(first posted 2/21/2017) When Chrysler launched its rear-wheel-drive 300 in 2005, it was an immediate success and not just in North America. Despite (or rather, because of) its brash American styling and large dimensions, the 300 successfully grabbed market share in places that were usually averse to large American sedans, like Europe and Australia. There were high expectations for the redesigned 2007 Sebring to both arrest the nameplate’s sales slide in North America and, with its more manageable dimensions, appeal to consumers throughout the globe like the 300 had done. The Sebring wouldn’t meet either goal.
It’s easy to blast the Sebring for having abysmal interior quality, unrefined and weak engines and ungainly styling. But let’s talk about what the Sebring did right.
Umm. Uhh. Give me a second here…
Oh! It had heated and cooled cupholders. It was also styled in a very distinctive fashion. In a market full of bland Camcords, that was an accomplishment. Unfortunately, the styling cues borrowed from the 2003 Airflite concept translated much better to the lithe Crossfire than they did to the larger Chrysler JS platform. And even the sporty little Crossfire wasn’t universally praised for its styling. Uh-oh.
I remember when the Sebring launched in Australia. We don’t get too many American cars here other than SUVs—during the 1990s and early 2000s, the only passenger cars we received were the 1996 Ford Taurus, Ford Probe, Chrysler Neon and Voyager and (briefly) the Ford Mustang. As a high-schooler who was becoming more and more interested in American cars, I was excited about the launch of the Sebring and its platform-mate, the Dodge Avenger.
I even went to the local Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealer to check out the Sebring and the Avenger. The first thing I noticed was how bizarrely proportioned the Sebring was. While the Avenger looked relatively chunky and masculine, if a bit too tall, the Sebring was stylistically all over the place.
The hood strakes were rather gauche but the headlights were neat and reminiscent of both the Crossfire and the Airflite concept. Alas, that front bumper stuck out like a bad overbite and the hood and the cowl looked much too high.
Moving to the side, things got worse. While the almost fastback-style rear deck is a common look on intermediates today, it was awkward on the Sebring as the front overhang appeared longer than the rear. That high hood line and cowl made the side look wonky and ill at ease with the swoopy roofline. The Sebring looked smaller than it was—whether that was a good or a bad thing is up to you.
Finally, the rear. Those taillights could be seen from the International Space Station and the licence plate surround mimicked them for reasons unknown.
I don’t usually dedicate multiple paragraphs of an article to the styling foibles of a car. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s Gremlin is another man’s Gran Turismo. However, I was someone who really wanted to like the Sebring and yet I found that every time I looked at one, I saw something else wrong with its looks. Even this featured Limited, with its attractive alloy wheels and black paint, is more cubist than futurist.
The convertible shared the sedan’s garish strakes and overbite but was at least blessed with better proportions.
When I stepped into that Sebring at the dealership, I was even more displeased with the interior. The design itself was attractive, almost Art Deco in its detailing. The use of tortoiseshell on the upscale Limited model recalled the larger 300 and the two-tone treatment on the seats helped brighten the interior up. But take a look at how the stereo is just plonked down in the center stack, its black plastic clashing poorly with the preponderance of silver metallic trim. The seats were flat, hard, slippery and shiny. Worse still was the actual material quality—this was the worst-quality interior I had sat in since my sister’s old first-generation Kia Rio. I’m talking Fisher-Price grade plastic here and I’m not even being hyperbolic. The Avenger was even worse—the same poor quality materials with a blander design and, on base models, virtually no brightwork. Blech!
If I had test-driven the Sebring, I would have probably been more disappointed. Several years later, I rented a 2013 Chrysler 200, the heavily redesigned version of this Sebring. Despite massive improvements to the interior and the exterior, the 200 retained the base 2.4 World Engine with 173 hp and 166 ft-lbs. And it was loud, thrashy and unrefined, and really detracted from the rest of the driving experience. The 2011 redesign tidied up the handling, which was rather soft in Sebring guise, with ample body roll. Australian and European-market models employed a firmer suspension tune that improved handling somewhat over North American Sebrings. What a shame the base engine was so charmless, not to mention mated to an old-tech four-speed auto.
Sebring shoppers in both North America and Australia could upgrade to an optional 2.7 V6 to give their ears a break. Gas mileage went down from 21/29 (24 combined) mpg to 19/27 (22 combined) mpg. Oh, if only it had the extra power to make the higher price and lower fuel economy worth it! The venerable 2.7 mustered only 189 hp and 191 ft-lbs of torque, pretty hopeless numbers in a world of 268 horsepower Camrys. Again, the only transmission was a four-speed automatic, although Aussie buyers were spared this transmission and instead given a six-speed automatic.
Probably its best angle, but how often would you look at it from up here?
If you wanted anything near Camry/Accord/Altima/Malibu V6 power, you had to go all the way up to the top-spec Limited V6 with its 3.5 mill (not available in Australia) with only 235 hp and 232 ft-lbs, 30-40 hp and ft-lbs less than those rivals and around a second slower from 0-60 (7.7 seconds). Fuel economy was pretty rubbish too, with an EPA-estimated 16/26 (19 combined) mpg. So not only was the most expensive engine option weaker than its rivals’ optional V6s, it was thirstier too. Chrysler offered a Limited variant with all-wheel-drive and the 3.5 V6 in 2008. It had absolutely abysmal fuel economy (15/24 mpg) and it sold like bibles in a whorehouse. Just 0.7% of 2008 Sebrings came in the V6/AWD specification and it was quickly dropped.
How most Sebrings looked: the base LX. Photo courtesy of Schaumburg Motor Cars
The Sebring went nowhere in Australia and, despite the availability of a Volkswagen-sourced 2.0 diesel four and a 6-speed manual in Europe, it sold poorly there as well. Even in its homeland, it flopped—while sales ticked upwards for its debut year, from around 69k units to 93k, they slid dramatically. By 2009, with Chrysler in crisis and the global economy floundering, the Sebring was down to just 27,460 sales. Considering in the early 2000s it was selling over 100,000 units a year, this was a disaster. The Sebring was nowhere near as popular with private buyers as the 300, which also meant most of these sales were to fleets or heavily incentivized.
The Avenger didn’t sell much better during this time, which shows it wasn’t just the Sebring’s unfortunate styling that sunk it. Reliability was worse than many rivals, particularly those from Japanese makes. Assembly and material quality were subpar. The powertrains were disappointing. You could also probably blame buyer scepticism of the flagging Chrysler Corporation, although it’s worth noting the moribund Pontiac G6 from similarly beleaguered General Motors sold well over 100k units per year. And while the redesigned and renamed 2011 200 retained the thrashy base engine, it was otherwise so much better in every way that sales soared back up to 100k+ annual units.
If the Sebring had looked like a mini-300, as some initial styling studies did, it might have sold better. Part of the allure of the 300 was its large size and available V8 engines but a large percentage of those sold were humble V6 models and, in overseas markets, diesels. But really, if the 300 had looked like a Camry, it probably would have flopped badly in Europe and Australia. Its square-jawed, chop-top, expensive and expressive styling was what really made it sell, even if its interior was little better than a Sebring’s. If Chrysler designers had, at the very least, given the Sebring styling like the 300, it might have been more successful both at home and abroad. Instead, its abundance of curves and swoops and strakes all pointed downwards. Like its sales.