Specifications at the end of this review. Now covers 2003 and 2005 models.
Most people have forgotten that the original Neon was revolutionary. Both designed and built in the United States (unlike the Focus), profitable (unlike the Cavalier), economical, and fast, the Neon featured an engine with about 30 horsepower more than most competitors, complete with an extra 30 lb-ft of torque. It also had an interior larger than nearly anything in its class, and surprisingly good handling which helped it to win SCCA (stock car) races left and right. Every other automakers scrambled to boost their engine power and interior space, and more than one put a smile shape onto their front clip to match the Neon's audaciously cute form.
As the years wore on, the Neon started to look less attractive. Initial quality glitches and a poor head gasket design, resulting in a nearly 100 percent failure rate for the first three years it was built, hurt the Neon, and Chrysler never really advertised its power, space, and handling advantages - or the incredible string of racing victories the little Neon had amassed. Nor did they ever come out with a high-performance version, aside from the DOHC, with barely more power than the standard 132 horse 2.0 (the ACRs featured superior handling and acceleration, thanks to suspension and gear ratio tweaks). By the time the 1998 models came out, with just about all the problems of early models fixed, the damage had been done.
The second generation - larger than the first, with a less distinctive front clip but higher reliability but did little nothing to rescue the Neon's fading reputation, despite ACR gear ratios on manual transmissions (making them noisy and thirsty at highway speed, but equaling the speed of earlier, lighter models).
Still, the Neon has remained a good buy. It is still faster than most competitors, has a large interior, and handles very well. Compared to the Corolla, the Neon is a high performance sports car. It does well compared to the Civic EX as well, and lower Civics need not apply. Grassroots Motorsports found that the Neon R/T beat all comers in its class, including the Civic Si and Focus SVT.
For the first time since its introduction in 1993, the Neon was given a four-speed automatic in 2002 - badly tuned at first, but with one more speed than in the past. Gas mileage was still a disappointing 24 city, 31 highway, far better than any truck or minivan but low for the class (the Corolla gets about ten mpg more, though equivalent Hyundais are similar). In 2003, that automatic was upgraded quite a bit, with revised gear ratios that make for faster, firmer shifts and better acceleration. Our 2005 model, though, was tuned for more gentle, slower shifts, which made the car feel less responsive - still, the gear ratios seemed appropriate.
The 2002 transmission sometimes shifted roughly, took a long time to make up its mind about downshifting, and had no manual second-gear position. It also shifted early, sadly not making good use of the peppy engine - though it is decent enough off the line, and the exhaust is tuned for a nice low growl.
The 2003 and newer transmission is firmer but, under gentle acceleration, shifts are practically unnoticeable. It is faster to downshift, and when the throttle is floored it will hold the current gear all the way up to redline, which makes sprints much faster and minimizes shift bogging (where the engine ends up out of its power band after a shift). One-third throttle provides the best blend of speed and comfort, with smoother shifts coming a little before redline. Under full throttle, shifting is more pronounced and feels (but probably isn't) slower, particularly with the wide gear spacing that leads to "bogging" when the engine falls out of its power band.
Fourth gear is a little low, leading to vibration and lower gas mileage at high speeds. The 2003 engine was still growly and the exhaust was tuned for a deep implied-performance note, which some may take for lack of refinement. In 2005, the engine sounded surprisingly like it did in our 1995 model, and had a lumpy idle as well. While we're at it, the fan made a "leaf stuck in the works" noise just like our 1995 model...we suspect because a leaf was stuck in it.
Off-the-line acceleration is good, as is highway passing, where the fast downshifting of the current transmission is quite handy. This is an adaptive transmission which adjusts to your tastes, so after driving for a couple of weeks, it can read your mind better than it did when you first drove it. We got to like it more and more, though we wish it shifted more quickly.
Perhaps it's time going by and competition getting better, but the Neon with automatic didn't seem as quick as in years past, though it did feel solid, firmly footed, and stable, providing the feel of a much heavier car. (We remember the maligned, nearly-forgotten Sundance for that, but the Neon corners much better.) The Neon's surefootedness is still its strongest competitive point.
The manual transmission is easy to use, and makes the Neon far faster than it is with the automatic, while giving you much better gas mileage and $825 in your pocket. Do yourself a favor and learn to drive a stick - it's worth it in the Neon, and in many other cars, too. But if you need an automatic, be sure to get a 2003 or later model.
The interior looks cheaper than the original Neon, but the switchgear feels better. Controls tend to have a high quality feel. We found the seats less comfortable than in the past, but that is a matter of taste. The 2003 model had cheaper looking fabric than prior years, and the 2005 continued the trend. On the other hand, its child-seat LATCH system is easier to use than most, and we like the hinged back restraint latch (you won't lose the cap). The tilt steering is also a superior design, with a continuous range so you can get it "just right." The aluminum wheels also look better than those of prior models.
The instrument panel is similar to other Chrysler vehicles, with black on white gauges surrounded by black bezels. Some Canadian and European Neons (in Europe, it's the Chrysler Neon) have a 300M style interior which would be welcome in this car - why should classy interiors be saved for full size cars? All gauges are full sized, making them easy to read. The odometer region also contains warning signals (which are unseen until used) for things like open doors.
Most controls are conventional and in sensible places. The cruise was mounted on the steering wheel, but is now on a separate, Toyota-style stalk - the same one the Corolla uses; the mirrors and front window controls are on the door. As always, the Neon features power front and manual rear windows. You can't get power rear windows.
The optional stereo had excellent sound and stereo separation, with separate sliders for bass, midrange, and treble, on the 2003 model. Balance and fade are handled by knobs, as they should be. The CD changer was mainly invisible without bending over - not a good placement, so load it before you drive. The 2005 model had the new corporate stereo with integrated changer; its sound is good, though not as good as prior optional stereos, but the midrange control isn't included, and bass, treble, balance, and fade are all handled by pressing the Audio button, then moving the volume knob.
The climate controls are poorly designed in one respect - to turn on the air conditioner, you turn the fan knob to the left. To shut it off, you turn the fan knob to the right. This nonsensical system has led many Neon owners to drive with air conditioning on all the time, and is inconvenient even for those who understand it. The vent control makes much more sense, and was one of the first to let people choose positions between, say, bi-level and heat. The fan is quiet even when on full blast, and the air conditioning is exceptionally powerful - a major advantage over Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, though it hurts engine power a bit. All controls are designed to be operated by people wearing gloves.
Head room is good in front, and moderately good in the rear. Rear leg room is good for the class, and there are two pass-throughs to the trunk (we miss the original Neon's fold-down seats). Those who inhabit the back seat have no cup holders (except if the top of the front console box is swung all the way out, which provides one light-duty holder and also a small tissue box), while the front has three and a place for things like highway passes or sunglasses; the front console also has a clever built-in coin stacker/holder, which is far easier to use than most. Both front doors have map pockets, both rear passengers could use nets attached to the back of the front seats in 2002 and 2003, but not in 2005, when the nets had gone. The glove compartment has inserts for a pencil and a tire pressure gauge, handy little features.
The trunk is large for the class, but the opening is not, so it may be hard to put oversized objects in. A separate cutout makes it easy to get to the spare tire without emptying the trunk completely.
This Neon is more comfortable in many ways than the original. The suspension is better at isolating the passengers from bumpy roads, while retaining the Neon's superior handling. Small complaints, such as rattles from the frameless windows, are gone, as are most of the little Neon quirks first-generation owners had to deal with. However, putting the Neon into a comfy sweater also took away some of its charm. Chrysler execs apparently did not understand that you do not change a winning style - the new front clip is nowhere as good as the original, and took away much of the Neon's distinctive look. The interior changes seem to be largely unnecessary, and the one feature which should have been changed - the a/c control - was not. There are also still no rear power windows, though you can get traction control with the antilock brakes. At some point in the second generation's life, they also took away the passenger-side door lock, a general but unfortunate trend. While the owner's manual says you can do it, we were unable to open all the locks from the driver's lock - though the key fob worked fine.
The 2003 models changed the front clip for the third time in three years, making it more consistent with Chrysler's big-selling Dodge Caravan, of all things. Going back to the lovable 1995-1999 design is apparently not acceptable. The current clip includes a cross-eyed-headlight look, with driving lights in the inner part of the headlights. There is also now a limited-edition SRT-4 model with stunning acceleration and handling (see Allpar review). One nice feature of the 2005 model is a slightly nicer-looking underhood area with more chrome; and we noticed that at least on our atuomatic-equipped SXT, access seemed easier.
For the casual buyer, the Neon offers a good value, thanks partly to massive incentives. The base price of our 2002 model, $14,730 (working out to around $11,500 "actual" price), was quite reasonable, and includes air conditioning, a six-speaker CD player, rear defroster, intermittent wipers, tilt wheel, tachometer, keyless entry, light package, and other niceties. Our loaded model had ABS ($740), a power moonroof (it goes up and down, but doesn't slide open), cassette/CD changer, side airbags, auto locks, an alarm, automatic transmission ($825), spoiler, and chrome wheels ($600). It adds up.
Our 2003 model ran for $15,675 base (with $2,500 of rebates that's $13,175 before haggling and dealer discounts) with an automatic - but it had been decontented, with no ABS, traction control, moonroof, side airbags, or cruise control. It did have auto locks, Sentry Key theft prevention, map lights in the day/night mirror, electric trunk release, power front windows and mirrors, an alarm, chrome wheels, and a good quality CD player.
Our 2005 Dodge Neon SXT actually had a $15,925 list price, but the SXT model had Sentry Key, air conditioning, a rear defroster, intermittent wipers, CD 6-speaker stereo, tilt steering, tachometer, keyless entry, power front windows, speed-sensitive locks, power trunk lid, power mirrors, and aluminum wheels. The door locks, by the way, lock at a certain speed, but don't unlock automatically, which can be rather annoying. The feature can be easily shut off, as can the overly-loud horn chirp on lock. That price seems rather steep, but the Neon is even more heavily discounted now, and it works out well, though we miss cruise control and ABS. With the automatic, the total on our car - whose only option was an automatic transmission - was $16,355 (after a $940 SXT discount; far be it from us to understand Chrysler's pricing schemes, which appear to have been designed by airline executives).
Other good drives in this price class include the Toyota Corolla, which layers on comfort, fuel economy, and reliability at the cost of handling; the Mitsubishi Lancer, a competent sedan which has just been redecorated, and lacks only power; the aged but heavily discounted Pontiac Sunfire; and the new Chevrolet Cobalt, which may be the best of the bunch. You may also want to try a PT Cruiser, which you can probably get for $14,000 with good bargaining, and which delivers good handling, comfort, and interior space, albeit with poor gas mileage.
The Neon is still a good value, even with the automatic, and even in what may be its final year. It's worth an open-minded test drive, especially with the seven year, 100,000 mile warranty and Chrysler's ongoing quality enhancements. Many people are shocked at the Neon's interior space, acceleration, and, especially, its sports-car handling and stability. We think you may be pleasantly surprised, too.
Neon does better in handling, acceleration, and horsepower, and not as well in gas mileage; all three are roughly similar in space.
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