by Mitch McCullough
Say hello to refinement.
Base Price $12,890
As Tested $14,650
Chrysler has completely redesigned its Neon for model year 2000. The new one is far more refined than before. This, of course, generates a new cliche: Neon no longer says "Hi." Now it says "Hello. How are you?" You'll recognize it as a Neon, but you'll also notice it's new. This second-generation Neon should make its owners happy. It will be more pleasant to live with than early models, which were Spartan, unrefined and noisy.
Expectations have changed since Chrysler introduced the first Neon in January 1994. Back then, it was the roomiest car in its class. It was quick and fun to drive. And it was inexpensive. Chrysler talked to prospective compact car buyers before designing that car. They told Chrysler they were tired of paying high prices. What they wanted was a good five-cent cigar. Chrysler took them at their word and built the Neon to be a low-priced car. But people really wanted more than that. They said they wanted a cheap car, but they also wanted refinement, quality and comfort. It was a hard lesson for Chrysler. Though more than 1.5 million Neons have been sold during the past five years, other manufacturers introduced larger, more refined and more feature-laden cars. Chrysler continually refined and improved the Neon throughout its life cycle and the later models are much nicer than the earlier models. But it came time to redesign the car. And that brings us to the 2000 Neon.
This new, second-generation model moves the Neon up another rung on the compact car food chain. Compared with the previous model, the new Neon is solid, serious and sophisticated. It can be seen at your local Plymouth or Dodge dealer.
When you first see the 2000 Neon, you'll see a familiar face. All the body work is new, but it still looks like a Neon. Those ovoid headlamps are still a key styling cue, but they've been redesigned with jewel-like reflectors that add sophistication. The design of the front fascia is more integrated. New rear end and tail lamp designs along with more pronounced wheel arches offer a crisper, less rounded look.
Most noticeable is the change in profile. The base of the front windshield has been moved forward 3 inches. This major design change gives the car a more raked, cab-forward appearance that's in keeping with the Dodge Intrepid and other Chrysler sedans. The more aerodynamic windshield shape improves the car's ability to deflect water away and it helps reduce wind noise.
Overall, the new Neon is longer and wider than before. It rides on a longer wheelbase with a slightly wider track (the distance between the front wheels). These changes make for a roomier interior, but they also smooth out the ride quality and increase stability at high speeds. The ground clearance has been raised slightly to accommodate longer suspension travel, which further improves ride quality. Yet the floor pan has been lowered, which significantly increases trunk space. The new Neon provides more cargo space than the Ford Escort or Saturn SL sedans.
The new body structure is much more rigid, which ultimately results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride. Full frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tighter seat of door to body. The latest sound-deadening technology helps isolate the cabin from engine and road noise.
For 2000, all Neons will be four-door sedans with 2.0-liter single overhead-cam engines. No stripped-down base models are available. No two-door coupes are available. No high-revving double overhead-cam engines are offered. But Chrysler showed off a 2001 Neon R/T sedan at the Detroit auto show expected to debut in the spring of 2000. The 2000 Neon is available with a choice of 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission.
Chrysler held the price of the new Neon down by using supercomputers to pre-design the interior; it cut development costs in half and reduced manufacturing costs. The result is a better car at little additional cost to the consumer.
Two trim levels are available: For $12,890, you get the base D package. For an additional $1760, the G package adds air conditioning, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake proportioning, traction control, remote keyless entry with security system, anti-theft alarm and programmable door locks, tilt steering, cruise control, 15-inch aluminum wheels, power windows, bucket seats, a leather-covered steering wheel and shift knob, and other interior upgrades. Opt for the G package unless basic transportation is your only goal.
The Inside Story
Though Chrysler had continually improved the interior of the last generation Neon, the interior of the new Neon was completely redesigned and is much nicer than before. For starters, there's more of it. The bigger cabin offers more front hip room and more space for nicer seats. The driver sits a little higher than before for improved visibility.
Back seat passengers benefit the most from the larger interior with more head, shoulder and hip room. The trunk is significantly deeper than before. The rear seats split and fold down for carrying additional cargo.
Sporty new gauges grace a redesigned instrument panel with a wide dashboard brow. Premium door trim and materials that are soft to the touch provide a richer appearance and feel. The interior comes standard with four cup holders and AM/FM/cassette with six speakers. As noted, the G package comes with sportier seats and upgraded interior trim.
Ride & Drive
The new Neon rides smoother and quieter than before. There's less wind noise, less engine noise, less road noise and less vibration. It's much quieter than a Chevy Cavalier, which doesn't seem as refined by comparison. The new Neon seems to ride better than a Honda Civic.
Chrysler redesigned the Neon's fully independent MacPherson-strut front and rear suspensions. The ground clearance was raised slightly to provide significantly more suspension travel. (Jounce travel was improved by 15 percent in the front and by 30 percent in the rear.) This greatly improves overall ride quality while decreasing the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Softer springs and premium shocks give the Neon a smoother ride.
Neon's redesigned 2.0-liter engine feels more powerful than its predecessor. A new air induction system broadens the torque curve, which makes the car feel more powerful around town. A new exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover and timing belt cover, and attention to a myriad of details reduce noise.
The brake pedal feels firmer. The brake system was redesigned for improved pedal feel. The thickness of the front brake rotors was increased and low-metallic linings were used to keep them from squealing. We recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS for improved performance on mountain roads.
So far, we've only driven the new Neon at Chrysler's proving grounds at Chelsea, Michigan. While there, we drove the Neon back to back with the Honda Civic, Chevy Cavalier and other cars in its class. We drove them over different types of pavement and on a short road course designed to test handling.
The Neon seemed better than its competition, both in terms of handling and ride quality. It rides nicely, handles well and is fun to drive.
We also drove last year's Neon, which actually felt a little lighter on its feet and is a bit more fun to drive. But the new one isn't exactly a boulevard cruiser. It's more stable than before and its manners are much more refined. We'd rather live with the new one. In spite of all the features and technology that have been added, the new Neon weighs just 50 pounds heavier than the previous model.
While last year's Neon was quick and fun to drive, the all-new 2000 is a much more pleasant companion. It has been improved in every way. It's roomier, smoother, quieter, and more comfortable. In short, it's a top contender among compact cars.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.