by Bob Plunkett
CHELSEA, Mich. - Whip a small sedan around a test track unfettered by traffic and you will quickly understand how good, or how bad, it can handle such mundane automotive tasks as accelerating and braking, wrapping over rough pavement, and running at speed on a straight course.
Test it in sequence with every other sedan in the small-car class and you will quickly understand how good, or how bad, it can handle these mundane automotive tasks when measured against its many peers.
At the vast vehicle test facility of DaimlerChrysler in Chelsea, Michigan, a new second-generation Dodge Neon, looking sleek and sophisticated in a stunning new sheet metal shell, reveals through a series of road tests that it has the right stuff inside to edge ahead in terms of power, comfort, quietness, agility, and even safety.
Neon, these field tests show, feels more substantial now, and it behaves in a superior manner that's easily demonstrated in time spent behind the driver's wheel.
Although it debuted only in January at the Detroit auto show wearing the badge of a model-year 2000 car, Neon, in new format, rolls into the public market this month with a clear presentation of how far this compact has evolved since the original Neon showed up in 1994.
At that time the typical small car in this class had to be inexpensive because that was the point, forcing designers to scale down the engine and strip away comfort and safety systems. Yet Neon dared to be different -- affordable but fun, small but spacious, cute but comfortable. It also brought unexpected assets, such as more power (it packed the largest engine), more cabin space (using Chrysler's innovative cab-forward interior concept), and more safety gear (Neon was the first small car to carry twin air bags).
Prices, while reasonable, were not the lowest, but consumers snapped up Neon, making it a success quickly and in the process proving that in this price- sensitive market buyers would spend a few more dollars to get more car.
Following the Neon's lead five years ago, competition improved, as others matched or eventually exceeded it in perks and comfortable features, but not in horsepower or cabin space.
Now, for the evolutionary design of model-year 2000, Neon distinguishes itself again by adding substance to body and hardware, improving ride characteristics and crafting more room for people and cargo in a refined package that reflects the fluid aerodynamic lines of Dodge's flagship sedan, Intrepid.
With that blunt-but-round prow dotted by jewelry headlamps and a massive expanse of canted windshield glass, Neon's new form looks like a miniature version of Intrepid, with roof arching over sensuously shaped doors to merge C pillars in the descent to a curt tail.
Compared with the original design, this interpretation of Neon measures larger in all dimensions. Its wheelbase increases by an inch, with 2.6 inches added in the overall length. Body width expands fractionally as the track between wheels moves outward by 0.6 inches.
In addition, Neon's ground clearance rises by 0.3 inches to accommodate additional vertical movement for suspension elements that smooth out the ride quality.
Then notice that severe rake of the windshield: The base of the glass has been shifted forward by 3 inches in an evolutionary enhancement to the cab-forward architecture that generates more than usual interior space.
The scheme creates more room for legs and hips, more shoulder space and - with those broad rear doors - easy back-seat entry.
At the rear of the plan, designers lowered the floor pan by an inch, which produced more storage space in the trunk. Capacity now exceeds 13 cubic feet.
Neon's bold new design originated in the computerized virtual reality of cyberspace, with all aspects of development - designing, engineering, manufacturing - channeled through supercomputers. As a result, the car derived from this virtual process was honed to perfection before its first part was ever cast.
The framework was reinforced at key flex points, thanks to pinpointed weaknesses of the original Neon by computer tests, so rigidity improves dramatically - by 37 percent in bending stiffness and 26 percent for resistance to twisting. To this stiffer platform new front and rear independent suspension components mount to set up more reactive and adaptive handling characteristics.
The rack-and-pinion steering system uses a smaller rack to quicken the turning response, and brakes were redesigned with thicker front rotors and larger rear cylinders for more strength to help decrease stopping time.
Also, a variety of new measures were used to reduce and control noise and vibrations stemming from engine, road surface and air movement. The result: It's quiet inside and feels far more substantial than the typical small car.
With the new design, Neon pares to a single sedan configuration, leaving the two-door coupe to history.
Like the original, this Neon wears brand badges of Plymouth as well as Dodge and compares identically in all mechanical aspects. Variance between the lines comes down to trim designations for upscale models (ES for Dodge, LS for Plymouth) and color charts (the Plymouth shows subtle and sophisticated exterior tints, while the Dodge goes with brighter and bolder shades).
Initially, all editions will use only one engine: A single-cam 2.0-liter inline four that delivers 132 horsepower.
This plant, essentially the same in size and output as the original Neon's base engine, received new air induction and intake manifold systems to boost peak torque, along with refinements to insulate motor noise and isolate vibrations.
At the back end of the model-year, Dodge will add a sport-tuned version called Neon R/T, with the initials denoting Road and Track to reflect Dodge's muscle car heritage. The performance-geared Neon R/T will carry a 150-hp variation of the single-cam 2.0-liter engine, plus stiff sport suspension, a rear spoiler and racing stripes.
Neon's spacious new interior, derived from the cab-forward design wrapped in substantial window glass, contains safety systems like dual airbags plus comfort touches such as form-fitting front buckets with raised seat height and extended track for more leg room.
Analog gauges display bright white faces to improve legibility, and new soft- touch materials on instrument panel and door trimming plus fine fabrics on seats enhance the feeling of quality and refinement for a new Neon.
© The Car Connection