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(Photos By Daimlerchrysler)

Fine first impressions

Chrysler's new Sebring fits in well in midsize market

First impressions mean a lot in the automobile industry.

That's why it was a bit of an eye-opener when people stopped on a rainy afternoon in a parking lot in Seabrook, N.H., to look at the 2007 Chrysler Sebring we'd just parked.

"It looks something like the Caliber," said one passerby, "but it's got some of the 300 in it, too."

That reaction is precisely what the folks at Chrysler have been aiming for with the Sebring, the automaker's mid size entry between the full-size 300 and compact Caliber. The goal, in the words of George Murphy, Chrysler's senior vice president of global marketing, was "to sustain the momentum started by the blockbuster hit Chrysler 300 and continued with the Dodge Caliber."

One parking lot observer, it turned out, was Daryl Costello, an automobile aficionado and, until last summer, a popular waiter at Joseph's Winter Street Café in Newburyport.

That's relevant to our tale only because several days later, the car was parked in front of that restaurant. Costello's former boss, Joseph Pignato, the patron chef at the restaurant, looked at the Sebring from a different angle. "Nice-looking car," said Costello, who is interested in the convertible version coming this summer. "I'm going to be turning 65, and I'm telling anyone who wants to buy me a big present that I'd like the convertible version in dark blue with a saddle interior and top."

Those were interesting observations from the restaurateurs, people who normally are used to having their own work being fodder for reviewers. This time they were doing the critiquing, and they were spot-on.

The new-look, redesigned Sebring is now in showrooms . The high back quarters evoke styling cues from the successful 300, and make for a surprisingly roomy trunk. The grill and hood say Crossfire, the company's sporty crossover.

While others looked at the car's exterior, my wife gave high marks to the Sebring's interior.

"The two-tone leather seats are comfortable and the color schemes [two-tone beige or gray] are eye-catching," she said.

I found the interior had plenty of room front and rear for four adults and, with no sunroof on the test car, an amazing amount of headroom. The seating position was relatively high for a mid size passenger car, though I noted a lack of lumbar support. Gauges were clear and both radio and climate controls were easy to operate with reasonably large knobs.

The Sebring starts at $18,320 for the base version -- four cylinders with a four-speed automatic transmission. Our tester was the upscale Limited model, with a 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic transaxle. The six speeds won me over with their quickness off the line and almost imperceptible gear changes. For example, the engine speed only dropped about 300 revolutions per minute on shifts from first to second gear, and from second to third.

A surprising amount of road noise came into the cabin, leading to our supposition that some weight was saved by limiting sound-deadening insulation.

Normally, manufacturers load up test vehicles to show off their bells and whistles. One option we would have loved to have tested is the 20 -gigabyte MyGiG audio/navigation system that has the ability to store a lot of family music. Another is the heating/cooling cup holders that supposedly can chill or heat drinks.

Maybe they will be included in the convertible.

(Photos By Daimlerchrysler)