Fleet-Worthy Sedan Struggles to Stir Emotions
Sunday, March 22, 2009
We requested it for two weeks, one week longer than we normally keep most test cars. The idea was to live with this one long enough to see if we developed any strong feelings for or against it. We knew it would take time.
But something happened at the beginning of the two-week run that augured an answer. "We" quickly became "me," as Ria Manglapus, my Washington Post assistant for vehicle evaluations, and my wife, Mary Anne, abandoned me to the elusive charms of the 2009 Chrysler Sebring Touring -- a base, front-wheel-drive, mid-size family sedan with a 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine.
It's not that either one of the women voiced any feelings pro or con. Their reaction to the Sebring Touring reminded me of the way some girls treated me during my disastrous forays into high school dating. They just weren't that into me.
The Sebring Touring and I thus were stuck with one another. It wasn't a bad relationship. Nor was it one that I'd ever recall with a sigh or smile.
How, then, to explain it?
It's a good car, an automobile of considerable virtue. It is reminiscent of a Disney movie -- good, clean family entertainment, but absent anything that will get dangerous, exciting juices flowing.
Yet its clean, appealing exterior lines, complemented by a thoughtfully crafted interior of aluminum and vinyl, accented by a Tiffany-style analog clock in the center of the instrument panel, in no way qualifies it as boring.
The word "parochial" comes to mind. The four-cylinder Sebring Touring is supported by a community of people who want the basics done well -- affordability of purchase and operation, reliability and quality -- with a little art thrown in.
They are happy with that and are unaffected by the dismissive smirks of those who view the four-cylinder Sebring Touring as an underpowered family hauler more appropriately described as a utilitarian conveyance than a car.
But I protest. It is a car, and a good one at that. It is less than exciting on the highway -- more of a right-lane runner than it is either a champion or competitor in the left. But it gets the job done (eventually), and it does so with reasonable comfort and safety.
The problem is a matter of expectations, partly fostered by the Sebring Touring's styling. The car looks -- or tries to look -- high end. But its reality is that of a patrician on a budget, a motorized castle minus certain furnishings and other amenities, which are no longer affordable.
Interior materials are barely par, certainly no longer competitive, with those now used in General Motors, Ford, Nissan or Toyota cars. And I'm talking plastics here. The feel and look of some plastics are discernibly better and more appealing than others. In the base Sebring Touring, employed materials are one step beyond cheap.
Here's suggesting that Chrysler's designers and procurement people use some of the company's federal bailout loans to buy their vinyl-ware from the same companies that supply Audi and Volkswagen -- the masters of classy interiors in cars expensive and affordable.
Ah, of course there's the business of a four-cylinder engine in a mid-size family car where a six-cylinder engine would feel much better. Chrysler offers two V-6 engines, one delivering 189 horsepower in midline Sebring Touring sedans and convertibles, and the other good for 235 horsepower in the upscale Sebring Limited models. People interested in rounding out the image of a patrician on a budget, without presenting too much information, should buy one of those.
But people more interested in economy, the kind represented by the base 2.4-liter Sebring Touring: They're getting a good car, with more amenities than most base cars normally have, but one that feels a tad above cheap and, in many ways, isn't terribly special. It is a rental car supreme.