Brand identity: It's a powerful marketing tool if the public recognizes it, and it seems to be the buzzword in Auburn Hills as of late. At DaimlerChrysler's preview of the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus coupes and sedans (the Chrysler Cirrus sedan and Dodge Avenger coupe are gone), we were told repeatedly about the brand identity for Chrysler and Dodge, as if they were lost souls with newfound direction. Plymouth, a brand that once upon a time had distinctive brand associations, is entirely retired this year from the DaimlerChrysler lineup. There is no fresh Breeze on the horizon.
Chrysler is now supposed to be athletic, luxurious, graceful, and European. Dodge is supposed to be more brash, traditional, boisterous, and blatantly sporty. You can see these two brand marketing angles when comparing the Chrysler Sebring with the Dodge Stratus. The Sebring has clear, defined character creases that flow along the car, flared wheel wells, and a sharp, conservative tail shape borrowed from the 300M. The Stratus has a smooth, slab-sided, NASCAR-ish look, lower body cladding, and a more bulbous, flamboyant style shared with the Intrepid.
The Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring coupes also have a different interior setup than the Stratus/Sebring sedans. The two-doors actually shares much of their swoopy, dark plastic instrument panel and instrument panel pieces with the Mitsubishi Eclipse, while the four-doors opt for a more conservative yet distinctive layout.
DaimlerChrysler boasts that the redesigned models all offer more power, better body stiffness, and a quieter interior. The coupes and sedans both boast these expected improvements, plus new engines, stronger brakes, revised suspensions, better noise isolation, and improved safety features.
But that's the normal roster of improvements, right? Whenever a car is redesigned it's claimed to be better in nearly every aspect. On the road, we found that DC delivers good performance at a decent value with all of these new models. The new models do feel noticeably stiffer than before (the coupes have a 90 percent improvement in bending rigidity and a new front strut-tower brace), enabling the handling to feel a bit more direct. Both the sedans and coupes claim to have greatly improved noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH). The models are greatly improved for wind noise and marginally improved for road noise, with the coupes still having quite a bit more road noise than the sedans. Brakes are much improved across the model line.
2001 Chrysler Sebring
Sharing genes with Mitsu
Both the sedans and coupes offer new powertrains this year. The base engine for Sebring and Stratus is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 142 hp in the Sebring (147 in the Stratus) and 150 hp in the sedans. Both the sedans and the coupes offer optional V-6s, although they are two entirely different engines. A new 200-hp, 3.0-liter, Mitsubishi-sourced V-6 is optional on the coupes, while DaimlerChrysler's 200-hp, 2.7-liter V-6 is optional on the sedans. While the sedan's V-6 runs on regular gas, the coupe's V-6 recommends premium.
Although the Sebring and Stratus coupes and sedans share the same name and basic list of features, they share few parts and are actually on different platforms. The sedans are on a new platform designed by DaimlerChrysler, while the coupes are on a platform co-developed with Mitsubishi. The two DC coupes share some front-end components with the Mitsubishi Eclipse and some rear-end components with the Mitsubishi Galant, according to DC small-car platform vehicle-development engineer Andre Amyot. The coupes will be built in Normal, Ill. at a joint-venture plant with Mitsubishi, and the sedans and upcoming convertible will be assembled in Sterling Heights, Mich.
The Sebring and Stratus coupes share the same mechanicals, but they differ noticeably in appearance, due in part to brand identity again. The Dodge has a firm ride with just a little bit more road noise transmitted into the cabin, and a throatier exhaust note that shouts out when revved but is otherwise quiet. The Chrysler's ride feels just as firm at first, but then reveals an underlying softness and isolation that comes out when pushing hard around corners or blasting over bumpy roads, and the exhaust note is quiet and civilized in all situations. DaimlerChrysler engineers present at the introduction hinted that much of the differences might be due to tires: the Sebring has Goodyear Eagle LS tires, while the Stratus coupe has Eagle RS-A treads.
2001 Chrysler Sebring
Side airbags are for some reason missing from the options list for the coupes. Curtain-type outboard side airbags are optional on all sedan models. The coupes do, however, offer improved side-impact protection.
Our test car that we spent the most on-road time with, a five-speed, V-6 Sebring LXi coupe, was quite pleasing to drive, and far more refined than last year's Sebring model. Although interior fitments are improved, they still aren't of the best quality, and instrument-panel design cues borrowed from the 300M help give the interior an upscale appearance boost. The roofline is more curvaceous than on the previous model, and the resulting headroom feels restrictive for this six-foot-six driver. The new five-speed manual transmission, standard on the upscale Sebring LXi but not available on the base LX, is the first stick that Chrysler has offered on a V-6 engine in several years, and has a precise, crisp linkage and good clutch coordination. Both a standard, four-speed automatic and an Autostick manu-matic are optional on the LXi, although the five-speed is the way to go to have the most fun the smooth V-6, which is eager to rev.
Chrysler is aiming the new Sebring coupe at a more youthful target market this year. While the last-generation coupe was delegated mainly to 40- and 50-something empty nesters, marketers have refocused the Sebring coupe to also appeal to the 25-to-35-year-old, young professional crowd. DC senior product planner Gary Kanarek says that they only expect to sell about 80,000 coupes, combined, per year, although that seems a bit conservative. This time around, the Sebring seems to have a bit more personality and distinctiveness, and in the finicky, style-conscious coupe market that's worth more than anything else. Well, except maybe brand identity.
Base Price: $22,060; as tested,
$24,540 Major standard
Sebring Coupe LXi V-6
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 200 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 103.7 in
Length: 187.2 in
Width: 70.3 in
Height: 53.7 in
Weight: 3024 lb
Fuel economy (mpg): 20 city/ 28 hwy
Power windows and locks
Base Price: $22,060; as tested,
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