What I'm Driving At: Shameless Topless Comparo

Sometimes you've just gotta go with the polling data. The 12-year-old daughter says the VW Cabrio Highline wins the comparison because it feels sportier. The 10-year-old says the Chrysler Sebring JXi is the better choice of these two convertibles because it looks sportier. My kids can't even drive, but they've got it pegged. If you're reluctant to take their word for it, you might consider that the decision to buy a convertible ultimately takes place in the juvenile lobe of the mature-adult brain. Now that even bicycles are off-limits without a helmet, a convertible car is the last best vestige of youthful, wind-in-your-hair nonchalance this side of an outlaw-biker rally.If you're looking for a recommendation to justify what is essentially an impulse-buying decision, here's my suggestion: "Buy the Volkswagen, OR buy the Chrysler." I've got no qualms appearing equivocal about it; each of these convertibles is exactly right for the right kind of buyer. The challenge, however, comes in diagnosing accurately your particular strain of praeoccupatio juvenilis. It is helpful, in fact, that the Volkswagen Cabrio and the Chrysler Sebring JXi face off so squarely on opposite sides of a clearly defined dividing line. The Cabrio does indeed feel sportier, so if your taste runs to experiences you can actually feel, your desires are more likely to alight upon the boxy V-dub. This does not, of course, mean that the Chrysler exudes all the driving excitement of a target drone--quite the contrary. The Sebring convertible is perky enough: In fact, its single-overhead-cam V6 produces far and away more base horsepower than the Cabrio (168 vs. 115). But the VW weighs a significant 20 percent less, features a stiffer, performance-flavored suspension, and retains the availability of a five-speed manual transmission. In short, it's a pared-down, toned-up athlete by comparison.Moreover, although the Highline designation refers to an upscale equipment (and price) version of the basic Cabrio, it might as well acknowledge the VW convertible's distinctive basket-handle roll bar as well. Above and beyond the obvious safety contribution, this feature enhances the structural rigidity of the car for even the most banal of daily drives. In other words, there is far less of what engineers call torsional flexion--an "event" that leads a driver's subconscious to believe the car is wallowing over bumps and around corners. For all of the engineering ploys intended to fend off the dreaded "cowl shake" that plagues every convertible to some extent, the Sebring JXi simply cannot eliminate this bane completely; and so it doesn't "feel" as sporty as the Cabrio in a strict corner-for-corner drive-off. But it looks so much slicker and more chic that, by contrast, the VW risks acquiring the reputation of a worthy nerd. The lanky legginess of the Sebring derives from its nearly 10 extra inches of wheelbase, which is in turn accentuated by Chrysler's now trademark cab-forward design premise. If the VW is a self-consciously practical little commuto-pod, with a boxy shape that allows (nominal) seating for four adults, the Chrysler is a rakish sort of pavement powerboat that invites four adults to cruise in normal comfort for a day of sightseeing in the open air. As implied above, a manual transmission isn't an option for the JXi (or even for its base-model counterpart, the JX, which comes equipped with four-cylinder power). But a driver won't especially miss it in this kind of car. Chrysler even compensates for its absence, in part, by offering an entertaining option called Autostick. Similar in concept to the "clutchless" semi-automatics that are revolutionizing upper echelons of the racing world, Autostick injects a modicum of driver discretion into an otherwise automated gear-shifting process. In this mode, sequential shifts take place when the driver taps the stick to the right (for upshifts) or left (for downshifts). It's not the hard snap from one gear to the next that you expect from a manual, but it's more than a gimmick; and once you get the hang of it, it will change (for the better) the way you tackle a winding back road. Then, when you're back in town, you can slap the Autostick into "Drive" and let the 4-speed auto take over from there.As if the distinctive underlying personalities of these two convertibles weren't clear-cut enough, there is another overlaying differential that helps put the contrast in high relief. The VW features only a manual top--albeit one of the easiest to handle you're likely to find anywhere. It's a quiet six layers thick, has a glass rear window (with defrost), and drops or raises in, oh, about two seconds. The Chrysler's top is also thick and quiet, and it too features glass and a defroster in the back. The difference is that it's push-button auto--no muss, no fuss, but you'll wait a good 10 or 12 seconds for the can-opener to pop this top. Prices, ironically, are almost exactly consistent with each car's interior size. The Chrysler sports an EPA Interior Volume Index number of 100.4 cubic feet, compared to the VW's 18-percent-smaller 82 cubic feet. The price for the Sebring JXi is $26,805, as tested; and that's an amazingly consistent 19 percent more than the Highline's sticker of $22,450. (Starting prices for lesser-equipped base versions of both models are about $4,000 less in each case.) But the question still begs as two daughters gaze imploringly at their father for an answer: Are we gonna feel sporty or look sporty, and how much will it cost? Sounds like a good time for a bike ride, girls--just don't forget your helmets.

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