Where Sebring is King

LAHAINA, Hawaii Mitch Gordon has a thing about convertibles. He's owned ragtops for more than 40 years. He recently purchased an onyx green 2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible to replace his '98. The former Wall Street Journal news executive, who retired here on the island of Maui six years ago, still hasn't figured out how to use the CD, and he grumbles that the owner's manual needs an editor. He couldn't

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Mitch Gordon has a thing about convertibles. He's owned ragtops for more than 40 years. He recently purchased an “onyx green” 2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible to replace his '98.

The former Wall Street Journal news executive, who retired here on the island of Maui six years ago, still hasn't figured out how to use the CD, and he grumbles that the owner's manual needs an editor. He couldn't find “brakes” in the owner's manual, for example, until he discovered the listing in the “A” section under “About the brakes.” Says he: “Am I nuts?”

He chose Sebring because “it's the only convertible with a back seat with room for more than a bag of groceries, and it has a reliability reputation. Why convertibles? “Because the whole world is open to you; the sky is your roof.”

Apparently that goes for hundreds of tourists drawn to Maui at any given time by its amazing beaches and climate — low 80s year around. The island could be a live-action commercial for the Chrysler ragtop. They are literally everywhere.

No one is counting, but an unscientific poll suggests they out-number any other make or model on the island.

Take, for example, the 36-mile, awesomely curving (one count has the curves exceeding 600) and narrow coastline Highway 360 between Hana on the island's eastern edge west to Haiku, where the road straightens out. On one recent day, every other car descending from Haiku was a Sebring with the top down.

In Maui's small cities such as Lahaina, Kahului and Wailea, they are parked or buzzing around in droves. They're mostly rentals though.

Because they are widely considered to be “tourist cars,” local folks — Gordon notwithstanding — are in no rush to put hard cash down to actually buy one.

There's only one Chrysler dealership on Maui, Island Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep, and it doesn't share in the Sebring convertible craze hereabouts.

“They're not special to local people,” says Mike Mayol, the store's assistant sales manager. “We sold maybe 10 or 15 last year.”

Noting that the majority around the island are rentals driven by tourists, he allows that there's a bit of reverse discrimination involved: Because the ragtops are so closely identified with tourists, the locals “don't want to be seen in them,” he says.

Besides, the dealership, that moves about 50 new vehicles monthly, is doing fine with trucks and SUVs, he says. “Everybody wanted the new Durangos, although lately there's been a lull,” he says.

Gordon isn't bothered that his car is a favorite with the rental fleets on the island. But he is cautious about security because the “tourist cars” often are targets of thieves.

A check of several of the island's nine car rental agencies elicits no hard numbers as to how many Sebring ragtops are out there. DaimlerChrysler could supply no registration or sales figures for the island, and says it doesn't break out rentals vs. retail sales.

What is known is that the Sebring convertible is the most popular ragtop in the U.S., based on R.L. Polk & Co. statistics. Last year DaimlerChrysler sold 41,883 of the cars. Apparently it's also a favorite inside DaimlerChrysler where employees at certain levels have a broad choice of cars to lease under corporate plans.

Kristina Paetsch, manager of executive relations in the PR department, took delivery of a black Sebring with a black top in March. “I think it looks elegant,” she says, “and it has enough trunk space for me.”

Kristin Starnes, manager of small car publications for the auto maker, also has an '04 Sebring ragtop.

“I call it my ‘Freedom’ convertible,” she says.

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