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We have a review of the 2003 Dodge Stratus Coupe (identical to the Chrysler Sebring coupe) - click here to read it.
What motivates people to buy the Chrysler Sebring LXi, when a Neon offers two more doors for about $5,000 less?
Well, it could be the V-6 engine. The Neon is quick with a five-speed, but the automatic transmission slows it down. The Sebring, on the other hand, mates a Mitsubishi V-6 with its automatic, adding the power needed to overcome a "slushbox" (that's stick-driver talk for an automatic transmission).
It could be the extra two doors. The Neon Coupe has been sacrificed in favor of the hot PT Cruiser, leaving the Sebring and its sibling, the Dodge Avenger, as Chrysler's only mass-production two-door cars.
$22,000 seems like a lot to ask; it's roughly the price of a V6-powered Camry. On the other hand, you can't throw the Camry around a turn without thinking about how fast you're going. The Sebring's suspension feels smooth, but it can really keep those tires stuck to the road. That's what your money is really buying: superior road-holding capability. It just happens to come with two fewer doors and a more luxury-oriented interior.
Grant Mitsubishi most of the credit for the suspension, since they designed most of the car. We're not quite sure what parts Chrysler was responsible for on this Eclipse-based, American-Mitsubishi-made car, other than the transmission and the now-unavailable four-cylinder engine options.
Chrysler's main contribution may have been turning around to their partners and saying, "We need a coupe like the Eclipse, but not so rough. We need something normal-sized people can sit in, without lying down, even in the rear seat. We need something with a trunk. Can you do that?"
Because of its looks, the Sebring was criticized at first for its moderate acceleration. The optional 2.5-liter Mitsubishi V6 is only mated to an automatic, giving it about the same performance as the five-speed Neon. Next year, a 200 hp 3.0 liter Mitsubishi V6 will quiet the critics. In the meantime, the current engine is more than enough for most people, despite poor low-end torque and a transmission that tends to like its high gears. Pushing in a convenient button shuts the overdrive and lets the engine do its thing, transforming the feel of the car to match its looks - as long as you stay over 3,000 rpm.
In time, the adaptive transmission also starts to realize that you want the car to be sporty and quick, and downshifts more readily.
Handling was excellent, to the point where we could not loosen the car's grip of the road, even with our usual trick of flooring the gas while going around a turn on bumpy pavement. (Don't try this at home). There was no trace of torque steer. We did have an optional handling package, which we recommend to those who are willing to sacrifice a little ride quality for a lot of turning quality.
The interior is fairly upmarket, with (optional) leather seats, shiny wood-grain plastic, and an (optional) Infinity stereo featuring both CD and cassette player. We quickly learned to love that stereo for its high fidelity and strong but not boomy bass. There was also a clever garage door opener built into the sun visor.
Rear leg room is more abundant than in most coupes, and the front seats slide forward to clear a path into the back seat. This comes in handy if you install a child seat, which, thanks to some forward thinking, is safer to do than in most cars. There are three well-designed child seat tether anchors on the rear ledge, and all you have to do to use them is take off the plastic caps. There are also anchors at the bottom of the seats which we assume are for the new style of child seat.
Unlike real Chrysler cars, the climate control system made perfect sense, and it was easy to figure out how to turn on and shut off the air conditioning. The side demisters were very effective, and worked quickly.
The windshield wipers stopped a little short, but that may have simply been a chance misadjustment on our test car. The high trunk and coupe styling tended to block the rear and rear-side view, making backing up something of an adventure.
The trunk is quite large, and the optional cargo net came in handy given the amount of space and the ability to corner at high speeds.
The cruise control is activated with a dashboard control, but adjusted with a stalk - others, such as Toyota, simply have an on/off button on the stalk. The automatic day-night mirror did not darken enough, and the adjustable steering wheel does not tilt high enough.
There is no coin tray, though there are some places where you could put coins and call it a coin tray. Chrysler cup holder engineers did not visit the cabin. The sunroof only tilts open; probably to preserve headroom, you cannot open it all the way. Mitsubishi labels are on the inner door and Infinity trunk amplifier, reminding people that this is not a real Chrysler.
We found that the front spoiler tended to drag on the ground when we went into some parking lots. Also, though the frameless windows seemed to work better than those on the Neon, there was no drip rail; when it rains, you'd better keep the door closed.
The fog lights are very diffuse and tend to shine light at other drivers, rather than straight through the fog. This is a concern given many drivers' tendency to leave fog lights on 24 hours a day.
We strongly recommend the $600 four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and the $325 Infinity stereo options. We're not so sure about the sunroof, though.
On the whole, the more we drove the Sebring, the more we liked it. We also found that it became easier to go highly illegal speeds, so watch out! On the other hand, the Neon is a far, far better value if you can learn to drive a stick.
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