From the May 1999 issue Car and Driver.
The Neon’s replacement, which arrived as a 2000 model, was called the Neon. Pause to absorb this exciting news, then note that this is the first time in more than three decades that Dodge and Plymouth compacts have been redesigned without a name change. It’s a sign of the automaker’s confidence in its current product when it chooses to carry a nameplate for its replacement.
In the case of Neon, we understand this decision. The cute Neon drew thousands of sought-after Gen X customers to Dodge and Plymouth showrooms for the first time. In recent years, DaimlerChrysler says the Neon has been one of the company’s best-built and most reliable domestic cars, too.
So it’s no surprise that the new Neon isn’t a radical change from the original model. It’s only 2.6 inches longer, 0.2 inches wider and an inch longer in wheelbase than the 1999 model. The 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder that produced 150 horsepower is gone, however, leaving only a 132-horsepower single-cam version, mated to a transmission five-speed manual or the same three-speed automatic. (The R/T version arrived for 2001 with a 150-hp SOHC engine.) The two-door was dropped (it accounted for just 23 percent of Neon sales last year), as the four-door went through a kind of design puberty. The happy face front fascia has grown a more prominent chin, and a new chrome mustache has grown on the grille.
The baby fat has disappeared from the all-new body, which stretches tightly around the wheel wells, giving the Neon a family resemblance to the rest of DaimlerChrysler’s domestic car lineup. It reflects a more mature and serious image for Neon.
Our first look in 2000 (C/D, February 1999) document these changes in detail. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel, on the road as well as on the track. What we learned suggests a bright future for Neon.
The lack of refinement was a problem with the first design. And that’s the area where the new model has made the most significant progress. The wind whispers instead of whistling around the windows now. The bump goes down more quietly, and the four-cylinder hums further. Decibel level drops measured by our sound meter are five at idle, four at full throttle and two at cruise at 70 mph, when compared to our last SOHC Neon (C/D, December 1995). Many factors are at work here—a stiffer body, redesigned four-strut suspension, and full-frame doors with triple seals that replace the previous frameless glass door design. On the engine, revised covers, manifolds, and a new mounting system reduce the rumble and whine that plagued the four-cylinder last year. Note that we say reduce, not eliminate. Sink the throttle all the way to the 6500 rpm redline, and the familiar rumble greets the ears—it’s less annoying now.
The interior has taken a significant step forward. It’s slightly roomier in the front and back. Even better is the implementation of its components. The hard interior plastics are still there, but they’re better hidden behind soft-touch surfaces and faux metal. Chrome latch handles with fat-looking lock buttons adorn the doors. LX models (and ES models in Dodge) have adjustable headrests for outboard rear-seat passengers, and trunk carpet extends under the spare tire. After we spent some time in it, the Neon felt half a class above rivals like the Ford Escort and Chevy Cavalier.
With its stiffer body, revised shock valves, and improved suspension travel, the Neon 2000 is more fun to throw around corners than the previous model. The steering is sharp and precise. Controllable four-wheel drift is a flick of the steering wheel away, and rough body movements are tightly controlled. The ride is noticeably firm—this is no Hyundai kush car—but it never feels harsh.
The brakes, however, have been completely improved. Step on the pedal at 70 mph, and our four-wheel disc and ABS-equipped test car stopped in 175 feet. That’s five less than the Ford SVT Contour we tested, and it’s within feet of a Mazda Miata or Chevy Corvette’s stopping distance. The optional antilock system has been given electronic brake distribution and traction control, and improvements have been made to fade resistance and pedal feel, but we didn’t expect this. Some credit goes to the optional Goodyear Eagle LS tires, which can summon 0.82 g of cornering grip, matching the BMW 328i’s skid pad numbers. This is incredible cornering and braking for a $15,000 economy car. The possibility of an upcoming R/T and ACR racing model has us itching with anticipation.
At 2644 pounds, the 2000 Neon is 148 pounds heavier than the last four-door Neon we tested. The car can sprint to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds; the new one requires 8.7. That’s just average for the class—the Mazda Protege ES needs 8.4 seconds, and the Saturn SL2 needs 7.6—but our test car is a bit green, with just 400 miles on the odometer. We think the damaged Neon will be 0.3 to 0.4 seconds faster.
Slower acceleration is the only disappointment in a thoroughly improved car. Surprisingly, the price hasn’t changed much at all—the base price remains under $13,000, with the LX and ES versions coming in at less than $15,000. If reliability is anything to go by on the early production car, that will mark another welcome change from the previous model. If we can get a long-term Neon soon, we’ll be the first to let you know if that’s the case.
The original neon reminds me of Opie Taylor. Now Opie has hit puberty and seems to have attended finishing school: The harsh, buzzy engine note has been toned down a lot. The interior surface is more attractive and luxurious. The new Neon rides like a bigger car. And the clutch is light, with Honda’s smooth pickup. (Unfortunately, the shift linkage remains as clunky as Barney’s cruiser.) I sure hope this Neon is better built than our long-termer (December 1995), which was riddled with loose cutouts, failed latches, and mysterious squeaks. What’s more, I have a girlfriend whose Neon ’95 sheds mechanical debris around the planet faster than Mir space station. —John Phillips
The Neon and I took several 15 mph “speed sheets” in a nearby subdivision at 30 mph, and the Neon’s buttoned-for-’00 suspension was barely challenged. If the roads weren’t so twisty and the speed tables were so close, my Neon friends and I would be pushing the envelope. You can feel it and look at the improvements in this second-generation Neon: The fit and finish are well executed in the new taupe interior. However, the shifter is notched; trying to get involved in reverse is a joke. The sound of the turn signal is loud and agricultural. And why the lock release button? Do we not trust the intelligence of our Gen Xers? —Patti Maki
From its much richer-looking dashboard to its softer, quieter ride to the comfortable surface my elbows touched on the door panels, this Neon has moved up the automotive food chain. Yet while losing the old car’s go-kart ride, the new Neon retains the quick reflexes and sharp handling that made the old car so charismatic and entertaining. Of course, the variously massaged engine still emits a 4000 rpm boom, the rear seat is too low, and an automatic transmission with only three wheels has no place in the Western world, but on balance, the new Neon remains one of the more interesting. small sedans on the market. —Csaba Csere
2000 Plymouth Neon LX
Vehicle Type: front engine, front wheel drive, 5 passenger, 4 door sedan
Base/As Tested: $14,650/$15,955
Options: Anti-Lock Brake Group (includes traction control), $595; alloy wheels, $355; cruise control, $225; Light Group, $130
DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 122 in31996 sm3
Power: 132 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 130 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
5 speed manual
Suspension, F/R: strut/strut
Brakes, F/R: 10.1-in vented disc/10.6-in disc
Tires: Goodyear Eagle LS
Wheelbase: 105.0 in
Length: 174.4 in
Width: 67.4 inches
Height: 56.0 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 51/39 ft3
Trunk Volume: 13 feet3
Curb Weight: 2644 lb
C/D TEST RESULT
60 mph: 8.7 seconds
1/4-Mile: 16.6 seconds @ 83 mph
100 mph: 28.7 seconds
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 9.0 seconds
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 13.1 seconds
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 12.4 seconds
Top Speed (gov ltd): 119 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 175 feet
Road grip, 300-foot Skid Pad: 0.82 g
C/D OIL ECONOMY
Observed: 24 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 28/35 mpg
C/D TESTS EXPLAINED