Many people don’t know that Sebring has a very special meaning for New Zealanders: it’s where, in 1959, Bruce McLaren became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix — a record he held for over 40 years until Alonso won at Hungaroring in 2003.
With all this racing heritage, you can understand why a company would want to ride on its coattails and American car companies have a history of calling their cars after places of note, something the English haven’t done since, perhaps the Morris Oxford. Placenames can evoke memories and imply kudos, but is the Sebring really an out-and-out racecar, or is it designed for the armchair spectator? To find out, I took it to the very slightly American Coatesville, West Auckland.
Coatesville does have a frontier town ring to it, and certainly there are big ranches out there, but it’s also got some exceptionally twisty roads that no self-respectin’ wagon driver would miss. Mustering the 173 horses under the bonnet requires heavy use of the throttle. The Sebring is underpowered. The 2.4-litre four-cylinder VVT engine is very quiet when cruising on the flat, but it has a harsh, intrusive tone when pushed. Braking, though, is good and pushing into the corners the inside wheel chirps as the ABS kicks in. The 215/55R18 tyres do their best to stay on the road, but aren’t helped by the large amount of safety-conscious understeer that’s dialled in.
A clue as to why the engine struggles and the car understeers is found in the interior: lots of heavy extras like well-padded leather seats with some of the best (and quickest) heaters I’ve experienced, a photochromic rear-view mirror to reduce glare at night, a sunroof, and tortoiseshell accents artfully placed. My current favourite in-car gadget sits adjacent to the driver’s left elbow: a cup holder that both heats and cools drinks (though not at the same time due to some fairly unbreakable laws of physics). Press a button and it chills your 40oz Diet Pepsi; press another button and it warms your Frappocappumochaccino. Perfect. Almost. I don’t drink soft drinks or coffee (it’s a religious thing: I worship my body), and the cup holder does not fit a water bottle to allow me to maintain easily accessible optimal hydration.
Time to take my mind off my impending thirst by checking the sound system. Being built for the American market, the stereo will be optimised for either country or hip-hop. Take a guess: it’s hip-hop. It’s a Boston Acoustics speaker setup driven by an integrated 6-disc CD/DVD/MP3/radio head unit. Controls for the stereo are found on the back of the steering wheel in unmarked buttons. The right hand side changes the volume and the left hand side the tuning and channel. If you can’t find anything on the radio, you can plug an auxiliary device in like an iPod.
A first for me is the sequential gearshift arrangement. Rather than being the usual forwards/backwards style, move the stick to the right to change up, and left to change down. This is sort of intuitive because in a manual shifting up (i.e. second to third, or fourth to fifth) involves moving the stick to the right.
The switchgear and trip computer are from the Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge parts bin, so you get the tyre pressure gauge like the Nitro and Wrangler do, as well as a compass, trip timer and thermometer. Though, unlike the Nitro, the controls for the trip computer are on the central console, not the steering wheel, leaving a clean and elegant looking wheel with its tortoiseshell section at the top. The ignition key is to the left of the wheel, like the Chrysler SRT, which takes some breaking of a lifetime habit of putting the key on the right.
External styling is flattering from some angles (e.g. rear three-quarter and slightly stunted from others (side view). The bonnet is ribbed for your pleasure, and other than the optional 18-inch wheels and the enormous Chrysler badge on the boot, everything is quite smooth – there are few stand-out elements in the design.
In this price bracket, there’s some stiff competition: Hyundai Sonata V6, Mazda6 and Ford Mondeo to name a few. The Sebring does beat them in terms of interior plushness, so if you don’t need the speed, you can be happy with your piping hot coffee the whole way to work.
Price: from $39,990 (car tested included optional sunroof at $2,250 and chrome alloys at $350)
What we like:
- Well-appointed with luxuries
What we don’t like:
- Noisy, underpowered engine
- Cup holder doesn’t take a bottle
Words and photos Darren Cottingham