How Chrysler Works

Chrysler Sebring and Chrysler Town & Country

The 1997 Chrysler Sebring added the “AutoStick” feature to its V-6 engines, allowing drivers to select gears manually, even with an automatic transmission.

More successful was the Chrysler Sebring convertible that bowed in early 1996 to replace the drop-top LeBaron. Unlike the coupe, this Sebring was pure Chrysler, sharing powertrains and a basic platform with the Cirrus sedan. Here, too, cab-forward styling contributed to uncommon interior space, with genuinely comfortable rear seating for two adults, the best of most any affordable ragtop around.

Though no sports car, the Sebring convertible was a pleasant driver on highway and byway alike. There was curiously little difference in power between the two models: 150 bhp from a 2.4-liter four in the base JX, 163 from a 2.5 V-6 in the uplevel JXi. Performance was sedate either way, thanks in part to mandatory automatic transmission, but Chrysler upped the fun quotient a bit for '97 by adding a new "AutoStick" feature to its V-6 models. A separate slot on the selector quadrant allowed the driver to move the gears up and down manually.

Though changed little more year-to-year than Sebring coupes, the convertibles sold better and more consistently, pulling in around 50,000 orders each calendar year through 2000. Like its LeBaron predecessor, a good many went to rental companies in sunbelt areas like Florida, Southern California, and Arizona, so Chrysler retained title to America's most-popular "rent-a-vertible." Among the few noteworthy changes in this period were the addition of a posh LXi Limited version for 1998 with leather-and-wood interior, chrome wheels, V-6, and AutoStick, and Sebring's first traction-control system.

Cirrus, too, seemed stuck in a time warp, its six-year run marked by annual equipment shuffles -- including a here today, gone tomorrow four-cylinder engine. An exception was the '99 edition, which sported a larger grille adorned with a broad winged badge in bright chrome, a new Chrysler-brand signature being phased-in throughout the line. Calendar-year sales see-sawed from the low to high 30,000s, a fairly lackluster showing for a mainstream sedan. The related Dodge Stratus did much better business, helped by lower prices and more-aggressive marketing.

We shouldn't forget Town & Country, if only because Chrysler Corporation had become the "minivan company" in more ways than one. Like sister Dodge/Plymouth models, the T&C got a smoother exterior and redesigned dash for '91, plus a standard driver's airbag and exclusive digi-graphic instrumentation (dubious at best). Optional all-wheel drive arrived for 1992, a boon for "snowbelt" mobility that attracted few orders. Only new-design wheels marked the '93s.

For '94, the optional 3.8 V-6 became standard and the dash was again modified to accommodate a no-cost passenger airbag. Chrysler also installed door guard beams per new federal rules for side-impact protection, and offered the industry's first integrated child safety seat at extra cost. T&C then carried into '95 with few other changes pending release of redesigned 1996 models. Though base price was then nearing $30,000, T&C sales had also climbed steadily: from just 6400 of the '91s to over 40,000 by middecade, more than respectable for a gilded people-mover.

Adding safety features, especially airbags, were a big sales help to all Chrysler minivans in these years. The government may have mandated front "passive restraints," but there were several ways to meet the requirement, and the public showed a marked preference for airbags over motorized front shoulder belts or "passive" three-point harnesses.

Chrysler recognized this sooner than Ford or GM, and was quicker to offer airbags throughout its corporate fleet without waiting until model replacement time. It was a particularly shrewd thing to do for minivans, many of which were purchased by parents who naturally wanted the safest possible vehicle for their children. Other makers had no choice but to follow Chrysler's lead, something that hadn't occurred in decades.

Chrysler kept up its product offensive in the late '90s, starting with fully redesigned 1996 T&Cs, Dodge Caravans, and Plymouth Voyagers. Though not a breakthrough like the 1984 originals, the new "NS" models preserved all their winning attributes and added some of their own, including sleeker styling, more available power, and thoughtful family-oriented features like "Easy-Out" second- and third-row seats with built-in rollers and the industry's first driver's-side sliding rear door.

The latter proved so popular that the company eventually built all its minivans that way. T&C sales remained steady and fairly strong, running 70,000-76,000 each calendar year through 2000. As ever, minivans remained vital to the health of the Chrysler marque, amounting to 22-40 percent of the brand's total car sales in this period.

For more on the amazing Chrysler, old and new, see:

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