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Hot Off The Skillet

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The 2001 Chrysler Sebring Convertible is the last piece of DaimlerChrysler’s $985-million program to replace the company’s mid-size offerings. The Sebring Coupe is built at Mitsubishi’s Normal, Illinois facility, while both the sedan and convertible are assembled at Chrysler’s plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Previously, the convertible had been built in Toluca, Mexico, now home to the PT Cruiser.

“The sedan and convertible are built on the same line,” says Burke Brown, DaimlerChrysler’s director of large car vehicle development. “By using flexible tooling in the body shop, we can send the cars down the same line. Plus, putting the cars in the same plant allows us to adjust the build mix to compensate for the seasonality of convertible orders.”

When it comes time for the Dura-supplied top stack to be fitted, the convertibles are shifted over to a “skillet” line that carries the worker and car together. “We borrowed this from Daimler,” says Brown. “Ergonomically, it is much better for the worker because he can alter the height of the skillet, and is not forced to keep up with the vehicle as it travels down the assembly line.” In addition, the top is heated before fitting to reduce stress on the material and improve its fit.

convertible
Still one of the best and most affordable convertibles around, but is it enough?

For 2001, the chassis is significantly stronger than the car it replaces, with bending resistance up 44%. Torsional resistance has improved by just 5%. “We already had a pretty good torsion number, so it wasn’t our greatest concern,” says Brown.

Low-MDI foam fills the body cavities, and the sills have been doubled for greater strength. At the lower B-pillar, a square-section framework stretches across the car below the leading edge of the rear seat cushion. Braces, angled at 45°º, were added at the upper corners to improve side impact performance. In addition, a second beam has been added to each door. There are no side airbags. In total, these additions add 47 lb. to the body-in-white.

“There were too many compromises, including cost, to support the addition of side airbags,” says Brown. “Besides, the safety record of the old car showed no need for them.” Translation: Side bags would have eliminated the seat-mounted belts. This would have made the exemplary rear seat entry more difficult, and possibly compromised real-world seat belt performance.

With Toyota’s Camry Solara convertible as a major competitor (the Mustang V6 convertible is the other), the platform team made certain the Sebring would have the right look, feel, sound and equipment. The 2.7-liter V6 is an all-aluminum design with cast-in iron liners and chain-driven overhead cams. Surprisingly, a mandrel-bent, low back pressure exhaust system is fitted for better flow and sound quality, despite the cost premium.

The 2001 Sebring Convertible also uses single-piston sliding caliper rear disc brakes. “This lowers the cost of the total brake system by eliminating the need to stock parts for both drum and disc brakes, and their various pads,” says Brown. However, only the Limited model gets ABS–which includes electronic brake distribution–fitted standard. Wouldn’t the same “systems logic” suggest its inclusion as standard equipment on the LX and LXi models? I certainly think it does.

Still, Chrysler has done a nice job of delineating the three trim levels, though the AutoStick option also should be offered across the board. Without this self-shift feature the 4-speed automatic is lazy, which detracts from the driving experience. Also, the power mirror motors on the production cars we drove did not have a quality sound, the door locks looked thin, and the lower trim levels were too monochromatic. On the plus side, the Limited’s blue and cream interior was stunning.

Overall, the Sebring is tight and responsive, with minimal cowl shake and little or no movement in the steering column or pedals on rough roads. The high rear deck keeps interior buffeting to a minimum at speed, and the car is surprisingly quiet with the top up. Performance is on par for the segment, though the chassis could cope with more. Chrysler knows this. A more powerful variant with a five-speed manual is under study, though there is no telling if–or when–it might appear.

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