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2010 Chrysler Sebring: Old school in a new world

Pros and cons in the midsize market
by: ANNI TRACY, Styling splits critics but helps 2010 Chrysler look sportier than many other midsize family sedans.

The 2010 Sebring epitomizes the dilemma facing Chrysler as it works to emerge from government-ordered bankruptcy.

In many respects, the Sebring is a competent midsize family car with a dash of style. It is small enough to maneuver easily through city traffic and suburban shopping center parking lots, but roomy enough on the inside to feel like a larger car. The four-cylinder engine in our test vehicle had adequate power, while the ride was a good compromise between too stiff and too soft.

Although some reviews don't like the styling, we found the long hood, short trunk combination attractive with a hint of sportiness - especially compared to more generic-looking Japanese and South Korean competitors. The interior is clean and contemporary. Although the wood trim in our test model was not especially convincing, it added a hint of class, especially on the half-leather-wrapped steering wheel. The oval analog clock was also a nice touch.

And the optional six-speaker stereo in our test car sounded great.

In addition, the Sebring is one of the few four-passenger cars available as a convertible these days. New this year is a retractable hardtop version, a rare option for any car.

But the hard truth is, the Sebring is very outdated. Although the current version debuted in 2007, it felt old fashioned at the time and has not been updated much since then, largely because of Chrysler's ongoing financial problems. Especially compared to such thoroughly new competitors as the Suzuki Kizashi, the 2.4-liter engine in our test vehicle was noisy, the suspension occasionally made strange sounds over broken pavement and the interior materials seemed cheap.

And the Sebring only comes with a four-speed automatic transmission - a big minus compared to the six-speeds and Continuously Variable Transmissions available in most direct competitors.

All of this poses a serious challenge for Chrysler. The company's shotgun marriage with Fiat is eventually expected to result in a new generation of small, fuel-efficient cars. But in the meantime, the Sebring needs a complete overhaul to be competitive in the midsize family car market that includes the consistent class-leading Honda Civic.

And the same is true of the Sebring's corporate sibling, the boxier Dodge Avenger.

Websites operated by Chrysler fan clubs (yes, there are such things) are rife with speculation that a heavily-revised version of the Sebring-Avenger will debut late this year. They will reportedly by equiped with a retuned engine, advanced transmissions, improved suspensions and upgraded interiors. The problem is, it will have to leapfrog at least one generation of development to challenge such competitors as the well-reviewed Hyundai Sonata. That's a tall task for any manufacturer, especially one as historically under-capitalized as Chrysler.

But Chrysler has done it before. Back when the Arab Oil Embargo of the mid-1970s challenged the American car industry, Chrysler bounced back with the first full line of economical, domestic front-wheel-drive vehicles. Beginning with the original K-car, the offerings grew to include the first mini-vans and a wide array of coupes, sedans and station wagons. Almost all were available with turbocharged engines, a technology that is only now being widely embraced by Ford and General Motors.

Chrysler also scored points with consumers in the 1990s with several generations of so-called cab forward designs that increased interior space by extending the front and back of the passenger cabin. In fact, the immediate predecessors of the current Sebring-Avenger debuted in 1995 as the midsize version of these sleek cars. To its credit, Chrysler downsized the car in 2007, around the time gas prices began rising again.

Whether Chrysler can rise Phoenix-like from the ashes again remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Sebring is not a bad car, just not as good as it could, should and - hopefully - will be. It could still be a good buy at the right price, though.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Sebring.

• Manufacturer: Chrysler.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door, four passenger car.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (173 hp, as tested); 2.7-liter V6 (186 hp).

• Transmissions: 4-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/30.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $21,000 ($26,985 as tested).