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After nearly ten years of anticipation, Mopar enthusiasts finally received the long-rumored turbocharged Neon - we mean, SRT-4. Just as the Neon has been at the top of its class in SCCA racing, the SRT-4 is at the top of its class for performance. What's more, with room for four to travel in comfort, a shape that allows tall people to sit in all four seats, and a capacious trunk (which will hold a portable crib either lengthwise or sideways), and reasonable gas mileage, the SRT-4 has enough practical value to serve as a daily driver for a family.
For those who need the sound of muscle, the SRT-4 sounds like a Camaro SS, which has double the cylinders. The sound is an accurate predictor of performance in this case, with some magazines finding 0-60 in as little as 5.6 seconds.
The engine was surprisingly responsive and smooth throughout the speed range, though it naturally prefers to be in higher rpms than an old-fashioned V8. The main trick to getting maximum performance is using the last inch of pedal travel. Tred lightly, and you get performance better than a Neon - that is, far ahead of the Civic and Focus. But push down more, and suddenly the docile little family sedan becomes a leopard, surging forward with a loud whistle from the turbocharger. That little trick is good for smooth, fast power at any speed we could reasonably test at.
The SRT-4 is designed for overall performance, not just for magazine tests. Some vehicles, such as the Matrix XRS, can do a sprint quite well in expert hands, but aren't very quick in ordinary driving, because they need to be revved up over 7,000 rpm. The SRT-4's redline is relatively low, but it pulls well from launch up to redline, without any jar as it reaches new cam or valve programs. At highway speeds, downshifting produces better results, but you only have to drop into fourth, not third.
In a related note, putting on the air conditioning or going uphill doesn't seem to faze the engine, partly because in addition to 215 horsepower, it has 245 lb-ft of torque - differentiating it from vehicles that are long on horsepower, short on grunt.
For one who have not driven a turbo car in a while, the SRT-4 was surprisingly smooth, without a sudden shock of power as the turbo kicks in. It's also far easier to control, with torque steer largely controlled and taken out of the picture. The clutch is not very different from the standard Neon, avoiding the heaviness in some performance cars. Shifting is remarkably easy, letting you concentrate on getting a good launch, and avoiding those slow-moving vehicles that are gliding into your path.
The ride is surprisingly good, with bumps softened despite considerably more stiffness than a stock Neon. In full performance trim, the SRT-4 still feels better on the road than a stock Honda Civic. It cushions well but you still feel the road.
The interior is similar to the Neon, with some enhancements (a relief given that the 300M Special actually has a decontented interior from the 300M Base!). Like other new Neons, the center stack has a chromed bezel, with chromed rings surrounding each of the a/c controls. Likewise, the instrument panel has chromed rings around each gauge, Chrysler-style, while the black-on-white numbers are in the sporty Dodge face. A boost/vacuum gauge, stuck into the sunglass perch almost as an afterthought, sort of matches the overall effect, and provides useful information - the inclusion of vacuum along with boost is a good idea. All gauges have green backlighting at night, an interesting choice (the original Neon had amber backlighting to preserve night vision). Our testcar had a dark grey / black interior with leather trim on the cloth seats. The stickshift is a chrome ball taken from the PT Cruiser. Overall, fit and finish was surprisingly good, and the controls all had the quality feel normally associated with Toyota.
Air conditioning seems somewhat less powerful than a Neon, but still better than a Civic or Corolla. The stereo has very good sound but needs to be cranked to be heard over the engine. The speaker tuning makes sound better for the driver, but good enough for the passenger.
The front clip is very different from past Neons and a bit different from the 2004s, appearing to belong more to the Subaru Impreza, incuding crosseyed driving-lights-within-headlights and a hood scoop with "2.4 Turbo" inscribed subtly into the surface pattern. Mark Cavanaugh pointed out that the scoop directs fresh air onto the turbo to keep it cool.
The engine itself seems to fit surprisingly well, and indeed a number of people have been fitting 2.4 liter engines into Neons for added performance (150 horsepower rather than 133 in base trim, with better low-end torque). The 2.4 is used in the Stratus, PT Cruiser, and base minivans, and a turbocharged version has been a staple of Mexican vehicles for years (they are especially useful in Mexico City's rarified atmosphere). The SRT version looks about the same as the standard 2.0 engine from the outside, except that normally black parts are chromed, and the 2.4 Turbo name is spelled out clearly on the valve cover and on the removable plastic fuel rail cover. It doesn't seem as though it was shoehorned in, so maintenance and repairs should not be impossible. The intercooler is below the radiator, so drivers must be careful not to ram parking barriers and such, but it is a good spot to capture fresh air.
While the SRT-4 takes premium fuel, and burns it more quickly than a normal Neon, the gas tank is not any bigger, so that the cruising range is rather smaller - about 260 to 360 miles. Gas mileage is quite good for this class of vehicle, with EPA estimates of 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. We'd concur with those estimates - even with lots of jackrabbit starts and heavy turbo use, the SRT-4 isn't too bad with fuel, especially compared with other sub-six-second vehicles.
On the down side, the SRT-4's exhaust (no muffler!) is far too loud for normal driving, not unlike the aforementioned Camaro SS. While the deep rumble is far better than the whiney kazoo-like noise made by modified Civics, it does get tiring after a while, and eliminates any sleeper potential of this heavily modified Neon. Owners can, of course, add a high-flow muffler and make this car nice and quiet, all the better to surprise the odd Eclipse and Civic Si owner with - and making the car more suitable for long trips and family use. Those who demand the highest performance or who use their SRT for racing will probably opt to keep the stock system - resonator only - noise and all.
While the SRT-4 comes with such niceties as a CD player, rear defroster, air, tach, and power mirrors, locks, and windows, only the front windows are powered - the back windows have cranks.
The Viper-style seats are a point of contention. On the one hand, they provide very good lateral support, with the driver wedged between bolsters on all surfaces. On the other hand, the lumbar support is not adjustable and rather excessive, and those who do not fit between the bolsters will find the seats uncomfortable. We have not verified this, but we have heard that stock Neon seats will fit in an SRT, and can imagine many Neon owners willing to trade - so this is not an insurmountable problem.
A number of minor conveniences make life with the SRT-4 easier than with most sports cars. We've mentioned the full size trunk, with rear seat pass-throughs, but not the three front cup holders, EZ-pass (or pen) older, sunglass bins, and center stack tray, the sizable covered console in the middle of the front seats, the front mapholders, and the usable glove compartment. There is, though, no standard cruise control, presumably because those who buy an SRT-4 will want to enjoy driving it as much as they can.
Handling is very good, though the tires let out premature squeals when entering a turn under power, and there can be tire skipping if you try to launch quickly while turning. Otherwise, the SRT-4 always felt stable and in control. It handles acceleration on turns very well if you are already going at a decent clip, especially given the front wheel drive design (which will be welcome in winter, when a gentle foot on the gas pedal will yield easy and safe winter driving). A limited slip differential will reportedly be available on 2004 models, but traction control would probably be a very handy option.
Our test car listed at $19,995, including destination, an incredible price for this much performance - consider that the SRT-4 is nearly the size of a Camry or Accord! That price includes the features we mentioned earlier, as well as four-wheel antilock disk brakes, Sentry Key antitheft, tilt wheel, fog lights, and a remote trunk release. Powertrain coverage is seven years, 70,000 miles, and is, unusually, accompanied by towing assistance for the full seven years or 70,000 miles. There is also a standard 3/36 warranty.
There is precious little true competition for the Dodge SRT-4. The Audi TT is slower, claustrophobic, kitschy, and simply not as much fun, not to mention far less practical and far more expensive. The all wheel drive Subaru SVX is most similar, but costs considerably more and has lower acceleration and more turbo lag - some would say the premium price is worth the all wheel drive. The Civic Si, Focus SVT, and Matrix XRS have a hard time keeping up with a Neon R/T, and are simply not in the SRT's class.
For $20,000, the Dodge SRT-4 is simply the best performance bargain available. It has strong acceleration, good handling, a sizable, usable interior, and a proven drivetrain, without sacrificing much comfort or gas mileage. While many may be turned off by loud exhaust and seats, a high-flow muffler can be added and the seats replaced. We suggest you test one out soon, while you still can.
The dealer's folks were knowledgeable and excited about the car (they had three in yellow, red and silver) and were charming. The one I drove fired up with an impressive engine note, and idled smoothly and unobtrusively in the passenger compartment.
The power was amazingly good without any indication of strain, and the noise was subdued for an open exhaust (maybe 3-5 dB more at WOT than my '96 Neon). The tires and suspension are both unobtrusive and competent, giving the driver a connectedness to the road without frazzling kickback - an upscale experience. All of the controls operate smoothly, even the rumored-to-be stiff and clunky transmission - the NV T850 feels as light as that in my Neon but much better connected. Same for the clutch.
This car is put together in a way that my old Neon never was (regardless of the power train). My old Neon has never had problems with wind noise, but this guy was really quiet in the wind department, too. The appearance of the engine compartment and the passenger compartment was even tidy and upscale. It'd make any owner proud to show off to his most persnickety friends - much more impressive than the competition (like the Golf, WRX, any Honda or even the low-line Jags, BMWs, and Benzes, though maybe I just like the SRT4 so much that I'm being chauvinistic).
Here's the bad side. The seats, nominally transplanted from the Viper, are just awful. They make driving the SRT4 punishing because of their narrow, Himalayan-like hip and shoulder bolsters. For a guy 6-4 or his 5-3 wife these seats are just so rotten as to make even the test drive a torture. I went in to buy one and came away knowing that such would never be as long as those seats were used. The dealer (sales manager), while sympathetic, had no thoughts about what to do either, save, I guess, ash-canning those $1000 seats.
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