Chrysler Sebring

Have Americans penned a winner with Chrysler's Sebring?

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There's stiff competition in the family car market, and Chrysler’s well equipped Sebring undoubtedly offers something different. However, its looks will divide opinion, and the raucous diesel engine and uninspiring drive will win few friends. The entry-level petrol is a more appealing prospect, but for a car aimed at business buyers, that’s little consolation.

There have been some big changes at Chrysler in the past few years. The handsome Crossfire coupé and menacing 300C have raised the US firm’s profile beyond all recognition. But despite improving sales, niche success alone can’t sustain a brand, which is why it has come up with the Sebring – its own Ford Mondeo rival.

Until now, Chrysler hasn’t offered UK customers a proper family model. So how does the fresh-faced saloon stack up? We got behind the wheel of the new 2.0-litre diesel to find the answer.

Drawing on the look of the Airflite concept car revealed at the 2003 Geneva Motor Show, the Crossfire-inspired styling is striking rather than pretty. At the front there’s a heavy-handed bumper, while the stubby tail results in unbalanced proportions.

Neat touches include a trademark ribbed bonnet, egg-crate grille and big 18-inch alloy wheels. Inside, there’s a simple dashboard design, with instruments housed in a trio of attractive binnacles. It’s solidly built too, but hard plastics let down cabin quality compared to its European rivals.

A high kit count helps to compensate, and when it hits UK showrooms next year, every Sebring will boast climate control, two-tone leather upholstery and a sunroof as standard. A 394-litre boot boosts practicality.

Optional extras will include a novel touch-screen stereo with a 20-gigabyte hard drive and USB port, which allows owners to store both music and sat-nav map data in the car. A video entertainment system for rear passengers that neatly integrates with the centre console will also be available.

The 2.0-litre diesel engine we tested is supplied by Volkswagen – you’ll also find it under the bonnet of the Passat. Yet it fails to offer the refinement we expected. Turn the key and the noisy idle doesn’t get any quieter once it’s warmed through. The characteristic diesel thrum is always there, and the hefty 1,560kg body blunts performance. There’s no mid-range kick despite the low gearing, and you have to work the 138bhp unit hard to make fast progress. At cruising speeds, the busy engine and constant wind noise are disappointing for a car that will spend much of its time on the motorway.

On twistier roads, the handling suffers due to the Sebring’s soft suspension set-up, which allows too much body roll under enthusiastic cornering. Uncommunicative steering also needs constant adjustment in longer bends as the car refuses to settle, while mid-corner bumps upset its composure.

We also tried the entry-level petrol unit. With less weight over the nose, the handling is much better and you don’t need to make as many mid-corner steering adjustments. The ride is still soft, but the petrol is quieter too, making it a friendlier long-distance companion. Performance from the 154bhp engine is far from brisk, but a 167bhp 2.4-litre petrol unit mated to a four-speed automatic will also be available at launch. A 2.7-litre V6 powerplant will join the line-up later. Company bosses expect 65 per cent of buyers to opt for the diesel, but on this showing the 2.0-litre petrol engine is the one to go for – although its estimated £18,000 price tag could prove too much for many buyers.

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