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While fun to drive, the 2002 Dodge Neon lacks the polish and refinement found in other cars in the economy car segment.
Competent handling, large interior, affordable price.
Engine lacks refinement, weak frontal offset crash-test scores.
Available Neon Models
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A four-speed automatic gearbox replaces the archaic three-speed unit, a new base model is introduced, as is a value-packed SXT. Both SE and ES trims are relegated to fleet-only sales, and all 2002 Dodge Neons get a new "Dodge-signature" (crosshair-style) front end.
The spunky Neon's handling has always made it a fun car to bop around in. But up until recently, savvy shoppers would note that the car was lacking in features, such as side airbags and a fourth gear for the automatic transmission, that its rivals had.
For '02, Dodge wakes up and fits the Neon with a long-overdue four-speed automatic, something that the Corolla's had for two decades now. And optional side airbags debuted last year.
This year also sees the shuffling of trim levels, which now total six. A new base Neon debuts -- essentially last year's SE without the badges. The former strippo SE gets more standard features such as power windows, locks and mirrors; a CD player; and keyless entry. The ES adds air conditioning and fog lamps. Both SE and ES will no longer be available to the general public, as they will only be sold to fleets, such as rental car agencies. To fill this void, the SXT debuts, essentially an ES with different badges.
The two sporting Neons, the ACR (American Club Racer -- a favorite of SCCA racers on a budget) and the R/T, carry on as before.
A 2.0-liter 132-horsepower engine continues to power all but the ACR and R/T models, which have their horsepower bumped to 150. The Dodge engines produce respectable power, but they're not the most refined engines, as they get buzzy when you stretch 'em out. Enthusiasts will still prefer a manual gearbox, but be forewarned that the Neon's stick shift is a bit vague and is coupled to a clutch that is heavy for a four-cylinder application.
Thankfully, with a refined suspension that offers plenty of wheel travel, the Neon's ride is smooth. The power rack-and-pinion steering and precisely tuned suspension also contribute to the Neon's cruising quality while making it an absolute blast when canyon-carving. Stopping power comes from a front disc/rear drum combo, but buyers may want to opt for four-wheel discs with ABS and traction control.
The previous-generation Neon was a car favored by those who delved into recreational racing events (such as SCCA autocross), due chiefly to its nimble handling. The current version should please those folks, as well. Handling is about as good as it gets for this class, as the Neon demonstrates an eagerness for the twisties through its well-weighted steering, balanced chassis and flat cornering attitude.
Items like a radio/cassette combo and four Big Gulp-sized cupholders are much appreciated, yet overall feature content is still lacking. We do give Dodge credit for creating an attractive and roomy cabin with available white-faced gauges and a swoopy dash that appears very upscale and Intrepid-like.
Unfortunately for Dodge, competitors like the Ford Focus, Mazda Protege and Nissan Sentra offer more bang for the buck in terms of both refinement and content while still providing enthusiasts a fun-to-drive car.
Laura's old car was costing her a small fortune every month for gas and repairs. She didn't even want to drive her kids to the park any more. But buying a new Kia Soul changed all that.