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Many people imagine when they rent a convertible in America that they’ll be thumping down Highway 1 under a blazing sky in a throbbing Corvette or an evocative Mustang. Yum yum, they think. Freedom. Sunshine. A V8 bass line. Engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans. The American dream.

Sadly, however, most tourists end up with a Chrysler Sebring convertible, which is almost certainly the worst car in the entire world.

My journey in this automotive horror story began in Wendover. Famous for being a base used by the Enola Gay back in 1945, it lies on the border between Utah and Nevada. So half the town is full of man mountains emptying what’s left of their savings into MGM’s shiny and very noisy slots. And the other half is full of Donny Osmond. As you can imagine, I was in a hurry to leave and so I piled, along with my Top Gear colleagues, into the rented Sebring and set off for Denver.

Immediately, I was annoyed by a nonstop whining sound from the back. This turned out to be Richard Hammond, who, despite being 8in tall, claimed that he had never been so uncomfortable in his life, apart from when he was being born. “Only that,” he said, “was more spacious.”

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After several hours of continuous moaning, he changed his tack. I’d selected a “classic vinyl” station on the car’s satellite radio and this did not meet with his approval. As a fan of Westlife and Girls Aloud, he didn’t see why James May and I were air-drum-ming our way across the salt flats to a nonstop selection of brilliance from Supertramp, Yes and the Allman Brothers. Eventually, Hocus Pocus by Focus drove him into such a frenzy of whingeing, we could take no more and drowned him out by turning up Steve Miller to the max.

I can only presume that when Steve went from Phoenix, Arizona, all the way to Tacoma, he was not at the wheel of a Sebring, or the song would have been rather different. “I went from Phoenix, Arizona, to the other side of the city and then I went home again.”

Certainly, we only got as far as Salt Lake City in our rented car before we ditched it and resorted to the services offered by Delta. It had been 120 miles of abject misery, and not only because of the unswervingly pissed-off Richard Hammond.

Let us look, first of all, at the car’s only good point. The boot is bigger than the hangar deck of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. However, the drawback of driving a car with an aircraft carrier on the back is that it doesn’t look very good. No. That doesn’t cover it. It looks terrible. Hysterically awful. Anyone thinking of drawing up a list of the ugliest cars ever made will be forced to put this one at the top. I have seen more attractive boils.

And disappointingly, if you push the button that lowers the roof - and then push it again because it isn’t working properly - you will find that a) all of the carrying capacity is lost, and that b) with no roof in place, everyone can see you at the wheel. This is very bad. Some, for sure, give you pitying looks. Mostly, though, they point and laugh.

So how much do you have to pay for the privilege of being a laughing stock? Well in the US, it’s around $29,000 (£16,400). You could buy a clown suit for less and achieve much the same effect. Here, however, a 2.7 litre drop-top Sebring is £25,100 and at that price, I simply don’t know how the salesman keeps a straight face.

Power? There isn’t any. Spec sheets show that in Britain, a 2.7 litre V6 will do 121mph and 0-62mph in 10.8.

But 10.8 what? Years? Let me put it this way. It develops 185bhp, which is pretty much what Volvo can get these days from a 2.4 litre diesel.

I’m afraid I have no idea which engine was fitted to my rental but I can tell you that all it did was convert fuel into noise. Put your foot down hard and after a while of nothing happening, the gearbox would lurch down a cog and the volume would increase. That was it.

Sadly, there’s more bad news. Turning petrol into motion, as we know, is an expensive business, but turning it into sound is even worse. We managed just 18mpg. Quite why anyone would buy this rather than, say, a Volkswagen Eos, I simply do not know. You’d have to be so window-lickingly insane that you’d be banned from handling anything other than crayons.

A Sebring can do nothing well. It was hopeless in crosswinds and the only option you need on a twisty road are sick bags. I n t e r e s t i n g l y , however, while the ride is very soft, the suspension still manages to crash about like a drawer full of cutlery when it is asked to deal with a small pothole.

And of course, being an American rental car, it came with a warped disc brake and steering that was so out of whack it kept making a beeline for Wyoming. But the worst thing was the overwhelming sense from everything you touched that it had been built by someone who was being deliberately stupid or who was four years old. Life inside that bag of crap plastic gave me some idea of what it might be like to be a boiled sweet.

We see this with so many American cars. Dynamically, some of them are pretty good these days. One or two are even a match for what the Chinese are doing. And by and large they are still extremely cheap. But there’s a very good reason for this. They are simply not built to last.

I spent most of my time in America this time in a new Corvette ZR1. It is a fabulous car. Mesmerisingly fast, good looking and amazing value. But after three days the damn thing was beginning to disintegrate. It made me growl with annoyance and despair.

But I think I know the problem. Because America is a new country, the people who live there have no sense of history. And if you have no concept of “the past”, it is extremely difficult to grapple with the idea of “the future”.

If you think a bar established in 1956 is “old” then you will not understand the idea of next week. So why bother building for it?

We see this short-termism in everything from the average American house, which falls over whenever the wind gets up, to the way chief executives are treated. In Japan, you are given 25 years before you are judged on whether you’ve turned the company around. In America, bosses are given two months. And if there’s been no financial about-turn, they are fired.

AIG and Lehman Brothers got caught out because they were being run by people who live only in the here and now. They couldn’t see that it would all come crashing down in the future because there’s no such thing.

I suppose eco-mentalists would use this argument as a stick to beat the pickup driving masses. But how can Hank and Billy-Bob think about the world ending in a thousand years when everything they know, everything they are, began a week last Tuesday?

And this brings me on to the war in Iraq. They went in there, knowing that pretty quickly they could depose Saddam Hussein. But nobody in power stopped for a moment to think about what might happen next. And there you have it. The insurgency problem in Baghdad and the wonky gearlever on the Chrysler Sebring. They are both caused by exactly the same thing.

And the only cure, frankly, is time. Give them 2,000 years and they might just start to understand what I’m on about. Until then, do not buy a Sebring. Do not rent one either. Close your eyes, hum and, hopefully, we can make it go away.

ENGINE 2736cc, six cylinders
POWER 185bhp @ 6400rpm
TORQUE 188 lb ft @ 4000rpm
TRANSMISSION Six-speed auto
FUEL/CO2 26.9mpg / 248g/km
ACCELERATION 0-62mph: 10.8sec
TOP SPEED 121mph
PRICE £25,100
ROAD TAX BAND G (£400 a year)
Clarkson’s verdict All that’s missing is the clown suit Chrysler

Sebring Cabriolet 2.7 V6
(No stars)
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