- Helping you drive happy



By ,

PALM SPRINGS: For maximum consumer effect, this story should be in the travel section - if there were one - of this august Web site, probably as a feature item in the section on California holidays.

After all, the way most of the world will experience the Chrysler Sebring convertible will be as a rental car, most likely for the drive between LA and San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway. Indeed, if you used the traffic on the Highway One near Big Sur for your data base, you would probably conclude that the Chrysler Sebring convertible is - hands down - the best-selling car in the world. You would of course be way, way wrong, but this should not reflect badly on the particular charms of the Sebring convertible, particularly when it's doing duty on North America's greatest drive.

If I were able to pick and choose between all the vehicles in the world to tool around the Golden State in (and I pretty much am), the Sebring ragtop would be near the top of my list. There are also some ragtops from BMW and Chevrolet and Jaguar and Porsche and Mercedes-Benz that would make for some great two-person fun, so they'd be up there, too. But if I wanted to haul four real adults around to enjoy maximum California in comfort and style, the Sebring would be at the very top, just ahead of a Saab 9.3 and the Toyota Solara.

Now, you are not to get the impression from this that the Sebring convertible is suitable only for use in places like California, where people have to be reminded to put the top up on a regular basis to ensure that it keeps its shape and doesn't discolor. The truth is that the Sebring convertible does a great job of giving you top-down performance wherever and whenever that's feasible.

What's more interesting for those of us in the Great White North is that the Sebring droptop is even better suited than it used to be at handling our weather. Most importantly, the top will go down as easily in Alberta as it will in Calfornia. This may even be more important to Edmontonians than it is to Palm Springsters (?), since those of us lucky enough to live north of The World's Most Self-Involved Country really need to be able to soak up those rays when we can.

It's this ray-soaking thing that's at the heart of each and every convertible, and it must be plainly stated that each and every convertible is just as good at providing it. It's only when it goes beyond the ability to contribute to skin cancer development (sorry, that was my ultra-honest nanny side breaking out) that ragtops differ. All ragtop bodies twist to some degree (think of a cookie tin without its lid), so the trick is minimizing it without adding all kinds of extra weight in braces and stuff. On this score Chrysler has done an excellent job, since there's even less twist in the 2001 Sebring than there was in the previous model, which was pretty darn good itself.

The result is a car that's extremely stiff and extremely quiet with the roof up. Not quiet like the sedans of today, of course, but quiet like the sedans of 10 years ago. So going six months without putting the roof down will not drive you crazy.

You also don't have to be too patient with the Sebring convertible when it's top is up and remember how great it is in the summer, since it works pretty well as a softtop coupe. Four people can ride in it at any time, and there's room for a certain amount of stuff in the trunk. The interior is bigger than it was on the previous model, says Chrysler, and so is the luggage space.

The 2.5-litre V6 is gone for 2001, replaced by a 2.7-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V6 that delivers 32 more horsepower and 22 more pound-feet of torque than its predecessor. It also gets nearly 10 better fuel economy and is designed to operate on regular fuel, not the premium fuel its predecessor used. With its peak power points of 200 horsepower at 5900 rpm and 192 pound-feet of torque at 4300 rpm, the Sebring Convertible will satisfy a lot of those primal urges to peel out. Okay, there may not be actual peeling in the sense of rubber left on the road, but it's quick.

So it's bearable with the top up. With the top down, most people seem to lose that need to go fast all the time, so it doesn't matter.

You can even toss the Sebring Convertible a surprising amount, as I discovered on the twisties headed up into the mountains south of the desert here, headed towards Idlewyld and back to Banning. The suspension's been tweaked to provide more comfort and better handling, as befits the situation, and the brakes have been improved. But, again, performance issues aren't a big priority with ragtop owners.

Sebring comes in three trims - LX at $33,595, LXi at $35,750, and Limited at $37,665 - and each is fairly well equipped.

The base car gets air conditioning, a power driver seat, power windows with driver auto down, a power top with four-window-down feature, folding heated mirrors, power decklid release, remote keyless illuminated entry with panic button, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers, electric rear window defrost, AM/FM cassette, illuminated visor mirrors, locking glove box and console, and front and rear floor mats.

Go to a more expensive trim, of course, and the equipment levels also go up.

No matter where you drive the Chrysler Sebring Convertible, then, or no matter the weather, you can expect a very pleasant and competent experience, as a purchase or as a rental.