conditioning is strong and quiet. Wind noise easily drowns out the acceleration except at low speeds, when the engine has a pleasant, V-8 style rumble which does not match its actual performance.

There are some awkward features. Moving the top lowers the windows a little, but they do not get back up - and the ignition key must be in RUN to move the top or the power windows. The switch for the rear windows is only on the driver's door; and, as is common on two-door cars, the front seat folding mechanism never returns the seat to its original position.

If you go nuts on options, you can get a list price of nearly $30,000, which means spending about $25,000. The least expensive Sebring Convertible costs more and is slower than the large Dodge Intrepid — you pay for the option of losing the roof.

1996 Chrysler Sebring Convertible Specifications

First, final gears2.84:1, 0.69:1
Electrical125 amp alternator, 510 CCA Group 75 batter
Length x Width193” x 69.2”
Ground Clearance6.4”
Weight Distribution61/39 JX, 62/38 JXi
Head room, F/R38.7 / 37.0
Leg room, F/R42.4 / 35.2
Shoulder Room55.0 / 49.0
EPA Interior Volume100.4 cubic feet
EPA Cargo Volume11.3 cubic feet
Weight3,340 (JX), 3,432 (JXi)
Aerodynamics22.0 square ft front area, cD = 0.36
Fuel tank16 gallons (60 liters)
Steering17.0 ratio, 2.8 turns, 40.0 foot turning diameter
Brake swept area194 sq (1.25 sq cm) in both front and rear
Brake type10.24 x 0.9 vented disc front, 8.66 x 1.57 drum rear
WheelsJX, steel 15x6; JXi, 16 x 6.5 cast aluminum
TiresP205/65R15 JX, P215/55R16 JXi (opt. on JX)

Next generation: 2001-2005 Chrysler Sebring Convertible

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