(first posted 3/16/2016) Just like Oldsmobile and their proliferation of various, vastly different from one another Cutlass models, Chrysler was also guilty of this same-name frenzy, first with its LeBaron and New Yorker nameplates, and then with the Sebring. Much like later Cutlasses, the final Sebring sedans left more than just a unique name in the way of desire.
Recycling the name of a trim level used on the Plymouth Satellite in the early-’70s, the first Chrysler Sebring arrived mid-way through the 1995 model year in the form of a fixed-roof coupe, as replacement for the 1993 LeBaron coupe. Built by Diamond Star Motors, Chrysler’s manufacturing joint-venture with Mitsubishi, the 1995 Sebring coupe and its Dodge Avenger sibling were mechanically related to the Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon, as well as the Mitsubishi Galant, from which their platform was derived from. Due to these circumstances, the Sebring and Avenger coupes shared little in common with non-DSM Mopar products.
With the LeBaron convertible ending production in 1995, it came as somewhat a surprise that its in-house, Chrysler-engineered successor also wore the Sebring badge, despite no mechanical or visual relation to the coupe. Could it be that Chrysler was just following the pattern of having its mid-size coupe and convertible share the same name?
Alternatively, it’s been suggested that naming the JX convertible “Sebring” was a move made in response to the Sebring coupe’s low demand. Thus, Chrysler could lump all Sebring coupe and convertible sales together for reporting purposes. Whatever the reason, it would have made more logical sense to name the convertible “Cirrus”, as it rode on a modified Cirrus chassis, and shared a large number of components with the Cirrus sedan.
In any event, the Sebring coupe, Sebring convertible, and Cirrus sedan continued on this way, unchanged through the 2000 model year. Depending on how you look at it, Chrysler’s decision to rename the Cirrus sedan “Sebring” for its second generation either made things significantly less confusing or much more confusing.
Riding on an updated version of the Cirrus’ JA platform now known as the JR, the Sebring sedan continued Chrysler’s evolution of cab-forward design language, although styling was somewhat blander and overall less pretty than the Cirrus. Unlike the larger LH, whose variants were each given dramatic redesigns for their second generations, the JA’s transition to JR was far less riveting.
With sleek yet blunter noses than their predecessors, all Sebrings sedans initially featured fierce wide bumper-located grilles à la Concorde, a design feature unfortunately marred by most states’ mandated front license plates. A small air intake below the Chrysler winged badge and large tiger eyed headlights completed the Sebring’s aggressive front end.
Moving along the sides, the sedan’s sheetmetal was fairly slab-sided and straight edged, with little in the way of body contour or character lines. Prominent wheel arches thankfully added a bit of aggressiveness and three-dimensional effect to the largely cookie cutter profile. Sebring cabins were made spacious and airy by the car’s arching roofline and steeply raked windshields, a Cab Forward hallmark.
Spaciousness aside, those cabins, were not to most splendid place to spend time, something I can attest from my experiences as a passenger in these Sebrings. When my mom was having work done on her Jeep in 2003, the dealer gave her a gold Sebring LX sedan for the duration, which lasted about 2 weeks. One of my friends in high school also owned an sea green ’06 LX sedan, that I frequently rode in.
Recalling both of these experiences, the things that stand out are considerable NVH, front seats that were uncomfortably low to the ground, and poor a HVAC system. And that’s not even taking into consideration the senses of sight and touch.
Predictable of the Daimler-Chrysler era, material quality was poor, with most components comprised of hard and hollow grained plastics. In terms of design, the Sebring’s dashboard was a incohesive nightmare of square and round shapes that came across as a cut-rate attempt at invoking the art deco vibe of the LHS/300M and PT Cruiser interiors. Despite a new shape, the overall interior layout was identical to the JA, with the same low center console and shifter.
Wood trim, despite its obvious fakeness, at least added some much needed contrast and warmth to the otherwise stark cabin. On a creative note, the placement of the wood trim did invoke the shape of the winged Chrysler logo, albeit in a squared-off manner. As with other Chryslers, timepiece-inspired analogue gauges attempted at adding an upscale, retro aura.
Sebring sedans initially came in two flavors, the base LX and the better-appointed LXi. For its introductory year, Sebring LX standard items included manual air conditioning, manual adjusting front seats, power windows, AM/FM cassette stereo, cloth upholstery, driver’s adjustable lumbar support, 15-inch wheels with wheel covers, and simulated wood interior trim.
LXi models added features including Chrysler’s Autostick allowing for manual gear selection, remote keyless entry, 16-inch allow wheels, CD player, 8-way power driver’s seat, leather wrapped steering wheel and gear shifter, and chrome interior door handles. Leather upholstery and heated seats were available. Coinciding with a face-lifted front end, new trim levels were implemented in 2004, consisting of an unnamed base model, mid-level Touring, and up-level Limited.
Taking a name out of the Eagle page of Chrysler’s history book, 2005 brought a sport-oriented TSi model, which added a performance suspension, genuine matte wood interior trim, aero kit and rear lip spoiler, and a two-tone leather upholstery pattern. An in-dash navigation system was also available on Limited and TSi sedans from 2005-2006.
Powering Sebring sedans was either one of two engine choices, both mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Found in the base LX model, the dual-overhead cam 2.4L I4 produced 150 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque. Optional in the LX and standard in LXi models was a dual-overhead cam 2.7L V6, making 200 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque. The same engine found in the Chrysler Concorde/Dodge Intrepid, the 2.7L quickly earned a poor reputation for reliability, with several common problems ultimately leading to a class action lawsuit against Chrysler.
Regardless of engine, all Sebring sedans featured four-wheel independent suspensions, consisting of a double-wishbone front and a multilink rear. An anti-roll bar was standard in the front, optional for the rear. Four-wheel disc brakes were standard across the board, with anti-lock brakes, traction control, and side curtain airbags all optional.
In the mid-’90s, Chrysler was on a roll and it seemed like things were only going to get better. Although products such as the Cirrus weren’t without flaws, compared to their predecessors they were huge leaps forward in terms of development and production efficiency, design, handling, powertrains, and overall refinement.
Then came the Daimler takeover, which pretty much put the kibosh on a continued level of progress and enthusiasm in Chrysler vehicles. Cars like this Sebring sedan were little more than an old Cirrus with a new name and new clothes. Despite new sheetmetal and some improvements here and there, in terms of overall competitiveness and advancement, the 2001-2006 Sebring didn’t offer buyers much more than the 1995-2000 Cirrus did, and compared to class leaders, the Sebring was an even more woeful model.
That’s not to say that the Sebring didn’t have its strong points. Compared to similar sized models from domestic makes such as Mercury and Buick, the Sebring boasted higher style, a less numbing driving experience, a wider range of trim levels aimed at specific buyers, as well as few unique features such as navigation and Autostick. Unfortunately, Daimler-Chrysler’s cost cutting and lack of investment in crucial products for the Chrysler brand were all too apparent. Any forward strides made by the Cirrus in this segment were lost, and the gap between Chrysler and mid-size industry leaders once again widened, putting Chrysler at a greater disadvantage.