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At the outset of developing the Neon, the small car platform team asked customers what they wanted, but didn't get the kind of focus they needed, according to Joe Caddell, General Product Manager of the Small Car Team. “Then we asked ourselves, 'Let's ask people what they don't like in a small car.' At that point, we began to get clear feedback that would begin to point us in the right direction.”
They met with customers earlier and more often than any new car program Chrysler has ever undertaken, and found that:
John Fernandez, Executive Engineer, Small Car Platform Engineering, agreed: “We felt we really did know who our customer was, what he or she wanted and that helped us maintain our focus. Our people knew what they wanted to do in terms of fun-to-drive and never lost sight of that.”
Cliff Davis, executive engineer for body-in-white and chassis engineering, said, “It had to have good value, quality and offer the ultimate in small-car performance and handling, as well as a competitive ride. ... Neon is best-in-class in several areas, performance and room, handling and steering, to name just a few.”
Engineering a car that had good value and thoughtful features and would be fun to drive were major criteria, but some of the customer inputs in this regard sometimes got lost in translation. As Fernandez said, “At first, we came back to the other engineers and said, 'This will be easy. All you have to do is make it fun to drive.' They looked at us and said: 'Yes, but what is fun-to-drive?'”
The development engineers went back to the customers a second time and asked for a more detailed account of what they really meant. Fernandez said, “We began to see that customers had very clear expectations for things like steering, acceleration and braking.”
One element of "fun-to-drive" had to do with steering response and precision. As one customer explained, "When I turn the wheel, the car should feel like it's turning now!" The team realized they could measure responsiveness and precision by measuring how the car rolls, the linearity of the steering and on-center feel.
The team benchmarked dozens of cars against customers' impressions and identified which qualified as "fun-to-drive." Using those cars' measurements, the team created targets for Neon. It became clear that Neon had to have steering that was instantly responsive and, equally important, precise.
To achieve that, the vehicle development group had to expand its scope to embrace key component and systems suppliers and make them working members. Fernandez continued, “We knew it would take more than just a bunch of vehicle dynamics guys to make it happen, so we invited people from TRW for steering, Gabriel for shocks and Goodyear for tires to join us.”
Identifying the individual suppliers and contracting them even before the development cycle began was to be another asset, he asserts. “We couldn't 'play' one supplier against another like in the old days.” Development engineers regularly visited supplier facilities and, in turn, had the suppliers on site at Chrysler.
"We even went to England to TRW's factory to learn their processes first-hand," he noted. "At the same time, we tried to get them to be more vehicle-oriented and understand that when you did something with a shock absorber, for example, what effect it had on a vehicle. We found there were a lot of things we learned about the systems or components and, conversely, they learned a lot more about vehicles."
Neon's steering system (manual rack-and-pinion standard, power-assisted optional), which Davis predicts will be a best-in-class feature, has a new gear designed for quiet operation. A new high-torsional stiffness steering column coupling has also greatly enhanced steering precision and therefore the fun-to-drive attributes of Neon.
Suspension systems on Neon were completely new and fully independent. The front suspension has a McPherson strut design, with unique geometry that enhances steering feel and promotes longer tire life. [Owners can attest to that.] It includes urethane jounce bumpers, front sway bar on vehicles equipped with touring or sport suspension, cast steering knuckle, cast one-piece lower control arm, bracket-type two-bolt strut-to-knuckle attachment and a suspension crossmember with a bobble strut attachment (manual transaxle only).
Caster and camber are fixed settings on all vehicles. The front springs are chosen for vehicle weight, options and handling packages. Also, lower control arms attach to the frame and suspension crossmembers with low-rate rubber bushings for reduced noise.
The rear suspension is a multi-link independent type with two lateral arms and a fore-aft tension strut on each side. It also includes Chapman strut dampers and urethane jounce bumpers. A linked sway bar will be added to vehicles with sport suspensions. The suspension is rubber mounted for noise suppression.
Neon's brake system was a new design with front discs and rear drums standard, specifically designed to be lightweight. The front brake assembly uses single piston floating calipers. The system uses asbestos-free brake pads and incorporates anti-rattle devices. A vented-style, 20-millimeter x 240 millimeter front rotor with a four-bolt pattern is used on Neon's standard 1 3-inch wheels. Front brake shoes have semi-metallic lining.
Rear drum brakes are of a leading-trailing design with self-adjusters and a self-adjusting parking brake mechanism. The master cylinder is a new lightweight, anodized aluminum design.
The optional anti-lock braking system also is lighter than previous units. The system includes an electronic controller, a modulator or hydraulic control unit, wheel-speed sensors, relays and wiring; it was designed to pass feedback through to the driver. Making ABS an option was based on customer feedback.
Although the Neon's tires carry a familiar brand name (Goodyear), the tread design and rubber compound were developed to be exclusive to Neon. (The Goodyear RS-A tires used on the Neon Sport were later used on many other cars, including the New Beetle Convertible.)
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