Happy Friday, Autopians! On today’s episode, we’re looking at two cars that look like nothing special at all – unless you show them to the right people, and then those people get all excited. But before we do, let’s see which Suzuki you picked:
Looks like the boxy off-roader wins it by a nose. But honestly, these are both cool little cars that deserve good homes. Lots of commenters wanted a “Both” choice, and I actually did consider adding one in when I was making the poll. Thinking about it now, that’s the right call. This is a great two-car garage for someone.
When I was looking for cars the other day, I happened upon something I’d never seen before – a Chrysler Sebring with a very rare option package. I immediately consulted our in-house Sebring expert, S.W. Gossin, and he flipped. Did you have any idea there was a “Holy Grail” version of the Chrysler Sebring convertible? Neither did I. Which got me thinking: Could I find another car that’s a rare and special version of an otherwise humdrum car to pit against it? As it turns out, I could. And it’s a car I’m very familiar with. Let’s get to it.
Engine/drivetrain: 2.7 liter dual overhead cam V6, five-speed manual, FWD
Location: Everett, WA
Odometer reading: 130,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sadly, no
The Chrysler Sebring convertible isn’t a car you’ve probably thought about since the last time a rental agent handed you the keys to one fifteen years ago. After bringing convertibles back to America in 1982 with the LeBaron and Dodge 400, Chrysler got pushed aside by, well, everyone else, and although it continued to improve the LeBaron and then made great leaps forward with the Sebring convertible, Chrysler’s drop-top offerings were too often relegated to rental lots and retirees.
But maybe, just maybe, if more enthusiasts had known about this version, the Sebring could have gotten more respect. For its second generation, the Sebring convertible gained a stiffer structure and improved suspension, making it a decent-handling car, and a serious boost in power from Chrysler’s new 2.7 liter V6. And in this version, the GTC, that 200 horsepower engine fed the front wheels through a five-speed stick. I had absolutely no idea this car existed, and I’m kind of a Mopar guy. The only “cloud car” variant with a manual that I knew of was the base-model Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze, with the Neon’s 2.0 liter four and a five-speed. The Sebring GTC is so rare that I actually had trouble finding any information on it; even Allpar, the great repository of Chrysler lore, barely mentions it.
The trouble here is that the Chrysler 2.7 liter V6 has an Achilles heel, and it’s a doozy. The water pump is mounted inside the V between the cylinder banks, driven by the timing chain, and its gasket has a tendency to fail and allow coolant into the oil. This, of course, contaminates the oil, making it slugdy and ineffective at its one job – lubrication. If the problem is ignored, the engine isn’t long for this world. I don’t know for sure if that’s what happened to this one, but it’s the most common failure on these engines, so it’s a good bet.
The rest of the car, however, looks great. The paint is shiny, the convertible top is new, and the interior looks decent. And it’s only a grand. If you’re willing and able to replace the engine yourself, assuming you can find a good used one, you could have a rare and fun summertime toy for not very much money.
Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 2.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD
Location: Salinas, CA
Odometer reading: 189,000 miles
Now, this car, I am familiar with. Mazda’s third-generation Protegé sedan, known as the 323 or Familia in the rest of the world, is the one and only car I ever bought new, in 2002. Mine was a lowly DX model, bereft of power options or even a tach, but it had the tight handling and the smooth-shifting five-speed manual that had gained the Protegé high praise in reviews. I was proud of my plain white sedan, but when I took it in for its first “freebie” oil change, this car was sitting in the showroom: the Mazdaspeed Protegé.
The MS, as it was known in shorthand in Mazda forums, was an improved version of an earlier Protegé performance package, known as the MP3. It carried over the MP3’s four-wheel disc brakes and Racing Beat suspension pieces, but upped the ante with a turbocharged version of the two-liter FS-DE engine, putting out 170 horsepower instead of the MP3’s 140, or my lowly DX’s 130. The requisite boy-racer body kit and rear wing were included too, and if I remember correctly, they only came in two colors – this lurid pearlescent yellow, or a more grown-up looking pewter silver.
This car isn’t stock, but the degree to which it isn’t stock is unclear. The MOMO steering wheel is aftermarket, of course, and made possible by an airbag-delete hub (kids, don’t try this at home). The wheels aren’t standard either; the seller says they’re Mitsubishi Lancer Evo wheels. They look all right, but I do worry that they’d rub. Cosmetically it’s not bad; it’s missing the lower grille in front, and it looks like the plastic side mirrors have faded at a different rate from the rest of the paint, but for a twenty-year-old performance car aimed at young male buyers, it has held up remarkably well.
The seller says it has a new head gasket and water pump; they should have replaced the timing belt too, but it’s worth asking to make sure. It runs well, and passed its California smog test, but is currently unregistered.
“Special Editions” of cars aren’t always all that special; often they’re just some badges and stripes. But sometimes, an option package transforms a car into something very special indeed, though you have to know what you’re looking at to realize it. These two were something special in their day, though they’re lost among their lesser bretheren in the classifieds now. So what’ll it be: a Chrysler convertible with an extra pedal, or a Mazda sedan with a little more zoom-zoom?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)