PALM SPRINGS, CA – Chrysler Group’s Sept. 14 production launch of the Sebring midsize sedan continues the auto maker’s current showroom offensive and portends another with the expected announcement of additional investment in Michigan.

Chrysler’s assembly plant in Sterling Heights, MI, home to the Sebring and its anticipated Dodge-brand twin known internally as the Avenger, will benefit from a paint shop investment, Ward’s is told.

It will expand the site’s capacity to accommodate production of multiple models – a cornerstone of Chrysler’s ongoing flexible manufacturing strategy.

Chrysler declines comment on plans for Sterling Heights. The plant already has benefited from a $506 million upgrade to accommodate a production switch from the previous-generation Sebring.

The ’07 model is the first product based on the auto maker’s new D-segment platform. But Chrysler’s flexible manufacturing strategy enables production of multiple vehicles from multiple platforms.

Sterling Heights has been mentioned as a possible production site for the ’08 Dodge Challenger, which will be based on the LX platform that also shoulders the Chrysler 300 sedan.

The acclaimed 300 was an early source of inspiration for the Sebring’s design, which originally was envisioned as a “baby 300,” confides designer Todd Rabinowitz.

“We tried it, but it didn’t work,” he tells Ward’s at a Sebring media event here. The proportions of a front-wheel-drive vehicle were a poor match for the 300’s long hood and short overhangs, classic features of rear-drive cars, he says.

So the auto maker decided instead to borrow cues from its Airflite concept car, which debuted at the 2003 Geneva auto show. The result is Chrysler’s hope for increased share of the key midsize-car market.

“In the car business, this is the big segment – 2 million units,” Larry Lyons, vice president-front-wheel-drive product teams, says.

Not since 1993 have midsize sales accounted for less than 44% of the total car market, according to Ward’s data.

Related document: U.S. Car Sales by Segment 1980-2005

“To be a sustainable player, you’ve got to be successful in (the midsize) part of the market,” Lyons says in an interview here. On the subject of segment margin, he adds: “Everyone would like higher margins. But there’s enough to make a go of it.”

A key feature of the ’07 Sebring’s marketing push is the availability of a 4-cyl. engine in all trim levels. Among 4-cyl. mills currently powering midsize cars, Chrysler’s 173-hp entry from its World Engine family stands to lead the pack in terms of output.

Available on the Touring and Limited trims are a 189-hp 2.7L E85 flex-fuel V-6 and a 235-hp 3.5L V-6. However, with consumers focusing greater attention on fuel economy, Lyons expects the World Engine to be “far and away” the best seller.

And he dismisses a suggestion domestic car buyers are turned off by 4-cyl. mills in midsize cars. “I don’t plan on just getting the domestic buyers,” Lyons says, listing Toyota Camry and Honda Accord loyalists among Sebring’s target customers.

While the Camry and Accord have been the segment’s top sellers for more than a decade, Lyons’ remarks are not far-fetched, says industry analyst Stephanie Brinley of AutoPacific Inc., noting they demonstrate a resolve that more auto makers should adopt.

“It’s smart not to think about domestic vs. import,” she says. “Just look for your buyers.”

Lyons’ confidence is based on aggressive pricing – the Sebring starts at $18,995 – and innovative feature content such as MyGIG, an audio/video/navigation/communication system.

Supplied by Harman Kardon, the touch-screen device is based on a 20-gigabyte hard drive that enables users to import more than 100 hours of digital music files and play DVDs, but only when the vehicle is parked.

In those areas where the appropriate data is available, real-time traffic information also can be displayed on the high-resolution, center-stack screen. To satisfy the growing trend to enable personalization, MyGIG also can store and display digital photographs.

“You can put a picture of your dog on your screen if you want,” Lyons says. “Just like your computer screensaver.”

Also available is a rear-seat entertainment system, making Sebring the first midsize sedan to offer this feature. Other creature comforts include a heated-and-cooled front cupholder that glows red or blue, depending on the application, because motorists “always have a beverage,” Lyons says.

While the new Sebring should hit dealer showrooms within weeks, MyGIG will not be available until late in the fourth quarter. Pricing has yet to be announced.

Sebring is Chrysler’s seventh second-half product launch this year. Others include the Jeep Compass cross/utility vehicle, Dodge Chassis Cab commercial truck and four SUVs: the 4-and 2-door Jeep Wrangler, Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Nitro.

Still to come before year’s end is the Jeep Patriot CUV, a platform-mate of the Compass and Dodge Caliber.

emayne@wardsauto.com