Practical and fun to drive.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $12,020
As Tested $14,160
The 1999 Dodge Neon is fun to drive, roomy and inexpensive -- a great combination.
When it was introduced in 1994, the Neon came with a cheap interior; it was noisy and unsophisticated. Since then, nearly a third of the Neon's components have been changed and current models are much more refined. It rides smoother. Wind noise, road noise and engine noise have been substantially reduced. Interior details are much closer to the Honda benchmark.
So, while earlier models were practical and fun to drive, current models have added comfort to the list.
The model with the highest fun factor is Dodge Neon R/T, which focuses more on performance than frills. For just over $14,000, the R/T comes with Viper stripes and most of the go-fast bits found on the Chrysler's Neon ACR competition car that helped the Neon win four consecutive SCCA Showroom Stock national championships.
Neons are instantly recognizable by their buggy-looking ovoid headlights and rounded nose. They caught our attention five years ago when they said, "Hi." Now they are a familiar part of the American landscape.
Broad Viper stripes on Flame Red, Intense Blue or Bright White paint set the R/T apart from standard Neons. Like its ACR (American Club Racer) competition model, the Neon R/T comes with a sports suspension, quick-ratio steering, and a close-ratio gearbox. Specially tuned springs, front and rear antiroll bars and new rear spring isolaters comprise the sports suspension.
Dodge and Plymouth Neons are essentially identical. Only the badge and a few options packages, such as the R/T package, differentiates them.
Neons are available in three packages: Highline, Sport and R/T. They come in two body styles: Coupe and Sedan. Two engines are available: a 132-horsepower 2.0-liter single overhead cam (SOHC) engine and a 150-horsepower double overhead cam (DOHC) engine. They come with a choice of five-speed manual gearbox or three-speed automatic transmission.
Other than the number of doors, there are few differences between Coupe and Sedan. Interior room is about the same. Even the weight difference is negligible. All Neons ride on a wide track and a long (104-inch) wheelbase with minimal front and rear overhang.
Highline and Sport models come with rear drum brakes, while the R/T gets four-wheel disc brakes. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are optional, but come as part of the R/T package.
The front suspension is MacPherson struts with assymmetrical lower control arms, while the rear is Chapman struts with dual lower transverse arms.
The Inside Story
Neon's long wheelbase helps create a roomy interior. Both the sedan and the coupe are among the roomiest cars in this class. A high roofline provides ample headroom, while lots of glass gives the Neon an open, airy feel and makes for good visibility all around.
Four adults can sit comfortably in a Neon, five make it a little tight. Ironically, the Coupe is a bit roomier in back, with more rear shoulder and hip room. Up front, however, the Sedan offers slightly more room than the Coupe. Large doors make getting in and out easy. Sedans come with wider rear doors than those on most compacts for easier entry.
The dashboard is simple, functional and sporty with controls that are large and easy to reach. Instruments are big and highly legible. Tachometers are optional.
Neon R/T carries the performance theme inside with unique bucket seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
Ride & Drive
We drove the Neon R/T through Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains and over the rough urban roads around Newark airport. We whipped it around a tight autocross course. Then we turned laps around Pocono International Speedway in Pennsylvania and Brainerd International Raceway in northern Minnesota. Finally, we raced a Neon ACR at the Minnesota Grand Prix in downtown Minneapolis.
For most folks, the standard 132-horsepower single-cam engine provides plenty of performance, even when equipped with the optional three-speed automatic.
More fun comes from the 150-horsepower twin-cam engine, particularly when combined with the five-speed manual-the combination used on the R/T we drove. Most of the twin-cam's extra power comes on at higher revs. Torque -- that force that launches the car away from a standing start and propels it up hills-is only slightly superior with the twin-cam engine; its maximum 133 pounds-feet of torque comes at 5500 rpm, compared with the single-cam's 129 pounds-feet at 5000 rpm. So it pays to keep it singing along if performance is your aim.
Still, we recommend the twin-cam engine. It achieves the same EPA fuel economy rating-an impressive 27/40 mpg, city/highway-as the single-cam engine. It allows Neon drivers to embarrass the owners of other, more expensive, sporty cars. And it only adds about $150 to the cost. Therefore, we vote for the 150-horsepower DOHC engine.
R/T models come with firmer suspension settings than the other models. Drivers attracted to the R/T are usually willing to sacrifice a little suspension damping for improved handling, but we found the ride quality to be quite acceptable. The firmer suspension controls the tires more precisely.
Most people, however, will prefer the softer standard suspension, which comes on the Highline and Sport models. It filters out more of the vibration and harshness found on rough city streets and rippled highways. Yet it still offers agile cornering capability.
The Neon R/T is stable in high-speed turns. Abruptly lifting off the throttle in the middle of a hard, fast corner-normally a no-no-will not upset its balance. At the same time, a skilled driver can rotate the car in a corner just like a sports car, making it quicker and more fun to drive.
Chrysler has done a good job of continuously improving the Neon. It's a much better car now than it was when it was introduced. Still, the Neon does not match some of the other cars in this class when it comes to ride quality and refinement. But few of those other cars are as much fun to drive as a Neon.
The Neon offers great acceleration performance, sporty handling and good brakes. When ordered with the R/T package, it's a real sports car. Buy one of these, add a roll cage and you'll be ready to go racing. And as much fun as the R/T is, it still offers plenty of creature comforts to make it an enjoyable car to drive to and from work everyday. For these reasons, the Dodge Neon R/T is one of our top choices in this class.
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