SANTA MONICA, CA – DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group is betting on the power of three with its all-new ’08 Sebring convertible that features three trim lines, three engine choices and three roof types to choose from.

For convertible traditionalists, there are vinyl and cloth roofs. “Some convertible buyers insist on a ragtop,” says David Lauzun, senior manager for the vehicle’s development.

For those who like the latest in convertible technology, there is the retractable hardtop. It makes a coupe a convertible, and vice versa, in 30 seconds.

The hardtop is a first for the Sebring, which has been the best-selling convertible in the U.S. for seven of the past 11 years. The Sebring follows several other vehicles into the growing hardtop convertible segment, including the Volkswagen Eos and Volvo C70.

But the Sebring is the first 4-passenger convertible to offer three top selections. (The Mazda MX5 offers three, too, but it’s a 2-seater.)

All of the Sebring tops are power-operated from an instrument panel switch as well as a key-fob button. That’s a first such application for Chrysler. Other modern amenities are heated and cooled cupholders.

Chrysler went for “purposeful technology” with such innovations, says Dave Rooney, director-Chrysler marketing and global communications. “It is technology that benefits the customer, not something that we did just because you can do it.”

Chrysler has sold 475,000 Sebring convertibles in the last 10 years. The U.S. convertible segment averages about 100,000 deliveries annually. The segment is expected to grow steadily in part because of increased consumer interest in retractable hardtops. They make for “365-day vehicles,” says Rooney.

The exterior design is “dramatically different than the car it replaced,” says Mark Hall, the car’s senior design manager.

The side profile is higher in back than front, giving the vehicle a sweeping appearance and taking some design cues from the Chrysler 300, he says.

“People are forgiving of a convertible with the top up, but it has to look great with the top down,” says Hall. Convertibles, he says, are “a design challenge.”

The new car is 2.9 ins. (7.37 cm) longer, 3.5 ins. (8.89 cm) taller and 2 ins. (5.08 cm) wider than its predecessor.

One reason for the increased length is to make possible what Lauzun says was a must for the vehicle project: enough trunk room to hold two golf bags, even with the top down and folded into the trunk.

“We designed the rear end around our insistence that the trunk accommodate two sets of golf clubs,” he says. “No other convertible can do that.”

Owing to reinforced steel across the body, the new Sebring convertible is 2.5 times stiffer than the exiting vehicle.

That firmness is most apparent while driving the vehicle along twisting canyon roads north of greater Los Angeles. The Sebring stays strong and never gets jumpy. The days of sloppy handling and shaking cowls are fading fast for convertibles, thanks to advances in body design and high-strength steel bracing.

Also becoming a thing of the past is the feeling you are in a wind tunnel when traveling in a convertible with the top down. Solving that problem for the Sebring is a detachable rear windscreen that effectively blocks the breeze. But when snapped in, it renders the back seats inaccessible for occupants.

That might be an unintended blessing because – even though Chrysler designers tried to make the back seats roomier than the typical convertible –

it still is a tight fit for average-size adults. Lest someone feel trapped back there, the car includes armrests and bottle-holders in the trim panels.

Lauzun says Chrysler engineers tested the windscreen by driving the vehicle around chilly Detroit during the winter. “The windscreen did a great job, but we got a lot of strange looks.”

The Sebring’s three engine choices start with the basic 2.4L 4-cyl. providing 173 hp, a 15% boost compared with the previous Sebring convertible.

Next is a flex-fuel 2.7L V-6 that offers 189 hp and provides more low-end torque than the exit vehicle. A flex-fuel vehicle is capable of running on a mix of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

The most powerful engine is a 3.5L V-6 with 235 hp and 232 lb.-ft. (314.5 nm) of torque coupled with a new 6-speed automatic transaxle.

The three trim levels are the base convertible ($26,145), a touring version ($28,745) that is expected to make up the bulk of volume and a limited edition ($32,345). A $675 destination charge is included.

“Check all the option boxes and the transaction will be about $38,675,” says Rooney. There are five option packages. “We’re trying to keep it simpler for customers and easier for dealers to order,” he says.

Demographically, average buyers are 40 to 60 years old; about 70% of them married; 60% college educated and earning a medium income of $90,000. There is a 50/50 male-female split.

They are people who embrace “the great notion of driving just because,” says Hall. “Nothing conveys that more than a convertible.”

But sometimes the vagaries of life take hold. It rained during one media preview of the new convertible in Southern California. During a subsequent preview, a major accident closed part of the designated route and created a legendary slow- to non-moving California traffic jam part of the time.

But if every day were a top-down, blue-sky, open-road experience, then the days that are wouldn’t be so special for convertible drivers.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com