2011 Chrysler 200 Convertible: First Drive

Automotive Lease Guide reports that nearly one out of every two Chryslers sold in 2010 went to rental-fleet companies, which is nearly triple the average for non-luxury brands. No doubt the automaker’s Sebring convertible made up a sizable portion. Rent a convertible in a Sunbelt state and odds are good you’ll end up in one: America’s top three rental-car companies, according to industry magazine Auto Rental News, encompass seven brands; six of them rent convertibles and five of the six list Ye Olde Sebring as a primary droptop.

That the revamped car, dubbed the 200 convertible, is better than the Sebring convertible is faint praise. The Sebring ’vert suffered a creaky top, vague steering and the Windows Vista of six-speed automatics. The 200 convertible improves on all of those things, and it should satisfy Florida vacationers well enough. The larger question: Can Chrysler entice more folks in Houston or Los Angeles to pick ones for their own driveways? I’m not so sure.

Based on the 200, which replaces the Sebring sedan, the convertible boasts a heavily reworked chassis — 22 or 28 suspension bushings were retuned or replaced, Chrysler says — and new drivetrains. At a media introduction in Southern California last week, I drove a Touring trim with Chrysler’s 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 and six-speed automatic, a pairing the automaker expects to make up about 90 percent of sales. (There’s also a 173-hp four-cylinder that’s also paired with the six-speed.) With smooth upshifts and a powerful, free-revving engine, the new drivetrain is more capable than last year’s ancient 3.5-liter V-6 and clunky six-speed auto.

Still, this is no V-6 Mustang. On mountainous desert highways outside San Diego, my journalist co-driver and I needed the engine’s full reserves to pull back up to speed. The transmission resisted downshifts until precious moments after my right foot called for them. Chrysler ladled on the power-steering assist, rendering a wheel that’s too soupy to enjoy on a winding road. The car resists pushing too early in corners, but it leans hard enough to take much fun out of really throwing it around.

As a straight-line cruiser, the 200 convertible fares better. Like the 200 sedan, the convertible rides softly. The chassis flexes a bit over bumps and the suspension can get floaty at times, but it feels as composed as any comfort-oriented $30,000 convertible ought to — and better than before. A caveat: I drove only the soft-top 200 convertible. The Limited has an optional folding hardtop, which, in the outgoing hardtop Sebring convertible, proved a creaky bedfellow.

With either the soft-top or hardtop up, the 200 convertible looks as unwieldy as the Sebring convertible. The rear deck juts out in a lengthy, flat expanse that could launch F-14s. (Miniature ones, but you get the point.) Our test car’s convertible top took 29 seconds to deploy from its quarters, and once the trunk motors back shut, its all-too-noticeable cutline runs inelegantly to the rear-quarter window.

The 200’s sleeker nose and taillights are an improvement over the Sebring’s, and the top-down car is easy on the eyes. Leave it up and a lot of Sebring shows through, both outside and in. Cabin materials are largely better than before, and the backseat remains hospitable for adults on a short trip, but a lot of Sebring pieces — dated trunk release and window controls, rubbery turn-signal stalks — have yet to be banished.

Perhaps that’s because cabin and styling work were done in just 12 months rather than the typical two or three years, Chrysler interior design chief Klaus Busse said. Given it was a rush job, the 200 is acceptable and even competitive. But are other Chrysler products — the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger — have received serious development dollars, and it shows. Provided Chrysler makes strides on the reliability front, they’ll compete for years to come. The 200 convertible is a better rental car, but I have a tough time seeing it compete in 2012 or 2013 or landing in a lot more driveways, not just rental-car lots in 2011.

Stay tuned for a full review of the 200, which we’ve driven in four-cylinder sedan form, as well.

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