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The Original Chrysler Sebring convertible: 1996-2000

The Chrysler Cirrus was selling well and getting rave reviews; so, in Chrysler’s finest traditions of car names, the convertible version was dubbed the “Sebring,” after a slow-selling Mitsubishi with Chrysler badging. And then lump sales of the Chrysler convertible and the Mitsubishi coupe together.

Chrysler Sebrings

The export version, incidentally, was the Chrysler Stratus Convertible — Stratus being Dodge’s name for the Cirrus.

The approach to the Chrysler Sebring Convertible was completely different from the company’s old K-based Lebaron Convertible. While the LeBaron Convertible was a success, it was a rush job, built as a coupe and then surgically altered by another company. The Sebring Convertible was engineered to be exactly what it was; so it built at lower cost, had less weight gain, fewer reliability issues, and better cornering than it would have been, had it been made as a coupe with the roof cut off.

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 as much as they did in other convertibles. Rear seats were relatively roomy, and there was enough trunk space for groceries. The ride was comfortable, edging on sporty — tuned like the Neon, Cirrus, and Intrepid. 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 far easier to live with than the Camaro. Other testers rated it far above the Camry-based Toyota Solara.)

Program manager Scott Wilkins said they originally planned to update the existing LeBaron convertible, but found it would be hard to move production to Toluca, Mexico. The Small Car Platform Team chose the midsized JA sedan (Cirrus, Stratus, Breeze) as their new basis, ending up with a compact car (based on interior space), while many competitors ended up being classified as subcompacts. 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.

sebring's nice interior 

From approval to the first car, the project cost just $200 million, and took a mere 29 months.

The front and rear suspensions were modified double-wishbones; 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 90% of peak torque available from 1,900 to 5,850 rpm. The 2.4 four, based on the Neon 2.0, 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.

sebring - chrysler - convertible center console

The new 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 odometer. (It also supplied a signal to the PRNDL rather than using a cable or physical switch.)

A new cruise control controlled the transmission as well, reducing “hunting” and downshifting to third if the car was gaining too much speed going down a hill; it delayed downshifts if needed.

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. 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.

Base models had white on black instruments, and the Limited Edition had Art Deco black on white gauges; chrome was minimal to avoid sun glare. 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 convertible

In 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. 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. 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 Mustang and Camaro both had a standard 3.8 liter V6, which explains their high torque. The Sebring’s interior space dwarfed most competitors. Toyota’s Solara (which was a late arrival) was closer in size, 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 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, to its detriment.

Advantages over the Mustang included standard antilock brakes (JXi), a lockable center console, usable trunk, and standard air conditioning. The Mustang was slightly lighter and more powerful, with a V8 option, but much smaller inside.

The main advantage over the BMW was price; especially since BMW had the 328 and M3 for much more power. The BMW did not have a power folding top, glass rear window, electric rear defroster, standard automatic, or 16 inch wheels; and the 318i’s engine was far less powerful, though it did have a 200-pound weight advantage.

Compared with the Camaro, the Sebring had standard power windows, automatic, and speed-sensitive steering; a much, much larger interior; and 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
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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