“A Chrysler Sebring,” I said, when my friend asked what I’d driven to the high school basketball game we were watching. “No way,” she challenged. “Way,” I trumped. I was feeling kinda frisky after the sporty drive over in Chrysler’s makeover of its popular two-door compact. My friend liked the rakish looks of the car, although she first suspected that it was, “you know, that fancy big one”Chrysler’s 300M sedan. Chrysler should be pleased that its persistent efforts at building a discernible image for its family of aggressively styled autos are obviously paying dividends. In its press materials, Chrysler specifically draws attention to “a rear appearance that borrows from the 300M.” Well, there you go.
During my last day with the car, I’ll admit that, yes, I was hot-dogging around a bit. The Sebring coupe’s a front-driver, all right. Just the same, its tendency toward front wheelspin is minimal, even without optional traction control. So with a 24-valve V6 underhood and a crisp five-speed manual underhand, I was giving my up-level LXi tester the “banzai!” treatment on and around Edmonson Pike when I sidled up to the rear of a late-model Chevy Camaro Z28. Chrysler execs will probably appreciate knowing that Mr. Z-Bo here started acting a little defensive all off a sudden. Seems he didn’t like me sniffing around. The more we tagged around together, the more defiantly he tried to put his 300 horses to work shutting me down with my scrappy 200. I just happened to be nimbler in traffic and through the corners, that’s all. Before he could spank me in a legitimate straightaway shoot-out, I just double-clutch downshifted from fourth to second and peeled off into a sinister twisty lane with a fanfare of squealing exultation. No way a secretary car like this Sebring could elicit such a reaction from the driver of an acknowledged street rat like the Z28, you say? Way, I say.
Why, I’ll admit, is tougher to explain. Certainly, as my anecdotes attest, Sebring looks the stunner with its kicked-up boo-tay rear end and “bottom-breather chrome surround grille” up front, to poach Chrysler’s own unfortunate mouthful of marketing mush. Anyone who’s ever goofed off on a Saturday afternoon conning test-drives out of unwary dealers, however, will instantly recognize that this spanking-new Sebring feels just like...a Mitsubishi. I can assure you, in fact, that Chrysler’s new sporty coupe is a dead ringer for the Mistu Eclipse. Because it is one.
More specifically, Sebring shares Mitsibitsy’s platform for both the Eclipse coupe and the Galant sedan. I have tender feeling for both of these cars, understand, so I don’t find anything particularly compromising about Sebring’s share of their creditable pedigree. But there is something at least psychologically distracting about driving along in a vaunted new car, taking stock of its quirks and character, wondering what it is that’s so darned recognizable about the experience, whenschbri-i-i-ngthe sense of Sebring’s novelty is eclipsed by the realization that here’s a gallant impostor. Yes, way.
But hold on a minute. No self-respecting Z28 partisan would behave upside a Mitsyclipsy as he did against me and my Sebring; so there must be something else going on with Chrysler’s new coupe. For one thing, Sebring’s size, its general karma, even its price place it squarely within the enthusiast-oriented pony car category defined by the all-American trio of Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and Pontiac Firebird.
The V6 versions of all three of these stalwarts produce nearly identical power200 HP apiece for the GM ponies, 190 HP for Mustang. That’s puny compared to the V8s, of course; the rare 385-horse Mustang Cobra R and the current 310-horse Chevy Z28/Firebird Trans/Am are ground-pounding muscle cars of original vintage. But since their heyday, sales of traditional, heavy-metal muscle carsparticularly GM’shave dropped like a stone. And those that do make it out of the showroom are mostly V6s. Plus, it’s only the V6s that bright young things on a budget can afford to insure. These cars aren’t dubbed “secretary cars” for nothing. Now, with Sebring throwing its hat into the corral, even a Z28 owner can be expected to hope that the arrival of new breeding stock might reinvigorate the pony car herd.
Sebring’s a front-driver, of course; but these days, only purists will notice or care. Inside, the five-passenger layout is snug with a full contingent of companions, but Sebring is a party barge compared to GM’s F-body, as the joint Camaro and Firebird platform is called. Getting into and out of the rear seats is the greatest challenge with any coupe. The Sebring works better in this regard than its GM rivals, but its strategy for racking the front passenger seat fore and aft is less articulate than Mustang’s.
Where Sebring shines, at least to my taste, is in its lightness of foot in the handling department, combined with a lively overhead cam motor that outrevs the Ford and GM pushrod V6s designed for more torque. What I like most about the Mitsubishi powertrain in the Sebring is its smooth but deliberate manual shifter. Once you find and memorize that sweet-spot where the engine’s powerband and the transmission’s gear ratios kiss, Sebring’s LXi coupe will positively seduce even a jaded old muscle car hack.
Perhaps this front-drive Sebring is the pony car for the wireless and dot.com crowd that never heard of a rotary phone or black-and-white TV. It’s different from, and in some ways better than, the traditional pony cars heading out to pasture. It definitely put a schpring in my step for a week. But even with its roadracer’s complement of four-wheel independent suspension, 24-valve power, and disc brakes all ’round, Chrysler’s Mitsubishi-derived Sebring LXi coupe is pretty far from being a genuine, American-bred original. Way, long way.
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