Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Top to bottom

Chrysler's '08 Sebring Convertible has a nifty roof mechanism. But things go down quickly from there.
August 8, 2007

To Cerberus Capital Management, the New York-based private equity firm that just bought Chrysler from DaimlerChrysler, congratulations and … what do you mean I'm being laid off? I don't even work for you guys!

So far, the company is off to a rousing start. It was widely expected that Cerberus would name Wolfgang Bernhard, former executive for Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, to be Chrysler's chairman-CEO. Instead, over the weekend the company named Robert Nardelli, former chief executive and notorious hammer of Home Depot, who recently earned glory in the annals of executive compensation when he pocketed a $210-million severance package after being kicked out by disgruntled shareholders. Unlike Bernhard, who is a car guy to the bone, Nardelli has no experience in the auto business. A company utterly besieged by bean counters has just hired Mr. Bean.

Now, much of this is inside-baseball stuff that probably wouldn't interest consumers: Can the famously abrasive Nardelli mend relations with Chrysler's alienated dealer network? Can he reach across the table at upcoming labor talks with anything other than a shiv? Will Nardelli, a Red State royalist who has held fundraisers at his Atlanta home for President Bush, get behind a national health care agenda that many in Detroit feel would give domestic automakers some breathing room?

Or will Nardelli and the three-headed dog merely flip Chrysler, which is to say, cut it down to a semblance of profitability and sell it? That would be the equivalent of stealing coins off a dead man's eyes.

Assuming that Nardelli is more than a bagman, the question then becomes: Does he know a good car from a bad one?

I can help. I recommend he go down to the motor pool and check out the keys to a 2008 Chrysler Sebring Convertible, preferably the Limited model with the retractable hardtop. See, Bob, that's a bad one.

Not just bad, but a veritable chalice of wretchedness, a rattling, thumping, lolling tragedy of a car, a summary indictment of Chrysler's recent management and its self-eradicating product planning, all cast in plastic worthy of a Chinese water pistol. The Sebring drop top does something I thought impossible: It makes me long for the exquisite craftsmanship of the Pontiac flipping G6.

Oh, and the Sebring Convertible is homely, too.

On a more positive note, if Nardelli wants to kick off a product renaissance at least he'll have a baseline.

The Sebring Convertible has been a segment sales leader for more than a decade, in no small part because of the tens of thousands sold to the Budgets and Hertzes of the world. These were modest cars with modest ambitions -- mid-priced, mid-size, middlebrow convertibles that were, comparatively, well shaped, with a low and rounded body style that looked cool with the top down.

The new-for-2008 Sebring Convertible is an open-air version of the taller, squarer Sebring sedan introduced last year. The sibling-driven proportions throw the convertible drastically out of whack. For instance, the new convertible is virtually the same length as the previous model but 3.5 inches taller, all of it coming in the strangely lax sheet metal above the belt line, or in empty space: Even with our Limited edition test car with its 18-inch wheels, the wheel arches looked cavernous. To make room for the car's choice of retractable tops (in vinyl, canvas or aluminum), the convertible is 3.2 inches longer than the sedan, and all of that length is cantilevered gracelessly over the rear wheels. From some angles the car looks like it's had unholy congress with an El Camino.

There was some effort to add surface excitement to the car -- the strakes on the hood, à la the Crossfire and the exquisite Airflite concept car -- but these gestures are so insincere as to be insulting.

The marketing game plan is to offer the Sebring Convertible in three trims, each with its own engine: the base model ($26,145) gets the 2.4-liter, 173-hp four-cylinder with a four-speed automatic; the Touring ($28,745) gets the 2.7-liter V6 with 189 hp, also with the four-speed; the Limited ($32,345) is powered by the company's 3.5-liter V6 with 235 hp/232 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic. The retractable hardtop is a $1,995 option on the Touring and Limited.

Our nearly loaded Limited test car penciled out to $37,755, including one of the car's signature options, the MyGig audio system/navigation system with the 20-GB hard drive. Other options included traction and stability control, windscreen and dual exhaust. All that kit easily pushes the car over the 2-ton mark (base curb weight is a rather astonishing 3,959 pounds).

So configured, the Sebring Convertible muddles out of its own way -- I cannot attest to the feelings of those behind me -- but attempting to drive this car in a sporting manner feels like trying to run a 440-dash with a lawn tractor on your back. The car is slow to rouse, glumly servile at highway speeds, and when you kick the accelerator to pass it's resentful to the point of gross insubordination. The piteous bleating sound coming from under the hood would bring a shepherd to tears.

Dynamically, this is certainly one of the more inept cars on the market. The steering is frictionless and void of feedback on center, vague off-center and downright enigmatic at the limit. The steering wheel practically waltzes with torque steer if you put the power down in a corner. The Sebring Limited has reasonable road holding, thanks to its 18-inch tires, but even small bumps can induce suspension-pumping body motions that can oscillate to major whoops with little provocation and send the car off course. This is purely the result of the top mechanism's barbell weight situated high in the structure.

But none of that is what really bugs me. What really bugs me is the harsh, juddering reverberations coming up through the chassis from the suspension. Good lord. What, were they out of bushings that day?

The one bright spot is that the Karmann retractable hardtop mechanism works just fine (though production is being slow-walked while niggling final-fit problems are resolved). A press of a button separates the top panels and levitates them behind the rear seats. The ample trunk space is then not so ample, but Chrysler says you can get in two sets of golf clubs. Vacationers should have no trouble getting their hula girl lamps and coconut monkeys back to the airport in Honolulu.

You might imagine Chrysler execs pulling their hair out at such a review, but I rather guess the mood is more of resignation, and recognition. They know. Under DaimlerChrysler management, Chrysler was savagely abused and cost-cut to the bone and it shows in their products' under-engineered clunkiness, their deprived plastic interiors and mail-it-in mediocrity.

Nardelli has a conspicuous record of knowing nothing about the car business. It's a lot harder than selling Weber grills and Sawzalls, and the learning curve is more like Half Dome. Wisdom begins with knowing the difference between a good car and a bad car. The Sebring Convertible can help.

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