Value and practicality don't have to be boring.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $12,715
As Tested (MSRP) $15,095
Completely redesigned and re-engineered last year, the Plymouth Neon offers a solid value among compact sedans. It's roomy, stylish and fun to drive. It's also far more refined than the first-generation Neon, which made a big splash when it was introduced as a 1995 model.
Base price for the Plymouth Neon is $12,715. Air conditioning ($1,000), side-impact airbags ($350), four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and aluminum wheels are all extra-cost options.
Plymouth Neons all come equipped with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 132 horsepower. A 5-speed manual transmission comes standard and we prefer it, but a 3-speed automatic transmission is optional ($600).
Plymouth offers option package 21G ($1,820) that loads the Neon up with air conditioning, nicer seat fabric, head restraints for the rear-seat passengers, 15-inch wheel covers, a nicer looking instrument panel with a tachometer, power heated mirrors and power front windows, remote keyless entry with two transmitters, alarm, Sentry key theft-deterrent system, power door locks, central locking, power trunk lid release, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and traction control.
Completely redesigned last year, the styling of this second-generation Neon evolved from the 1994-1999 models, but has been thoroughly modernized. The ovoid headlamps, for example, look familiar, but now feature jewel-like reflectors that add sophistication. The design of the front fascia is more integrated. A new tail lamp design along with more pronounced wheel arches offer a crisp, less rounded look.
More significant is the change in the Neon's side 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. The aerodynamic redesigned windshield improves the Neon's ability to deflect water away and helps reduce wind noise.
Overall, the Neon is longer and wider than pre-2000 models. 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 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.
The interior of the Neon was completely redesigned last year and has been greatly improved. 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.
Backseat passengers benefit the most from the larger interior with more head, shoulder and hip room. It's not a bad place to spend short- to medium-length trips. The trunk is significantly deeper than before. The rear seats split 60/40 and fold down for carrying additional cargo.
Sporty 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 cupholders and AM/FM/cassette with six speakers. Everything is easy to use and works well except the stereo: It sounds mediocre at best and the buttons small and hard to operate while driving.
The new Neon rides smoother and quieter than before. There's less wind noise, less engine noise, less road noise and less vibration. The Neon seems quieter and more refined than Chevy's Cavalier.
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 than before.
Neon's redesigned single overhead-cam 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 strongly recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS ($595). Whether slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers to maintain steering control in panic braking situations. This system comes with electronic variable brake proportioning for better stopping performance. The ABS option also includes traction control, which helps the driver maintain control when accelerating on slippery surfaces.
The Neon rides nicely, handles well and is more stable than the old Neon. It's quite stable at high speeds. It soaks up road vibrations well and offers good acceleration and very capable handling.
Re-engineered last year, the Neon is more sophisticated now. But it still offers value and practicality without being a penalty box. It's roomy and comfortable and it's fun to drive. The Neon offers a good value, but be sure to look past the base price. Air conditioning, antilock brakes, remote keyless entry, power windows and other conveniences we're beginning to take for granted are all extra-cost options.
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