Convertible option helps keep aging midsize in the game

by: CHRYSLER GROUP, LLC - New styling gives Chrysler 200 a more mature look, inlcuding the convertible version.At first glance, when Fiat bought into Chrysler a few years ago, reintroducing the Fiat 500 to the American market seemed like the new company’s biggest challenge. After all, it has been decades since the Italian subcompact had been sold in this country, and reliability problems had given it a bad reputation back then.

But in fact, deciding what to do with the Chrysler Sebring and corporate sibling Dodge Avenger was probably a bigger challenge. The modernize Fiat 500 was introduced when gas prices were soaring and the BMW Mini had already proven there was a market for small, fun foreign cars. But the midsize Sebring and Avenger were still around and generally considered to be boring and cheaply-built — best suited for rental cars, not family-owned vehicles.

The one exception was the convertible version of the Sebring. Although also considered a lackluster performer, it was one of the few affordable convertibles on the market and had found favor with sun worshippers on a budget.

Still, as the 2011 model year approached, the new Chrysler-Fiat company had to decide what to do with the two models. To the surprise of practically every automotive writer, they invested a ton of money in them. Improvements included upgraded interiors, better suspensions, more sound-dampening insulation and a new optional engine, the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that was proving successful in other company vehciles.

Even more surprising, the improvements worked, making tremendous differences in both vehicles. The Sebring was reconceived as the Chrysler 200, sort of a younger brother of the popular full size Chrysler 300, which was also thoroughly upgraded. The Dodge Avenger kept its name but was transformed into a much more road-worthy vehicle.

Another smart choice was keeping the convertible version of the Chrysler 200, the subject of this week’s review. It is still one of the few affordable convertibles on the market. The top lowers electrically in just a few seconds, with the trunk lid pivoting up and then down to completely conceal it. The arrangement reduces usable trunk space, of course, but that’s true for every retractable convertible.

Very few changes were made to the Chrysler 200 after 2011, and for good reason as we discovered during a week of driving. It offered a well-composed ride and good acceleration with the optional V6. Though not exactly sporty, it managed rough road surfaces well and easily handled freeway speeds, including passing, thanks to the responsive six-speed transmission.

With the top up, the car was remarkably quiet and well insulated against the weather. And with the top down, it offered all the joys of open-air motoring, incuding excellent visibility and just a little turbulenance with the side windows down — and hardly any with the windows up.

The exterior styling was also greatly cleaned up. The grooved hood and awkward rear end that characterized the Sebring was replaced with cleaner, more sedate sheet metal. The result is a more mature looking car, which it actually is.

The interior is also greatly improved over the previous Sebring models, which were awash in hard plastic surfaces. The new design is clean and well fitted, with soft plastic and touches of leather improving the feel. The heated front cloth bucket seats were well padded and comfortable, and the controls were easy to finds and operate.

In fact, just about the only reminder of the car’s Sebring heritage was noticeable torque steer during sharp turns, including u-turns. That’s probably the result of the Pentastar V6 being more powerful than the V6 it replaced.

Because it is mechanically similar, the 2012 Dodge Avenger drives about the same. A convertible version is not available, but a performance-oriented R/T model was released this year that features 18-inch wheels, more responsive steering and a sport-tuned suspension.

The base Chrysler 200 sedan begins at around $19,000, while the two-door convertible version starts at about $27,000. Our well-equipped Touring model was around $30,000.

Both the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger face intense competition in the midsize car market, especially from the heavily revised Ford Fusion, the practically all-new Toyota Camry, and South Korea’s popular Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. But the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger are both worth considering, especially the convertible and R/T models, which is all the more impressive considering how they were viewed before their 2011 transformations.

And none of the popular competitors are availlable as a convertible.

Facts and figures (all models)

Model tested: 2012 200C.

Manufacturer: Chrysler.

Class: Compact sedan and convertible (as tested).

Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

Style: Four-door hardtop and two-door convertible.

Engine: 2.4-liter inline 4 cylinder (173 hp, 166 lb-ft); 3.6-liter V6 (283 hp, 260 lb-ft – as tested).

Transmissions: Four-speed automatic; Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode – as tested.

EPA estimated city/highway/average mileage: (engine/transmission): 21/30/24 (2.4/four-speed); 19/29/22 (3.6/six-speed – as tested).

Price: Beginning at approximately $19,000 ($30,070 as tested).

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