The Chrysler 300 was the first Detroit sedan in a long while to really set the country on fire. At the same time, it also introduced a new concept: Chryslers, apparently, don't have to be mediocre.
Predictably, when they're not mediocre, they sell. The 300 looks cool, is fun to drive, and in 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 form, is seriously fast. As a result, more than 300,000 have left dealer lots since 2004. And as for the new Sebring sedan? Its styling is divisive at best, it lacks the driver involvement of even a Honda Accord, and its most notable element is its radio (see sidebar). Not exactly a recipe for success.
The key ingredient of the 300's goodness is that Hemi. Unfortunately, the Sebring's top-spec engine, a relatively torquey 235-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, is no Hemi. It has neither the refinement of a Toyota V-6 nor the character of Honda's six. And while the 3.5-liter's standard six-speed manu-matic shifts smoothly and intuitively, the four-speed automatics mated to the 2.4-liter four and the 2.7-liter V-6 are somewhat clunky and rough.
As a package, the Sebring doesn't have anything inherently wrong with it. Performance and quality levels are finally in line with those of the average Japanese mid-size four-door--albeit one from seven or eight years ago. Value is arguably excellent; the base Sebring offers front, side, and side curtain air bags as standard, for example, but costs $1735 less than last year's car. Cornering stability, maneuverability, and ride comfort are all improved. And while the steering still lacks feedback, it's at least linear in feel and nicely weighted--something the 2001-05 Sebring sedan never could lay claim to.
Unfortunately, "better than last year" isn't the kind of ammunition that makes for great cars (let alone good ones). And ultimately, it makes us wonder: Why shouldn't the Sebring be something more? Why can't it blow the Accord and the Camry out of the water? If the 300 has taught us anything, it's that Chrysler can rally the troops and build something truly special. This isn't.