The front-wheel-drive Plymouth and Dodge Neon, which debuted in January 1994, were identical, anyway. They were cute, roomy, inexpensive, fun and cheap to run.
But the Neon was made larger, heavier and more refined for 2000 because it was felt that it was getting too noisy, crude and unrefined for aging Generation Xers, who are among the car's major buying groups.
More than 1.5 million Neons were sold before being revamped for 2000. The 2-door trim and 150-horsepower engine weren't available last year. Neither were the R/T and all-out-competition ACR (American Club Racer) options, which have returned along with the dual-overhead-camshaft 150-horsepower 4-cylinder.
The regular Neon engine remains a 2.0-liter single-overhead-camshaft four cylinder, which produces 132 horsepower. Fuel economy with either engine and the standard 5-speed manual transmission is an estimated, noteworthy 27 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway.
The R/T and ACR option packages are offered only with the higher-horsepower engine, which is a steal at $250. And Neons with these options come only with the easily shifted 5-speed manual transmission, which works with a light clutch.
Dated Automatic Transmission
The $600 automatic transmission isn't available for Neons with those packages. That's no great loss because it's an old-fashioned 3-speed automatic unit that makes the Neon rather sluggish. Avoid the automatic unless driving circumstances make it a pain to shift gears. Fuel economy with the automatic is an estimated 24 mpg in the city and 31 on highways.
Dodge also offers a new Sport package for the 132-horsepower trim. It contains such items as a rear spoiler, 16-inch aluminum wheels, wider tires and a performance suspension.
New Side Airbags
Optional side airbags up front are offered for the first time in a package that also contains leather upholstery.
Curiously, you can get power front windows but only manually operated rear windows.
The well-equipped Neon has a generally quiet interior and comfortably seats four tall adults, partly because it has a high roof. The middle of the rear seat is too stiff for even a child to get comfortable.
Dual cupholders at the front of the console under the dashboard may lead to spilled beverages. But a conveniently located cupholder is on the center of the console, which has a deep covered bin. Front-door storage pockets and sun visor mirrors with integrated lighting are nice touches.
The majority of controls are where they should be, although it's easy to accidentally activate the windshield wipers. While large, the windshield has thick pillars that partly obstruct visibility.
The trunk is large but has a high opening. And manual lid hinges dip into the cargo area. Rear seatbacks fold forward to increase the load area, but the pass-through opening from the trunk is only moderately large. The trunk lid sounds tinny when shut, but doors close with a reassuring sound.
The Neon feels like a larger car. It has quick, light steering, above-average handling and a nice ride with its all-independent suspension and fairly long 105-inch wheelbase. However, the ride gets slightly bouncy on bad pavement. Stopping distances are okay, although they're best with trims equipped with the available larger tires. As is handling.
Most Enjoyable R/T
The Neon R/T provided the most fun of all DaimlerChrysler domestic cars I drove at the automaker's Michigan proving grounds, and it's the lowest-priced DaimlerChrysler performance model. The idea for creating the R/T came after the Neon won three national titles from 1995-97 in the Sports Car Club of America's Class C Showroom Stock events.
The $4,450 R/T option package only costs $3,590 after a manufacturer's discount. The base Neon lists at $12,715, so the R/T has a $16,555 base price after you add the mandatory 150-horsepower engine.
The Neon isn't among DaimlerChrysler's hottest sellers, so it shouldn't be hard to get an R/T for under $16,000 after dickering. Sweet deal.
In fact, the R/T makes one wonder why so many young drivers are hot rodding and racing Japanese small cars with tiny engines such as the costlier Honda Civic, which have been all the rage for years on the West Coast.
A unique front fascia, front/rear air dams, side body sill extensions, fog lights and a rear spoiler visually distinguish the R/T. There also are a performance-tuned exhaust system and dual chromed exhaust pipe outlets, along with comfort and convenience items such as air conditioning and power door locks and mirrors.
Special R/T Mechanical Items
The R/T package has "firm feel" steering with a quicker ratio, and its shifter has short throws. It also has a sport suspension with unique springs, shock absorbers, struts and anti-sway bars, along with 50-series tires on beefy 16-inch aluminum wheels. And there are anti-lock brakes and a traction control system—available for other Neons.
The R/T zips to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and can hit 125 mph, although the performance gearing puts the engine at a rather high 3000 rpm at 65 mph, and the engine makes a mild droning sound even in overdrive fifth gear.
But, no matter what trim, the Neon shows you need not spend lots of money for a practical car that can provide lots of driving kicks.