Curbside Classic: 1995-2000 Chrysler Sebring Coupe – With Seats Available In Soft Jaeger Cloth

(first posted 12/12/2017)       What was the first-generation Sebring coupe? It wasn’t a direct rival for cars like the Toyota Celica and Honda Prelude, lacking any pretension of sportiness while boasting a rather spacious cabin for four adults. It wasn’t a direct rival for the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry coupes, as it wore a different name to Chrysler’s mid-size sedan, the Cirrus, and had its own distinctive styling. No, the Sebring coupe was a Cordoba for a new era.

While Ford and GM were producing plenty of V6 Thunderbirds and bench seat-equipped Monte Carlos, there was almost always the lure of extra performance or sportiness in cars like the Thunderbird Super Coupe and Monte Carlo Z34. Not so for the Chrysler Sebring Coupe and its platform-mate, the Dodge Avenger.

Underneath these coupes’ shapely sheet metal was the Mitsubishi Galant’s platform, the Mopar coupes sharing the Galant’s 103.7-inch wheelbase. However, while the mechanically related Eagle Talon offered all-wheel-drive and turbocharged engines, the larger Sebring and Avenger were available with only two engines. The 2.0 four-cylinder in the base coupes was shared with the Talon and Dodge Neon, and produced 140 hp at 6000 rpm and 130 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm. The upgrade engine was a Mitsubishi-sourced 2.5 V6 producing 163 hp at 5800 rpm and 170 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm. A four-speed automatic was available in both, but you could only get the 5-speed stick with the 2.0. Not very sporty.

The Avenger was a rather puzzling replacement for the defunct Daytona, considering its aggressive name, relatively sporty styling, yet underwhelming engines. After all, the Daytona had a long history of offering punchy turbocharged engines, culminating in the wild IROC R/T. Painted in red and photographed with the rest of the Dodge passenger cars, most of which had styling elements inspired by the Viper halo car, the Avenger looked like it fit in with the 1990s coupe world.

The Sebring leaned into Chrysler’s long history of plush, upper mid-market cars, as did the Sebring convertible that was introduced in 1997. Despite vaguely similar styling, the convertible was based on the Chrysler Cirrus and therefore shared virtually nothing with the coupe other than the optional Mitsubishi 2.5 V6. Conceptually, however, the coupe and convertible were similar.

1995-97 Sebring coupes carried a very Dodge-esque crosshair grille. This was, of course, a heritage throwback to the letter-series Chrysler 300s – in fact, the Sebring coupe was originally planned to be called 300 – but the last time the crosshair was used on a Chrysler was, yes, on a Cordoba (the 1980-81 LS).

Space efficiency and fuel economy were, naturally, a lot better than the Cordobas of yore. So was handling, the Sebring coupe comporting itself well in the curves but retaining a compliant ride thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension.

Chrysler’s advertising touted the Sebring as following the “Goldilocks principle”—as spacious as a luxury coupe without being as expensive, as capable dynamically as a sport coupe without riding as harshly, while offering a rear seat that could actually seat adults. There was no overt messaging about the Sebring being sporty, instead Chrysler’s advertising highlighted how sensible a purchase it was.

The base Sebring was a not-insignificant $2k higher than the base Avenger. But that extra outlay netted you standard air-conditioning and anti-lock brakes, which were only optional on the base Avenger. Otherwise, the two were similarly-equipped, with standard dual airbags, power steering, electric mirrors, and a split-fold rear seat. Opting for the Sebring LXi got you an upgraded suspension, the V6 engine, four-wheel disc brakes, cruise control, and power windows and locks. To justify its $2k premium over the Avenger ES, the LXi offered an 8-speaker Infinity sound system and keyless entry. All Sebring coupes also came with gigantic fog lights as standard.

Initially, the base coupe and LXi retailed for $16,500 and $20,000. At a time when coupe sales were declining but there were still plenty available, competition was fierce for the Chrysler, particularly from Ford and GM.

It was priced right up against the Monte Carlo LS and Z34 coupes which, although larger, didn’t offer that much more useable space and had ugly interiors. The Z34, however, offered a lot more performance than the milquetoast 2.5 V6 in the Sebring. So, too, did the 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix, while also boasting curvaceous, eye-catching styling. Ford’s Thunderbird had almost all of the Sebring LXi’s equipment for $2k less and offered the option of a V8 engine. The Chevrolet Beretta was even cheaper and similarly-sized to the Sebring, but looked very old-fashioned. Finally, the Ford Probe featured Japanese engineering like the Sebring, but had less interior space and standard equipment.

The most obvious import rivals were the Honda Accord coupe and the Toyota Camry coupe. Both were rather plain to look at, very clearly resembling their sedan counterparts. That changed with the redesigned ’98 Accord coupe and the ’99 Camry Solara, which now looked much more distinct from the sedans. Even better, both the Accord coupe and Camry Solara were competitively priced and more powerful than the Sebring.

Chrysler gave the Sebring coupe a rather classy freshening in 1998, with a revised grille and the brand’s new winged badge. The two-tone exterior treatments were gone but ribbed cladding now appeared. The elegant proportions remained unmarred and the Sebring now looked more at home in showrooms next to the dramatic new Concorde and LHS.

A pity the interior used such naff fake wood trim, something very reminiscent of the Cordoba. At least the interior was well screwed together, even if some trim pieces weren’t as high-quality as the Accord or Solara.

Sales remained remarkably steady throughout the car’s run, selling around 30k units each year and, towards the end, outselling the Avenger. This, however, was often under half the number of Monte Carlos sold each year. As for the Accord coupe and Camry Solara, using the same name for the coupe variants of their mid-size sedans meant Honda and Toyota didn’t have to report the sales breakdown. Of the scarce data available, it appears Toyota sold 50,000 Camry Solaras in 2000. That, however, includes the convertible variant, indicating the Sebring coupe perhaps was an acceptable seller for Chrysler, especially in a declining coupe market. The Sebring also skewed more towards female buyers and brought in younger buyers to the brand.

The Sebring coupe was a Cordoba for the 1990s, offering coupe style and a tempting price. Alas, the market had moved on from personal luxury coupes, so the Sebring could never reach the dizzying heights of its ancestor’s success.

1995-97 Sebring photographed in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, NY. 1998-2000 Sebring photographed in Chelsea, Manhattan, NY.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 2005 Chrysler Sebring Coupe – A Mitsubishi In All But Name

Cohort Classic: 1990 Eagle Talon TSi AWD – The Eagle Has Landed

CC Capsule: 1996-97 Thunderbird LX – Counterpoint

Curbside Classic: 1995-99 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – Lumina Coupe Two