Dodge Neon is a practical, inexpensive car with a roomy interior. It's also fun to drive. It's quicker than most compacts and feels sporty on winding roads. Neon's suspension nicely balances ride quality and handling agility. Its relatively long suspension travel and high ground clearance help it avoid bottoming out on bad roads.
The 2005 Dodge Neon SXT comes loaded with popular features and a retail price of just $15,925 (plus big cash incentives that can lower the final price). And it gets good fuel economy. The SXT is available with a sporty front fascia, rear spoiler, fancy wheels and other exterior features.
Car enthusiasts gravitate to the Neon SRT-4, which boasts a 230-horsepower turbocharged engine, sports suspension, heavy-duty gearbox, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and 17-inch performance tires. It's fast. Only a Viper is quicker in the Dodge lineup.
Dodge Neon SE ($13,615); SXT ($15,925); SRT-4 ($20,650)
Dodge Neon is distinguished from other small cars by its cab-forward profile, arched roofline, and ovoid headlamps. Redesigned front and rear fascias, exterior door handles, bodyside moldings and other detail work freshened the Neon for 2003, and its appearance hasn't changed since then.
Neon's long wheelbase and wide track contribute to its roomy interior, smooth ride quality and high-speed stability. Full-frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tight seal. The current Neon has a more rigid body structure than first-generation models, which results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride.
Dodge has made some effort this year to distance the high-performance SRT-4 from other Neons. Some factory literature even calls it the Dodge SRT-4, dropping the Neon label entirely. The air intake in SRT-4's deep front fascia/bumper/air dam looks like an inverted version of the standard Neon grille, with two square air openings occupying the space above where the grille would otherwise be. Just behind the lower opening sits a cast-aluminum intercooler; Dodge left it visible in keeping with the car's intent. A functional hood scoop and fog lamps set into what look like brake ducts emphasize SRT-4's road racer demeanor.
Out back, SRT-4's tall basket-handle spoiler is designed to look outrageous, and it succeeds. (It also restricts rearward vision, but not unduly.) Sill-mounted ground effects give SRT-4 the look of a sport compact. Big tires fill the wheel well openings. Special wheels are designed to channel air to the brakes to help keep them cool. 2005 SRT-4s are available in a coppery color called Orange Blast.
The Neon boasts a roomy cabin. The driver sits high for good visibility. The Neon's front seating area has lots of hip room and legroom. Compared to the Honda Civic, Neon has more front seat hip room, comparable legroom, and less headroom.
The SXT's seats are quite comfortable, cushy and supportive. The side bolster appears a bit soft, but felt fine while driving. The cloth upholstery feels good and looks durable. Vinyl trim on the front edges of the seats gives them a nicely finished look and feel.
Dash and door trim are made of a premium material that's soft to the touch, providing an attractive appearance and feel and avoiding the plastic look that afflicts so many compacts. The body-color bezels that come with the Sport Appearance and SRT Design packages add a racy accent to the SXT. Map lights are mounted on the rear-view mirror, not the best location as your co-driver may accidentally adjust your mirror when using the light switch. Otherwise, switchgear is easy to use and works well, though the turn signal stalk on our test car wasn't smooth. The standard stereo sounded mediocre. And having to press a button to get the key out of the ignition slot is an annoying extra step.
Back-seat riders benefit from the Neon's big interior. The back seat of a Neon is not a bad place for short-to-medium-length trips. Rear-seat roominess is about average for the class, bettering the Civic for hip room, while the Honda offers more head and leg room.
Neon's trunk is reasonably large, at 13.1 cubic feet, but about average for the class. Gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space, but afford a relatively large trunk opening. Lift-over height is on the high side. The rear seat splits 60/40 and folds down for carrying additional cargo.
SRT-4 comes with special interior trim, including a satin-silver center stack, shift knob and door handles. SRT-4 seats are modeled after those in the Dodge Viper with enhanced lumbar and lateral sections for better support when cornering. Agate-colored cloth is designed to grip the driver. Cast aluminum pedals look like those seen in race cars. A turbo boost/vacuum gauge sits to the right of the instrument cluster, underneath the dash brow.
The Dodge Neon offers sporty handling and good acceleration performance, though it isn't the most refined car in its class.
Neon's standard single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine delivers decent power. A Neon SXT can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, which makes it quicker than many more-expensive compacts. The engine doesn't have a lot of torque down low in the rev range, however. (Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills.) Step on the gas while cruising at 3000 rpm and the Neon slowly gathers speed. There's a small rush of power that starts somewhere around 4000 rpm, but there isn't great gobs of it. New motor mounts introduced for 2003 reduced noise somewhat; still, the 2.0-liter engine is relatively unrefined, and its boomy and raucous behavior is transmitted into the cabin. The manual gearbox works well enough, but has a clunky feel.
The suspension nicely balances ride quality and handling agility, making the Neon fun to drive on winding roads but pleasant when cruising around. The Neon responds well in emergency lane-change maneuvers. Its fully independent, strut-type suspension offers high ground clearance and long jounce travel, which reduces the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Soft springs and premium shocks are tuned to enhance the Neon's ride quality. Indeed, we found that the Neon does not bottom out the way many cars do. When we hit a sharp dip, the Neon's suspension was soft enough to absorb the harshness of the dip, yet it was firm enough and had enough travel to avoid bottoming. As a result, the front of the Neon did not scrape on an abrupt dip on our test route where many others have scraped before. This makes for a more comfortable ride, with less need to slow to a walking pace for dips.
The front disc/rear drum brakes that come standard on the Neon stop the car quickly and are stable under hard use. The Neon stops more quickly than many of the other cars in its class. Still, we recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Whether the roads are slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers maintain steering control in panic braking situations. And disc brakes are less likely to fade on mountain roads than are the standard rear drum brakes.
The SRT-4 delivers serious sport compact performance. Its turbocharged engine develops 230 horsepower at 5300 rpm and 250 pound-feet of torque from 2200 to 4400 rpm. According to Dodge, it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.8 seconds. The SRT-4 was developed with input from Dodge engineers who spend their weekends racing at Sports Car Club of America events. Last year, Dodge recalibrated the SRT-4's engine control module and specified larger, higher-flow fuel injectors, not only for more horsepower and torque but also for a broader torque band. That means less shifting under normal driving conditions. Neon SRT-4 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. A Quaife torque-sensing, limited-slip differential, provides more traction when accelerating out of the corners. Standard tires on the 2005 SRT-4 are B.F. Goodrich KDW II three-season radials, specifically developed to match the SRT-4's suspension and handling characteristics, with a tread pattern and rubber compound that maximize grip for cornering, accelerating and braking. Disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake distribution (EBD) are standard on SRT-4. They work well, and the pedal feels good.
Dodge Neon is roomy and comfortable, though it isn't at the top of the class in refinement. The well-equipped SXT offers a strong value, while the racy SRT-4 delivers some of the best performance in its class.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough is based in Los Angeles.