Fifty years ago, little Bob Goldenthal, holding a helium balloon from a family visit to the zoo, was returning home in his dad's spiffy convertible.

Dad said, "So you don't lose the balloon, let's tie the string to your wrist." Three-year-old Bob said no. Up and away went the balloon minutes later. Down came the tears.

Mr. Goldenthal got over that childhood traumatic experience. He's now the planning executive for the redone 2001 Chrysler Sebring convertible. It's a role he takes seriously, but enjoys.

"It's a fun product to plan," he says. "But it can be difficult because you're tempted to add extras, and yet it becomes a question of how much will the customer pay."

The Sebring leads America's convertible segment - and DaimlerChrysler AG wants to keep it that way.

The 2001 version arrives at dealerships with greater performance from a new engine and more athletic definition from restyling.

Americans buy about 250,000 convertibles annually. The Sebring has captured about 20% of those sales since it debuted in 1996, replacing the LaBaron as Chrysler's segment entry.

Convertibles were a fading breed a few years back. But sales increased steadily in the last four years. That's expected to keep going. Total segment sales are projected to hit 275,000 units by 2005, says Kipp Owen, senior manager of DC's Sebring/Stratus vehicle development.

"We intend to keep our market leadership," he says.

The Sebring convertible hit dealerships in January. Winter may seem an off time for the arrival of a ragtop - at least in cold climates. Oddly enough, February-April is a brisk sales period for convertibles, says Maureen Edson, a Chrysler brand specialist.

"It leads in to the summer season," she says. "And surprisingly, cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia are huge convertible markets year round."

The new Sebring features a 2.7-liter V6 DOHC engine with four-speed automatic trans-axle and 200 horsepower (32 more than the old Sebring's 2.5-liter engine). Also in and on the new model are double wishbone front and rear suspension systems, 15-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes.

A new front hood and raised decklid create a wedge-shape profile. Chrysler stylists pushed the headlamps out to the sides to give the car a wider look.

The base model is $24,945. The LXI mid-range model is $27,405 and the top-end limited edition $29,490.

Ms. Edson says today's customers buy convertibles at different times in their lives and for different reasons than before.

She explains, "The old view was that a convertible purchase came later, a reward after years of hard work.

"The new view is that it's essential early on to the lives of successful people. The fun of owning a convertible is part of their mental health."

A cut-off device prevents an occupant from lowering or raising the top if the Sebring is moving more than a few miles an hour.

Who on earth would try to fiddle with the top while the car is in motion?

Says Mr. Goldenthal, "About 15%-30% of Sebring convertibles go to rental fleets because they're ideal vacation vehicles. But, you know, some people in a rental may be driving 50 miles per hour in Orlando and say, `Gee, it's a nice day, let's put the top down.'"

And hang on to those balloons.

Sales and F&I consultants can of ten be useful, but let the dealer beware.

So says veteran dealer accountant Carl Woodward, of Woodward & Associates, Bloomington, IL, who cautions that many consulting firms "offer only temporary benefits at very high costs."

"It seems that most of the benefits received while consultants are at the dealership `disappear' six months after they leave," he contends.

On the side of prudence, Mr. Woodward advises dealers to do the following before taking on a sales consultant:

1. Get all representations in writing.

2. Interview the actual consultant, not just the firm's promoter.

3. Ask for references, including all dealers who used the consultant within the last six months. Call the dealers to find out how effective the advice proved - and whether it still applies 180 days later.

4. Determine if the costs for the consulting agreement are reasonable.

5. Develop a means for measuring near-term and long-term performance.

6. Try to arrange a refund if performance guarantees are not met.

"In many cases, consultants can help the sales department improve its effectiveness," says Mr. Woodward, whose CPA firm is a member of the AutoCPA Group.

But he adds, "If dealers don't research the firm beforehand and work out performance standards, costs incurred probably will not equal benefits received by the dealership."