What's New for 1997
Sport trim level disappears in favor of Sport Package for Highline models. Twin-cam engine is optional on Highline models. Federal side-impact standards are met for the first time. More work has been done to quiet the 1997 Dodge Neon's boisterous demeanor.
Neon has virtually redefined what it takes to compete in the small car market since it debuted in 1994 as an early 1995 model. Featuring likable styling, a zoomy go-fast engine, and plenty of room for four, the Neon has become the benchmark for manufacturers looking to build inexpensive small cars.
The new Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer are more refined than this Dodge, but still can't match the Neon for sheer driving fun. The Toyota Tercel is forty horsepower and a personality off the mark. Nissan's Sentra is bland in comparison. Chevy's Cavalier feels heavy and ponderous; ditto the Pontiac Sunfire. The Toyota Corolla is a fine car, but can't compete with the sheer value offered by the Neon. Neither can the Geo Prizm. Mazda Protege and Honda Civic suffer the same problem.
What about reliability, though? Well, if the surveys conducted by several independent firms around the country are any indication, the Neon suffers from hit-and-miss quality. Edmund's has received mail from folks who think it's the greatest car they've ever owned, and from others who wanted to know if their problems qualified for any lemon law protection. Overall, the impression we've gained is a favorable one, though we are hesitant to recommend this scrappy compact to those who've traditionally driven imports with Japanese badging.
The Neon combines practicality, performance and personality into one very affordable package. For 1997, the Neon gains side-impact protection that meets the 1997 federal standard. Also new are revised alloy wheels with bolt-on wheel covers and fresh exterior and interior colors. Oil pan revisions supposedly result in quieter operation, and evaporative emissions have been reduced. Oddly, the tasteful Sport trim level has been replaced by a Sport Package available on Highline models. Availability of the DOHC 2.0-liter engine has been expanded to the Highline trim level, and can be purchased on the base Coupe as long as the Competition Package has been specified.
Order the Sport Package, and you'll receive a new front fascia with fog lights, rear spoiler, 14-inch wheel covers, graphics, and Tango interior fabric. Sounds like a Hot Wheels makeover to us, blending two equal parts of 1996's dorky Expresso Package with the formerly respectable Sport trim level. We think Sport Package intenders should consider our favorite, which is the base sedan or coupe equipped with the Competition Package. Add air conditioning, and you've got a livable version of the car that Chrysler sponsors in amateur racing events nationwide. The Neon Competition is the most fun you can have for $15,000, aside from a used Mazda Miata.
If Chrysler Corporation can quell consumer fears about the reliability of this little car and keep prices in line, there really won't be any point in shopping around. Just drop in to any Dodge dealer and drive off in one of the best small cars available today.