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"Edmunds" First Drive: 2007 Chrysler Sebring

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If you asked us to name the one thing that made the Chrysler 300 an overnight success, we wouldn't point you to its rear-wheel drive, its retro styling or its Mercedes-Benz mechanicals. No, it's the fact that Chrysler took a risk: The company bet real money that real people would spend their real money to buy this stylish, agile and unconventional sedan, and it paid off.

But Chrysler decided not to gamble on the redesign of the midsize Sebring sedan. Instead, the 2007 Chrysler Sebring, which goes on sale in early November, represents a safe move, a defensive play borne of the same kind of carefully measured thinking that puts hundreds of thousands of people in Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys every year.

Compact roots
Still front-wheel drive, the 2007 Chrysler Sebring rides on a stretched and widened version of the Dodge Caliber platform, which is also the basis for the next Sebring convertible. Overall length remains the same as last year's Sebring, but the car is now taller, and rides on a wider track and slightly longer wheelbase.

This opens up considerably more headroom and legroom, now on par with most competitors in this class, and backseat passengers can easily slide their feet under the front chairs. We're told DaimlerChrysler chairman Dieter Zetsche was adamant about increasing headroom in the new Sebring — likely because he banged his melon getting into the old car, which had as much cranial clearance as a Little Tikes pedal car.

Still, the '07 Sebring remains narrow for a midsize sedan, resulting in about an inch less hip- and shoulder room front and rear than any of its rivals. Trunk volume measures just 13.6 cubic feet, a low number for this segment.

Better dressed
Sparsely equipped and hastily furnished, previous-generation Sebrings felt like rental cars on the inside. Chrysler addressed both issues during the redesign, although materials quality still won't threaten the import-brand leaders.

Chrysler will sell the new Sebring in base, Touring and Limited trim levels. If you go for a base Sebring, you won't do without anything important, as all models come with ABS, a tire-pressure monitor, 16-inch steel wheels, front-seat side airbags, full-length head curtain airbags, air-conditioning, a CD player, an input jack for MP3 players and cruise control. Finding a comfortable driving position isn't hard either, now that there's a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.

Touring models get 17-inch alloy wheels, upgraded interior trim and lighting, and a lengthier options list, while the Limited adds single-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, Boston Acoustics speakers and, in a nod to the 300C, tortoise-shell interior accents.

An extensive options list includes everything from predictable extras like stability control, satellite radio and remote start to more unusual stuff like front cupholders that can warm your latte or chill your cola, and a Harman Kardon-designed, hard drive-based navigation and audio system with real-time traffic rerouting and 20GB of MP3 file storage.

Slow start
No matter which trim level you select, a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine is standard. Also used in the Caliber and Jeep Compass, the engine makes 173 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 166 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. It comes only with a four-speed automatic transmission. Thusly equipped, the Sebring earns a 24 mpg city, 32 mpg EPA rating.

Unfortunately, the mileage isn't good enough to justify the 2.4-liter's lethargic response and coarse power delivery. It's no match for the standard four-cylinder engines in the Camry, Accord or Nissan Altima. Plus, the Camry and Accord have more sophisticated five-speed automatics (in addition to offering manual gearboxes), while the Altima has a continuously variable transmission.

A better choice for most buyers is the carryover 2.7-liter, twin-cam V6 optional on the Sebring Touring. Its 189-hp rating may look feeble next to last year's even 200, but engineers retuned it to provide more torque at lower rpm — 191 lb-ft at 4000 rpm compared to 190 lb-ft at 4850 rpm on the '06 Sebring.

Although you're still forced to get friendly with a four-speed automatic, the small V6 is infinitely more livable in everyday traffic situations. It's not as smooth as we'd like, but its 22/30 mileage rating is respectable.

The 3.5-liter SOHC V6, available only on the Sebring Limited, is far and away the best engine in the lineup. Rated for 235 hp at 6400 rpm and 232 lb-ft of torque, this V6 is light on off-the-line pull but plenty satisfying once it revs up. It also earns you the right to have a six-speed automatic, which likely accounts for the Limited's 19/28 fuel economy estimate with this engine option. Upshifts happen at redline under full throttle, but downshifts take a little longer than they should whether you're in "D" or the autostick manual mode.

Chrysler claims a 7.7-second 0-60-mph time with the 3.5-liter — slower than a V6-equipped Camry, but right on target with the V6 Accord, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu SS.

Fine ride, average handling
Ride quality is vastly improved, thanks to the Sebring's stiffer structure and a new front strut/rear multilink suspension with increased travel. Commuters will find it acceptably smooth for this class, and the sedan feels stable at high speeds.

In corners, the '07 Sebring doesn't feel quite so solid, as soft suspension tuning and minimal feedback from the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering curb its entertainment potential. Limited models equipped with the 3.5-liter V6 feel crisper and more energetic, thanks to firmer springs and shocks and lower-profile 18-inch tires. If we had it our way, this would be the standard setup on all Sebrings.

More problematic is the Chrysler's lack of serious braking hardware. If you get the four-cylinder engine, you're stuck with rear drum brakes, and on mountain roads, they cook faster than the trick new cupholders. Sebring V6 models upgrade to four-wheel discs, which perform better but lack pedal progression.

Radical it isn't, but the '07 Sebring does meet the minimum requirements for a midsize family sedan. It starts at a comfortable $19,000, tops out just over $30 grand and can deliver 30 mpg on the highway.

But look past the numbers and the fancy electronics (as cool as it is to rip CDs from the driver seat), and the 2007 Chrysler Sebring is an ordinary car with middling performance credentials. It's too safe a bet from a car company that's better off taking risks.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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