The original Neon was revolutionary. Engineered and built in the United States, profitable, economical, and fast, the Neon outpowered most competitors by 30 horsepower and 30 lb-ft of torque. It had an interior larger than nearly anything in its class, and handling which helped it to win SCCA (stock car) races left and right. Automakers scrambled to boost their power and space, and some put a smile shape onto their front clip.
Initial quality glitches and a poor head gasket design (until mid-1998) hurt the Neon; and Chrysler failed to publicize its power, space, and handling advantages, much less its incredible string of racing victories. They didn’t capitalize on it by doing a top-performance version, either. By the time the 1998 models came out, with just about all the problems fixed, the damage had been done.
The second generation was larger than the first, with a less distinctive front clip; its higher reliability did little nothing to rescue the Neon’s fading reputation.
The Neon was still faster than most competitors, with a large interior and good handling. 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.
In 2002, for the first time, the Neon had 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, quite low for the class. In 2003, that automatic was upgraded 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.
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; shifting is more pronounced as you get more aggressive.
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 like it did in our 1995 model, with a lumpy idle and all. While we're at it, the fan made a “leaf stuck in the works” noise just like our 1995 model (yes, leaves get into the fan).
Off-the-line acceleration is good, as is highway passing. 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.
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. 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.
The interior looks cheaper than the original Neon, but the controls feel better. We found the seats less comfortable than in the past, with cheaper looking fabric. 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.
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?
The optional stereo had excellent sound and stereo separation, with separate sliders for bass, midrange, and treble, on the 2003 model. The 2005 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. The fan is quiet even when on full blast, and the air conditioning is exceptionally powerful — an advantage over Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, though it hurts engine power a bit. All controls are designed to be operated by people wearing gloves.
The trunk is large for the class, but the opening is not. 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. Rattles from the frameless windows are gone, as are most of the little Neon quirks. However, putting the Neon into a comfy sweater also took away some of its charm. 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.
The 2003 models changed the front clip for the third time in three years. Going back to the lovable 1995-1999 design is apparently not possible. 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).
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 Neon is even more heavily discounted now, and it works out well. With the automatic, the total on our car - whose only option was an automatic transmission - was $16,355 (after a $940 SXT discount.
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, but lacks power; the aged but heavily discounted Pontiac Sunfire; and the new Chevrolet Cobalt.
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.
All reviews at allpar (including competitors) • Past reviews
Is there an error on this page? Let us know and you could win a prize!
More Mopar Car and Truck News