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The Original Chrysler Sebring convertible: 1996-2000

Chrysler SebringsWith the Chrysler Cirrus selling well and getting rave reviews, and a Mitsubishi badged the Chrysler Sebring selling poorly, only Chrysler would name its Cirrus-based ragtop the Sebring Convertible. The company then reported sales of both Sebrings together.

The export version, incidentally, was the Chrysler Stratus Convertible.

The Chrysler Sebring Convertible was almost the opposite of the old K-based Lebaron Convertible, build at Lee Iacocca’s insistence. The LeBaron Convertible was a success, single-handed reviving the genre, but it was a rush job, outsourced, built as a coupe and then surgically altered. The Sebring Convertible, on the other hand, was engineered from the start to be what it was; so not only was it built at lower cost, but it had less weight gain, fewer reliability issues, and better cornering. The body was far stiffer than a traditional “coupe and convert” model.

As for amenities and safety, Sebring Convertibles came standard with dual airbags, air conditioning, tilt steering, power windows, a power top, a glass rear window with defroster, a six-speaker cassette stereo, and a center console with armrests.

The base model was JX, with a premium JXi level. A late (Spring) arrival, carrying a premium price, the Sebring convertible still garnered well over 50,000 sales in its first year, to critical acclaim.

purple sebring

Buyers didn’t have to give up much, as opposed to other convertibles. 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 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.” It was also easier to live with than the Camaro, and other testers found it far above the Toyota Solara.)

Scott Wilkins, program manager, said they originally planned to 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). The Small Car Platform Team chose the midsized JA sedan (Cirrus, Stratus, Breeze) as the basis for their convertible, ending up with a compact car (based on interior space), while many competitors ended up being classified as subcompacts.

sebring's nice interior

Most of the Small Car team was busy launching the Neon, but they were able to spare a small number of people from each department. 

From approval to the 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.

At launch, only the Mitusbishi 2.5 V6 was used; it pumped out 168 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. In 2001, the base engine was the “minivan” 2.4, producing 150 horsepower and a rather similar 167 lb-ft of torque. Both used the 41TE four-speed automatic transmission, which learned its driver’s style and also compensated for internal wear and condition.

under the hood of the chrysler sebring convertible

Either engine had adequate, though not thrilling, acceleration. Gas mileage was rated at 29 mpg highway for either one, with the V6 at 20 city, and the four at 21 city, on regular gas. AutoStick provided a manual override for some years and models.

The 2.5 liter engine was based on the Mitsubishi 3.0, with more power despite the smaller size (the 2.4 actually generated the same horsepower as the old 3.0), 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; it had direct ignition (no distributor).

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. With both engines, the engine computer cut power for around 1/4 of a second while shifting, for transmission reliability.

New third-generation transmission computers had a 16-bit bus, rather than the old 8-bit bus, and double the memory capacity; it changed shifts based on engine and transmission temperature. The new computer forwarded vehicle speed to the 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

A new cruise control controlled the transmission to reduce “hunting” and provide overspeed reduction (downshifting to third if the car was gaining too much speed going down a hill) and delaying downshifts if needed, by allowing greater throttle openings.

The locking center console included the trunk release, for mild security. Automatic belt height adjusters for front occupants, integral fully-trimmed headliner, padded armrests, integral door map pockets, and a dead pedal helped the interior.

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 reshaped the windshield header and pillars to avoid buffeting with the top down, while stiffer top fabric and better top and door sealing helped when top was up.) Releasing the top took around ten seconds plus the electric motor time.

Base models had white on black instruments, and the Limited Edition had Art Deco black on white guages; chrome was minimal to avoid sun glae. The cars included a small trip computer and an optional Infinity stereo with strong bass from four independently powered speakers.

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. 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.

red 1996 Chrysler Sebring convertible

Standard features included a rear defroster, fold-away heated mirrors, and a day/night mirror. The JXi added antilock brakes, an alarm, illuminated entry, automatic locks, the remote trunk release, a universal garage door opener, and fog lights.

In 1997, AutoStick was launched as an option with the V6. In 1998, four-wheel disc brakes with traction control became optional, and the SentryKey™ theft deterrent system was added.

2000 Chrysler Sebring convertibleIn November 1997, a Sebring Limited Package was launched, adding a body-color grille, padded, sewn, color-keyed armrest, chrome interior door handles, woodgrain door accents, better carpet, special woodgrain on the instrument panel (Rose Zebrano), unique gauge faces, leather-wrapped steering wheel and handles, a CD player, leather seats, AutoStick, traction control, chrome-plated wheels, and a standard luxury group. The packaged lasted to the end.

For 1999, the four-cylinder was dropped, a next-generation driver airbag was added, and the grille added the winged “Chrysler seal” medallion (see photo on right).

chrysler convertible exterior

For its final year, 2000, the Chrysler medallion was added to the steering wheel trim cover; a new quarter-turn gas cap was used, more noise barriers were added, next-generation front passenger airbags were used, an internal emergency trunk release was delivered for dealer installation, 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.

In 2000, we wrote:

The controls are logical and feel well-made, except for the horn, which takes too much effort to push. The driver and front passenger are insulated from wind when the windows are up, but the windshield is steeply raked. To release the top, two clamps must be released; after this, dropping the mechanism takes about ten seconds.

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.

1997 Competitive Comparisons

The Chrysler Sebring Convertible was quite popular; its combination of interior space and fun was hard to beat, especially given bargain pricing (compared with other convertibles). The Mustang GT, Camaro, and BMW M3 may have been faster, but they were not as easy to live with — and they cost much more.

The Sebring was about the same size outside as Camaro, but much larger inside. The Mustang and Camaro both had a standard 3.8 liter V6, which explains their high torque. The Sebring’s interior space dwarfed the competitors below. Toyota’s Solara was closer in size, when it arrived, but was described even by Consumer Reports as having too much body flex and sloppy handling.

1997 Convertibles Chrysler Sebring Ford Mustang BMW 318i Chevy Camaro
Cost: base,
  top trim
Weight 3,350 (LX) 3,264 3,131 3,455
Interior volume 89.1 81.3 74.0 80.6
Front headroom 38.7 38.1 38.1 38.0
Rear headroom 37.0 35.7 36.3 39.0
Front leg room 42.4 42.5 41.2 43.0
Rear leg room 35.2 30.3 28.1 26.8
Total leg room 77.6 72.8 69.3 69.8
Front hip room 52.4 52.3 52.8 52.8
Rear hip room 44.7 41.1 44.8 43.7
Cargo 11.3 7.7 9.0 7.6
Base horsepower 150 150 138 200
Base torque 167 215 133 225
Transmission 4-speed auto 4-speed auto 4-speed auto 4-speed auto
MPG (automatic) 20/28 20/30 23/31 19/30
Opt horsepower 168 n/a (4.6 GT) n/a (328, M3) n/a (5.7 Z28)
Opt torque 170 n/a n/a n/a
Opt MPG 18/28 18/26 20/28 (manual) 15/24 (manual)
Towing 1,500/2,000 1,000 None 1,000
Wheelbase 106.0 101.3 106.3 101.1
Length x Width 193 x 69 181.5 x 72 174.5 x 67 193 x 74

The Sebring was the only convertible in the group with seat belts attached to the front seat for easier entry into the back — or height-adjustable front belts, for that matter. It was also the only one without a manual-transmission option.

Advantages over the Mustang, the next largest car (inside) included standard antilock brakes (JXi), a lockable center console, usable trunk, and standard air conditioning. The Mustang was lighter and more powerful but much smaller inside.

The main advantage over the BMW was price; especially since BMW had the 328 and M3 convertibles for much more power, as well. The BMW, though, did not have a power folding top, glass rear window, electric rear defroster, standard automatic, or 16 inch wheels. The BMW 318i’s engine was also, surprisingly, far less powerful, while weight was much higher.

Compared with the Camaro the Sebring had standard leather on JXi, standard power windows, standard automatic, and speed-sensitive steering. The Camaro’s windshield pillars were hard to get around when entering the front seat.

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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