Midsize family sedans might not enthrall enthusiasts, but they constitute a massive portion of the market - one that's expected to grow as more and more families realize that a big SUV doesn't seem quite as practical as it once did. Nearly every major automaker fields something in the $20,000 to $35,000 range that qualifies as some sort of sedan capable of ferrying families from point A to point B and, as one would expect, interpretations of this mission vary widely. It was with this in mind that we decided to take a look at Chrysler's still fresh Sebring sedan.
Family-haulers have been part of the market since the first passenger vehicle prowled unpaved roads more than 100 years ago. In the last fifty years, suburban garages have been filled with Clark Griswold-friendly station wagons, cupholder-crazy minivans, rough and tough SUVs and, most recently, so-called crossovers that sit drivers up high but still manage to drive something like cars. Yet despite these fluctuations in designs, the standard three-box sedan has persevered. Some veer towards luxury and some veer towards sport, yet most meet somewhere in the middle ground that resonates with middle America.
And that middle ground is just where you'll find the Chrysler Sebring. Not ostentatious by any measure, the Sebring represents a comfortable vanilla flavor that apparently continues to ring true for many mainstream buyers.
What is it?
The Sebring is Chrysler's entry into the ultra-crowded midsize family sedan market. It can actually trace its lineage back to Chrysler's K-cars of the 1980s, though of course the 2008 Sebring shares nothing with that reliant automobile. The Sebring starts out just under $19,000, with our mid-level test Touring a step up the ladder from the plastic hubcap, four-banger base model.
The Sebring is closely related to the slightly sportier, at least visually, Dodge Avenger sedan and it also shares a platform with the Dodge Journey crossover. Chrysler offers the Sebring with all-wheel-drive on top-end Limited models (starting around $27,500) and in convertible versions with folding ragtops and steel tops (we'll soon be reviewing a folding metal hardtop convertible). These two variants help set the Sebring apart from the mainstream - but what we've tested is the volume model that you're much more likely to see tucked away in garages across America.
As Leftlane reviewer Mark Elias stated in his recent Mitsubishi Galant review, this is such a competitive section of the market that it takes a lot to truly stand out. An also-ran will fade to obscurity.
What's it up against?
The Sebring goes up against perennial best-sellers Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, as well as the sporty Mazda Mazda6 and Subaru Legacy, the value-laden, upscale Chevrolet Malibu, the stylish Volkswagen Passat, the smooth Hyundai Sonata and the Euro-inspired Saturn Aura. This is tough company as each of these offers something unique to the marketplace, whether it's sport, serenity, design or engineering. Buyers can spend a lifetime test-driving everything in this market, but few do. Usually only a handful of cars that truly stand out make shoppers' shortlists.
Not on our humble front-wheel-drive Touring test car other than that a relatively inexpensive tester was equipped with the optional albeit pricey MyGig multimedia system - a pleasant surprise. We've enjoyed the user-friendly and advanced system in the past, especially its seamless Bluetooth integration and high-quality display. MyGig really sets the standard for in-car multimedia.
A glimpse at the available options list reveals available heated and cooled cupholders, an option sure to ring true with soft drink-guzzling Americans, but as they were not installed on our test model, we can't comment on their usefulness.
How does it look?
Chrysler was no doubt hoping to follow up on the 300's phenomenal success at its 2004 launch when the redesigned Sebring, the 300's smaller brother, hit the market for the 2007 model year. Instead of keeping with the 300's blocky, hunkered-down shape as many in the motoring press anticipated, the Sebring's design language shares more in common with its cab-forward predecessor and the Mercedes-Benz SLK-based Crossfire.
The end result is what we'd call a confused design. The tapered tail doesn't seem to match the elongated front fascia or the upright side profile and greenhouse. Adding to the confusion, the hood features ribs running up and down it like in the recently discontinued Crossfire. The Sebring does stand out in this segment by not looking boring - ahem, Camry - though its mix of styles didn't really appeal to us. The 17 inch alloy wheels on our test model looked a little small inside the wheel wells, which appear larger than they are thanks to flat, vertical wheel arches.
And on the inside?
Let's get this out of the way first: The cloth seats on the Sebring Touring we tested stand out as the least comfortable butt-planting devices we've ever had the displeasure of sitting in. Even with the adjustable lumbar support pushed all the way in, the seat still felt like it was designed by the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not all backs are built the same, of course, but seats - especially those with adjustable lumbar - need to be designed to fit a wide range of bodies, not one particular type that prefers gobs of lumbar support. You sit on these seats, not in them.
Otherwise, the interior was a reasonably pleasant place to spend time. Materials were generally attractive and pleasing, though not as upscale or inspiring as you might find in the Malibu or Mazda6. Chrysler uses a unique textured plastic on the door tops and the center console that we don't find objectionable, though we do wish there were a few more storage bins in the interior other than one ashtray-shaped bin in front of the gear lever and a two-tiered armrest box. The dash itself is flat and tilted slightly away from the passengers and it features three simple rotary knobs for climate control and the aforementioned MyGig audio system with navigation. The Sebring uses lots of silver-painted plastic throughout, a trendy design we're seeing way too much of these days.
The driving position is acceptable, though our test car didn't feature a power adjustable seat. A thick, slightly misshapen urethane steering wheel (leather-wrapped on the Sebring Touring for 2009) sits in front of the driver and three clear gauge pods show black-on-white instruments that feature Indiglo-style lighting at night. They're a bit bright at night for us, but many people we've talked to like them, so we're willing to accept that our opinion might not be shared by all. Overhead, the Sebring features four positionable LED map lights that bathe the interior in bluish-white light, a unique twist compared to the soft incandescent bulbs we are used to seeing.
Climbing aboard is difficult for rear passengers thanks to tall and wide door sills. Rear seat room is small given the large exterior dimensions, though at least passengers get a folding armrest. The stain-resistant Yes! cloth upholstery in our Sebring seemed tough and appeared to be resisting wear well on our higher-mileage press car. Storage-wise, the Sebring's trunk is sufficient and the liftover isn't too high, though it's too bad that you have to touch the outside of the potentially dirty trunk lid to shut it as there's no handle.
Our sparsely equipped test example offered little in the way of luxuries or surprises, but at under $23,000 (ignoring the pricey MyGig), there aren't really any glaring omissions - and the 2009s get Chrysler's brilliant spoke-back radio controls on the newly leather-wrapped steering wheel.
But does it go?
With the optional, mid-level 190-horsepower 2.7 liter V6 and a four-speed automatic, our Sebring wasn't much of a rubber burner. It provided adequate performance around town but felt a little lacking during highway passing. At lower rpm, it felt downright anemic, but above 2,500 rpm, it was considerably more sprightly. Chrysler offers a 235-horsepower 3.5 liter V6 as a pricey $1,550 option for the Limited model. A 172-horsepower four-cylinder is standard fare and we imagine it would struggle to move the Sebring.
Chrysler uses a dated four-speed automatic that shifts firmer than we'd have expected for what is ultimately intended to be a relaxing car. We're fans of firm shifting automatic transmissions that don't slop into gear like syrup, but we know that this market segment might be turned off by a harsher transmission. Still, despite its gear deficit, the four-speed typically kept the V6 in the proper rev-range for reasonable power.
At idle, the engine puts out a four-banger-like thrum that can be felt through the steering wheel and the seats and under duress it gets thrashy and unrefined. Otherwise, the Sebring is serene at speed with little wind intrusion or road noise from its Bridgestone Turanza tires. Chrysler says the 2009s have reworked sound insulation that should quell the underhood racket under acceleration.
Those Bridgestones don't hold up well under aggressive driving, however. One turn of the wheel and you'll realize that corner-carving handling isn't one of the Sebring's virtues - and neither will pedestrians thanks to the tires' cries. The steering is almost devoid of road feel, though at least steering effort is high enough. The heavy car porpoises in curves, leaning excessively and not enjoying correction. We weren't inclined to push the Sebring very hard in corners, but driven like most people actually drive their cars, it's fine. The ride is compliant, especially over rough pavement where a stiff structure and soft suspension help quell even the worst the department of public works has to offer.
Even though the Sebring wasn't meant to be a performance car, buyers should be aware of its handling deficits that will reveal themselves in accident-avoidance manuevers. A well-buttoned car will react smoothly and predictably to sudden changes in direction. The '09s come with standard stability control on Touring models, so this concern of ours should be partially erased.
Why you would buy it:
You're looking for a soft-riding, unique-looking, comfortable sedan at a reasonable price.
Why you wouldn't:
Chrysler's Sebring makes no effort to be a performance car, so enthusiasts should look elsewhere. It's conservative and does little to stand out in the market, but that might appeal to many shoppers.
2008 Chrysler Sebring Touring sedan base price, $19,865. As tested, $24,515.
Light sandstone metallic paint, $150; four-wheel disc brakes, $50; 2.7 liter V6, $1,350; Power sunroof, $775; MyGig mulitmedia system with navigation and Bluetooth, $1,635; Destination, $690.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.