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The history of the Chrysler Corporation's small front-drive cars starts with what it didn't do back in the early '70s.
In virtually every way possible, the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto were among the worst heaps of quick-rusting, self-immolating parts ever sold as "cars" in the United States. But when they were both introduced for the 1971 model year, Chrysler saw them as a threat to the company's very existence. Because despite all the muscle cars the corporation built back then (and which have become so valuable now) it was dependent on cheap, boring, reliable cars like the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart for its profits. If the Vega and Pinto became America's high-value choices, Chrysler felt it could be wiped out.
But Chrysler didn't have the money to develop its own competitors to the Vega and Pinto, so it was forced to adopt stopgap measures. Initially those consisted of the Dodge Colt, a thinly disguised Japanese-built Mitsubishi Colt, and the Plymouth Cricket that was a slightly restyled version of the British-built Hillman Avenger. The Colt sold respectably well while the Cricket sold barely at all, and that was enough to see Chrysler and its dealers through to the mid-'70s. Barely.
The U.S. introduction of Volkswagen's Rabbit (called the Golf in Europe) for 1975 represented a paradigm shift in the conventional wisdom of how small cars should be engineered. The Vega and Pinto (and Colt and Cricket, for that matter) were essentially scaled-down big cars; the engine sat longitudinally in the engine bay, feeding a transmission bolted just behind it to eventually drive a solid rear axle. The Rabbit, on the other hand, put the engine transversely across its engine bay and fed a transaxle that drove the front wheels. This made for a much more efficient use of space, giving the passenger compartment a lot more room. While similar drivetrains had been used on microcars like the original Austin Mini, it was the Rabbit/Golf that pushed it into the mainstream.
So when Chrysler finally got around to designing its first made-in-America true small car, it wasn't going to make something that looked like the Vega or Pinto. It was going to build something like the Volkswagen Rabbit. A lot like the Rabbit.
Shaky finances haunted Chrysler all through the '70s, so there wasn't really enough money around to fully develop a car. (Virtually all the rest of Chrysler's offerings during this period could trace their essential engineering back to the late '50s or early '60s.) Fortunately for Chrysler, they wouldn't need to do that to come up with the 1978 Dodge Omni and its near identical twin the Plymouth Horizon (also popularly known as the Omnirizon). At the time Chrysler of Europe (formed by merging Britain's Rootes Group, France's Simca and Spain's Barrieros Motors under American ownership) was developing the "Simca Horizon" for European consumption. Adapting that vehicle for production and use in America seemed like a straightforward proposition.
While the French-engineered and English-styled Simca Horizon may have been fine for Europe, the tiny 1.4-liter engine used over there would have been severely taxed by American emissions regulations. Besides, VW had surplus engine capacity it was willing to off-load cheaply. So the five-door (four doors plus a rear hatch) Omni, known within Chrysler as the "L-Body," was slightly redesigned for American use. The torsion-bar front suspension used in Europe was dumped in favor of a more conventional set of MacPherson struts, and the rear suspension was simplified into a trailing-arm independent system with each end connected by a rod. Of course there was a 1.7-liter version of VW's SOHC four in the nose feeding either a four-speed manual transmission or an optional three-speed automatic.
With the addition of oversize federally mandated bumpers and other design changes, including clunkier square headlights, the American Omnirizon looked much like the European from which it sprang, yet was still unique. Of course, however, distinguishing between an Omni and a Horizon was a lot tougher. And to further "Americanize" the L-body, options like phony wood siding were available.
The Omni's 99.1-inch wheelbase was relatively long for a small car of the time; 4.9 inches longer than the Rabbit and 2.1 inches longer than the then already-out-of-production Chevrolet Vega. And at 164.8 inches overall, it was more than a foot and a half longer than a Rabbit. That hardly made the Omni a large car, and fortunately it did a good job of turning its additional length into interior room, but with only 75 horsepower on tap from that VW engine it wasn't quick by any stretch of the imagination.
Quick or not, it was an immediate sales hit, and Motor Trend named the Omni and Horizon (together) as its 1978 Car of the Year. Then Consumer Reports got hold of one and was appalled. In testing of emergency handling at typical highway speeds, Consumer Reports contended that the steering wouldn't necessarily re-center itself automatically. As Time magazine reported, "In the first C.U. test, the driver suddenly tugs at the steering wheel, then lets it go while keeping the gas pedal down. The wheel, says C.R., is supposed to spin back quickly to its original position — but in the Omni-Horizon, wheel and car swung violently from side to side." It further found that in an obstacle-avoidance maneuver, the car tended to fishtail aggressively and was difficult to recover. When Consumer Reports fails a car, that's often the kiss of sales death.
But the Omni and Horizon easily survived the Consumer Reports contentions and continued to sell exceptionally well. That was a surprise not only to the industry in general, but probably to a lot of people inside Chrysler as well.
While the four-door Omni and Horizon continued on into 1979 virtually unchanged (though engine output dropped to 70 hp as emissions regulations grew more stringent), they were joined by three-door hatchback coupe variants in the form of the Dodge Omni 024 and Plymouth Horizon TC3. Riding on a 96.7-inch wheelbase, they both featured a wedge-shaped nose and an unusual side profile, with three windows along each side. And the rear hatch was nearly all glass. But except for that excision of 2.5 inches of wheelbase, the coupes were pretty much mechanical clones of the five-door Omnirizon.
"After testing a very early prototype Omni 024, we have only one reservation about this scheme," wrote Car and Driver at the time. "Building sales momentum will be tough because there's precious little acceleration to work with. The 024 and TC3 have but 75 Volkswagen-made hp to pull around their base weights of 2176 pounds. In our air-conditioned test car this translated into a 0-to-60 time of 12.7 seconds and a quarter-mile e.t. of 19.4 seconds.... Almost every Omni/Horizon competitor has a base or optional engine that will leave the 024/TC3 in the lurch every time the passing lane is clear."
After a carryover 1980 (when output of the 1.7-liter dropped another 5 hp to just 65), the four members of the Omni/Horizon family were ready for some muscular invigoration and they got it (and slightly revised grilles and trim) for 1981. Now optional was Chrysler's own 2.2-liter SOHC eight-valve four rated at a thick 84 hp. From the perspective of the 21st century, 84 hp looks pretty puny. But in the early '80s it was enough to turn the small Chryslers into the pocket rockets of their day. The larger engine was supported by either the fortified version of the four-speed manual, a new five-speed manual or three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transaxles.
Car and Driver drove a 1981 Plymouth Horizon "Miser," an ultra-economy version of the four-door hatchback, and concluded that "Frankly, there's not much about the Miser to inspire your affection. Once you use it up, you'll recycle the beast with no more emotion than you'd devote to an empty soft-drink can. The Miser is just competent, that's all. But when you think about it, competence is a remarkable accomplishment. Many small cars from Detroit in recent years lived out their useful lives reminding us how small and cheap they were. The Miser never feels small. And it makes 'cheap' a virtue." The magazine measured the Horizon Miser poking along to 60 mph in 11.4 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 18.3 seconds at 74 mph.
While the "big" engine made any Omni or Horizon a more attractive vehicle, it had a special effect on the Omni 024. Offered as an option was a "Charger 2.2" package that revived the Charger name from Dodge's muscle-era past and included a hood scoop, side window appliqué and big-for-the-day P195/60R14 tires on appropriate wheels. By the 1982 model year, the Charger was treated as a model line selling alongside the Omni 024. According to Motor Trend, a Charger 2.2 would chug to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds at 78.5 mph. With the Charger name back, the "Omni 024" designation was doomed. By 1983, the Omni 024 name gave way to Charger. The history of this Charger (including the Shelby-modified variants) and all Chargers from 1966 to today is covered in a separate Generations feature. This Omnirizon offshoot would remain in production through 1987.
Except for such thrilling trim changes as new, bolder Chrysler "Pentastar" logos in their grilles, the 1982 additions of the L-Body cars were little changed from 1981 (though the 1.7-liter engine's output dropped again to just 63 hp). There was, however, one more L-Body this year in the form of the Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp pickups. Built using the front two-thirds of an 024/Charger with a grafted-on pickup bed, these were Chrysler's weird attempt at an El Camino and they remained in production only through 1984. For more on the Rampage in the context of Dodge small truck development, take a look at Edmunds' Generations feature on the Dodge Dakota.
Slightly modified taillamps were about the most apparent modification to the 1983 Omni and Horizon sedans, while Plymouth's TC3 changed its name to "Turismo," but the real change was in the engine bay as during that year the VW 1.7-liter engine was gradually replaced by a 1.6-liter engine sourced from Peugeot in France. Actually, Peugeot had bought the assets of Chrysler Europe, among which was the design for this new 1.6-liter SOHC four. Ironically, Chrysler was buying an engine of its own design. And there was a new five-speed manual transmission around to get the most out of the new engine. "Charting in with the same torque rating (83 pound-feet) and only one horsepower less (62 versus 63) than the 1.7," explained Motor Trend at the time, "the Peugeot power plant has been around for quite some time in France. However, its oversquare 80.6x78mm bore-and-stroke dimensions seem unique to this U.S. application, falling between the French models displacing 1.5 and 1.7 liters."
While there were some notable changes to the Omni and Horizon sedans and a new, blunt nose with four headlights for the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Turismo, it was the new Shelby-tuned Omni GLH that was the big news for 1984. Using a 110-hp high-performance version of the 2.2-liter engine, a five-speed transmission, stiffer suspension and P195/60HR15 tires on special 15-inch wheels, the GLH was the first Omni that was actually fun to drive. What did "GLH" mean? Carroll Shelby is supposed to have said that it stood for "Goes Like Hell." On more plebian Omnirizons, the 1.6-liter engine was now offered only with a four-speed manual transmission and the trim levels were once again revamped to maximize confusion.
There were practically no changes to the regular Omni and Horizon models for 1985, but a big jump up in performance occurred for the Omni GLH when a turbocharger and fuel injection were added to its 2.2-liter four to make the GLH Turbo. With 146 hp aboard, the GLH Turbo was almost blindingly quick for its time.
"The GLH's exterior is subtle," wrote Car and Driver, "almost to a fault. The Thunderbird, or Firebird, or BMW driver who gets sandbagged by one of these can be forgiven, if only because it's hard to tell a GLH Turbo from a regular Omni. There are plastic skirts that spread the sills on either side of the car, and there are bits of GLH Turbo decals scattered here and there, and it does have wide-rimmed Shelby wheels and fat, flat Goodyear Eagle GTs, but none of this has the visual impact on the proles of a screaming chicken decal or a tall aerodynamic fence across the rear deck. Even if you know what the GLH Turbo labels and the plastic skirts and the low-aspect tires really mean, the knowledge will not prepare you for the car's truly vivid performance. This thing fairly flies, chum, and you'd better not be unwrapping your bagel with lox and cream cheese when the boost comes in."
That's not to say that the GLH Turbo was a machine of great sophistication or unwavering manners. As Car and Driver further noted, torque steer was a considerable concern with this ragged creature. "If you apply full throttle in first or second gear with the front wheels cocked a bit to port or starboard," the magazine wrote, "the GLH is going to go where it's pointed — into that ditch, up that snowbank or around that tree. We're not kidding. If you screw up, the hand-and-eye coordination of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mary Lou Retton and Harry Houdini all rolled into one may be enough to keep you on the pavement, but don't count on it.... How do we feel about this? Well, we just love it. It is a car that separates the men and women from the boys and girls, and we think that's just neat as hell."
As uncivil as the Omni GLH Turbo was, it burst to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 87 mph. That's almost unimaginably quick for a front-driver in the mid-'80s.
Like all the 1986 cars sold in the United States, the Omni, Horizon, Charger and Turismo had center high-mounted stop lights added to their tails per a federal mandate. Otherwise, except for the addition of a "Duster" package to the Turismo options list and an entry-level trim dubbed the "America" added to the four-door hatchback lineups, these ordinary cars remained stubbornly ordinary. But the Omni GLH got even faster with the addition of the GLH-S (Goes Like Hell Some more?!) package, which upgraded the turbo engine to intercooled "Turbo II" specification and 175 hp. And this would be the only year for the Dodge Omni GLHS — though Shelby would build GLHS models based on the Charger the following year.
How quick was the Omni GLHS? Motor Trend measured it ripping to 60 mph in just 6.6 seconds and cruising through the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 92 mph. "If you're in the market for a dual-purpose car under $11,000 that will put plenty of more expensive cars on the trailer," the magazine concluded, "call your Dodge dealer."
The Omni America and Horizon America were the only four-door hatchback trim levels offered during 1987 and were aimed directly at the budget buyer, as the new Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance were introduced to attract small-car buyers seeking comfort or sophistication. The only engine was now the 2.2-liter four rated at 96 hp, mated to either the five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transaxle. This radical curtailment of models and options brought with it production simplicity and a reduction in price — down $710 to just $5,499. It was, in short, a deal.
"Sacrifices were made across the board so the America could fly," wrote Car and Driver upon encountering the '87 Horizon America. "Chrysler started the ball rolling by cutting its per-unit profit margin. It extracted lower prices from its parts suppliers. A cost-saving labor contract was signed in the plant in Belvidere, Illinois, where the cars are manufactured. The state of Illinois kicked in millions of dollars for job training. And, finally, even the dealers were convinced to reduce their cut.... The Horizon America is otherwise virtually the same automobile that's been trolling Main Street U.S.A. for the past nine years. The components that remain after the weeding-out process still work together surprisingly well — better, say, than [Ford] Escort's though not as harmoniously as a [Volkswagen] Golf's. But there are really no surprises on that score. In this case, building the car was the easy part. Engineering the price sticker was the breakthrough." And it accelerated from zero to 60 in 10 seconds flat.
Fuel injection was added to the Omnirizon America's 2.2-liter engine for 1988, but output drooped to just 93 hp. Furthermore, the Turismo and Charger were killed. And production of the cars moved from Illinois to the former AMC plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Otherwise the status quo was maintained. Ditto for 1989.
The Omni and Horizon gained a driver-side airbag and lost their "America" surname for 1990, but were otherwise unaltered. And then that was that for them.
Back in the late '70s it would have been absurd to think that the Omni and Horizon would make it through a full 13 model years. After all these were cheap, straightforward cars engineered by a desperate company looking to survive and to somehow sustain some of its reputation for high-value economy cars. Who knew that was exactly what America wanted?
While engineered as successors to the L-Body Omnirizon cars, the P-Body Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance would sell alongside them from 1987 through 1990. Nowhere nearly as influential as the Omni/Horizon on either America's roadways or Chrysler's bottom line, they were still competent machines that sold reasonably well. And Shelby took a crack at modifying them as well.
Like the Omni and Horizon, the Shadow and Sundance were front-drive hatchbacks. However, these twins were initially available as either three- or five-door models, with the standard power plant being Chrysler's familiar 2.2-liter SOHC four equipped with fuel injection and rated at 97 hp. The sole optional engine was the 146-hp turbocharged version of the same engine. Both five-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmissions were offered with each engine.
From here on out this article will ignore the Plymouth Sundance. Most everything, with the exception of the Shelby and convertible models, applicable to the Dodge Shadow also went for the Sundance.
Riding on a 97-inch wheelbase (the same as the then-current Dodge Daytona coupe) and stretching out 171.7 inches in overall length, the Shadow was 6.9 inches longer than the original Omni, even though its wheelbase was 2.1 inches shorter. Most of the basic suspension design — MacPherson struts up front and a solid rear axle on coil springs in back — was shared with Chrysler's slightly larger K-Cars. The Shadow put that extra length to good use by appearing sleeker than any of the original K-Cars, with gently rounded contours and a nicely raked nose. In fact, for a small car, it wasn't really very small at all.
Offered in base or ES trim (the ES package included 15-inch wheels with P205/50VR15 tires), the Shadow was often perceived as a competitor not only with economy cars but small sport sedans. So
Car and Driver put a Shadow ES turbo up against the best of the time including the Acura Integra, Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 and Volkswagen GTI. A total of 10 cars were in the test. "At 2653 pounds the Shadow is the heaviest of the group and it's also the widest," wrote C&D. "It ends up being big-car wide and small-car long, a set of proportions that earned it the nickname 'the Dwarf.'
"With all this bigger-car baggage comes Chrysler's bigger-car engine, the trusty 2.2-liter turbo with its well-known thrust. Again, no problem with numbers: 7.8 seconds to 60; 16.1 seconds and 83 mph in the quarter. The Shadow stops acceptably short, and its tires are acceptably grippy on the skid pad.
"So why is the Shadow in 8th place? Chrysler's formula for success these days consists of adapting its venerable off-the-shelf hardware to the broadest range of buyers. The cars are relatively inexpensive, and for most folks, that's what really counts.
"But we're talking fun here — grin machines first and foremost — and the Dodge is less than artful. The engine is powerful, but coarse. The shifter will find all five speeds, but a few obstructions, too. The seat is reasonably buckety, but the cushion is shaped in a way that submarines you under the belts. The steering wheel feel is power-numb and brakes are power-nonlinear. There is value here, but nothing to incite lust."
Shelby Automobiles wasted no time generating its own version of the Shadow, introducing the Shelby CSX (Carroll Shelby eXperimental) during 1987. Unable to get the intercooled Turbo II engine for this car, Shelby modified the Turbo I-equipped Shadow ES with the intercooler and other components from the Turbo II to boost output to around 175 hp. Four-wheel disc brakes, specially tuned Monroe shocks and Shelby wheels inside P205/50VR15 Goodyear Gatorback tires were also part of the package. All 1987 CSXs were painted black with silver trim, and fewer than 800 were built.
A new airdam and foglights appeared on the Shadow ES Turbo for 1988, but little else changed on the car in its sophomore season. The Shelby CSX became the CSX-T this year as the production run was sold to Thrifty Car Rental (none were sold to the general public) in a deal similar to the one Shelby had made with Hertz back in 1966 with the Ford Mustang-based Shelby GT-350H. All the CSX-Ts came with the standard 146-hp Turbo I 2.2-liter engine, all were painted white and all 1,000 were eventually sold by Thrifty after their rental duties were complete.
Changes came for 1989 with a new 2.5-liter version of Chrysler's now-venerable SOHC four replacing the 2.2-liter turbo as an option. Making an even 100 hp, the 2.5 hardly resulted in a quick Shadow. So also newly available was a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter four rated at 150 hp. But the most intriguing news would come, once again, from Shelby.
"The 1989 CSX," wrote Car and Driver, "marks the American debut of two important automotive innovations: the variable-nozzle turbocharger and the composite wheel. These two high-tech components, destined for widespread use in the cars of the future, elevate the CSX from a mere hot rod to a technological showcase." Though neither composite wheels nor variable-nozzle turbos have yet caught on with mainstream cars, there's still more future to come.
Paired with a stouter five-speed transmission, the 175-hp CSX (available only in red with gold trim and more aggressive plastic body extensions than before) was an effective weapon. C/D measured a 0-60 time of 7 seconds flat and had it flying through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 90 mph. "The new Shelby CSX isn't a candidate for the world's best sport sedan," concluded the magazine. "Its portfolio of talents is focused too narrowly for that billing. And its sticker price of nearly $17,000 doesn't make it a particularly good value in today's crowded performance market. But for the buyer who appreciates the cachet provided by a 500-unit model run, distinctive bodywork and first-on-the-block technology, the CSX is an attractive option."
The CSX died after that burst of glory with the regular production 1990 Shadow, now available with the intercooled "Turbo IV" 2.2-liter engine as an option on ES and Competition models. There was also a new body-color grille for all models, the ES models got four-wheel disc brakes and all Shadows had a driver-side airbag.
With the Omni dead, it was up to the Shadow to pick up the cheap car duties for Dodge during 1991. So the "Shadow America" version was introduced, with simplified ordering and power coming from the 2.2-liter engine. However, both base and ES trim levels also continued, and for the first time a Shadow convertible was offered, in either the base or ES trims. Other detail changes abounded, including revised suspension tuning, and at midyear a "Shadow Sport" option was announced.
A Mitsubishi-built 3.0-liter SOHC V6 was added to the Shadow lineup for 1992, effectively replacing the high-performance versions of the 2.2-liter four. The Shadow America still came with the 2.2-liter naturally aspirated engine, as did the regular Shadows. The 2.5-liter four was the base engine in the Shadow ES, with both the 2.5-liter turbo and the 141-hp 3.0-liter V6 optional. Motor Trend drove a 2.5-liter turbo-equipped Shadow ES convertible and, stirring the five-speed manual gearbox furiously, got it to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 16.2 seconds at 82.6 mph.
The America trim level disappeared for 1993 and the engines offered dropped down to either 2.2- or
2.5-liter naturally aspirated fours or the 3.0-liter V6. For the first time, there was no way to get a turbocharged Shadow from the factory. And antilock brakes were, for the first time, an option.
The Shadow went into 1994 without the convertible model, but otherwise was very much the same car it was during the previous year. It would cease production with the completion of the year and few would mourn its passing. There was a new, more charismatic small car in Dodge's future.
Though it looked nothing like the Omni or Horizon, the truly all-new 1995 Dodge Neon and Plymouth Neon (one car, one name, two sales channels) was in some ways a return to the bedrock values of those two originals; it was basic, it was simple and it adopted the conventional wisdom of its time about how to build small cars. Unlike the Omni and Horizon, however, the Neon was actually kind of cute.
Built in the same Belvidere, Illinois, plant that assembled the Omni/Horizon and then the Shadow/Sundance, the Neon consisted of a conventional unitized body with a MacPherson strut front suspension and another set of struts in back with links in an independent system. In the nose, the drivetrain consisted of a new 2.0-liter SOHC 16-valve four making 132 hp that fed either a five-speed manual or electronically controlled three-speed automatic transaxle. In short, a conventional drivetrain for a mid-'90s small car — except for the archaic three-speed automatic. Most competitors by then had four-speed automatics.
Initially the Neon was only offered as a conventional four-door sedan. The wheelbase was a long 104 inches and overall length stretched 171.8 inches. Its wheelbase was 4.9 inches longer than the old Omni's and it stretched out 7 inches longer. So the Neon was relatively big compared to its most ancient ancestor, but about the same size as the then-also-all-new '95 Chevrolet Cavalier that rode on a 104.1-inch wheelbase. Offered in three trim levels — base, Highline and Sport — the Neon sedan was both roomy and contemporary-looking thanks to its "cab-forward" styling. And the chassis was simply one of the most athletic ever put under an American-made small car. The weirdest thing about the Neon sedan was that the available power windows were just up front — the rear windows only came with manual operation.
During that inaugural model year the Neon sedan was joined by a two-door coupe body style that shared its general dimensions with the sedan. However the coupe, when equipped with the Sport package, got its own DOHC version of the 2.0-liter four that pumped out 150 hp. The coupe was also offered as a Highline model, but did not come in a base version like the sedan.
The Neon was an instant sensation, praised by most critics for its sophisticated chassis and healthy engines. With either engine the Neon was among the quickest small cars available from any manufacturer. Refinement, however, was something typically lacking. The engine's cacophony came in for particular criticism.
The base trim level was extended to Neon coupes for 1996 and a new "Expresso" trim package was offered for anyone thrilled by gaudy graphics and a power bulge on the hood. The base Neon now had 14-inch wheels as standard equipment. Otherwise, the car carried over pretty much intact from the previous year.
A spate of option juggling resulted in the Sport model being dropped as a Neon trim level during 1997. However, a "Sport" package was now available atop the Highline model, while the SOHC engine was still standard and the DOHC motor was offered as a no-cost option. Edmunds.com got its first experience with the Neon (a Plymouth, though that doesn't matter) during this model year and found both good and bad. In fact, the car came as a rental from Thrifty, with 17,000 miles on the odometer, rather than through normal public relations channels. "Pulling onto Century Boulevard from Thrifty," our writer reported, "we expected zippy but loud performance from the 132-hp four-cylinder power plant, even though our Neon was saddled with a rudimentary three-speed automatic. It was loud, no doubt about that, but the automatic did little for making the Neon fun to drive. The slushbox shifted hard and reluctantly at times, and until the engine was revved up to shrieking range, the car really didn't move very quickly. With a five-speed manual gearchanger, this same engine will propel the Neon to 60 mph in less than 9 seconds....
"Much has been made of the Neon's spacious rear quarters, and while it certainly is generous considering the exterior dimensions, no large adult will want to spend much time back there. Appreciated was a split-folding rear seatback that offered excellent access to the trunk and increased the Neon's cargo-hauling ability nicely. Loading cargo from the rear is simple, with an adequately sized portal, a low liftover and a trunk light that aids the search for that can of Campbell's that rolled out of the grocery bag. The trunk lid shuts with a solid thunk."
Building on the Neon's performance and racing credentials (it was a big success in SCCA Showroom Stock racing), the Neon lineup was reconfigured once again for 1998. Gone was the base trim, as the entry-level Neon was now a Highline, and new Sport and R/T sedans and coupes were added at the top of the range. In addition, an "ACR Competition Group" package was offered on the coupe that included four-wheel disc brakes, firmer feeling steering, a stiffer suspension and revised gear ratios in the five-speed manual transmission. Otherwise, there were refinements to quiet the car some, but the Neon was still very much the machine it had always been. And 1999 was essentially a carryover year as well.
The first Neon kept Chrysler in the small-car game during the '90s. The second one would have to maintain that momentum going into the 21st century.
In Edmunds.com's economy car comparison test for the 2000 model year, the all-new (well, not that all-new) Dodge Neon finished 9th...out of nine. Not an auspicious debut for a new car. "Dodge likes to refer to the 2000 model as the fun economy car that's grown up without growing old," wrote Edmunds Editor in Chief Karl Brauer. "After running the new Neon head to head against its competitors, we call it the car that's gained very little while losing a lot. In fact, the 'top-of-the-line' ES model we drove had no ABS, CD player, cruise control, rear disc brakes, seat height adjustment or side airbags. (Those last two items aren't available on the new Neon-even as options.)
"Our Neon was missing another crucial element in today's competitive economy sedan market: a fourth gear for its automatic transmission. No other vehicle in this test, not even the Hyundai or Daewoo, could make that claim to shame. Like we said earlier, the key to a successful economy sedan is making it not seem like an economy sedan. Here the Neon failed miserably."
Ugh. Well, not all changes are for the good. But the 2000 Neon was changed. Gone was the two-door coupe, and the four-door that remained rode on a 1-inch-longer, 105-inch wheelbase. The base engine was the same 132-hp SOHC 16-valve as before with a five-speed manual transmission and that clearly awful three-speed automatic as an option. The base car was now known as the Highline, with an ES luxury package optional. Later in this first model year, an R/T version was offered with a 150-hp version of the SOHC engine (the DOHC version died) and 16-inch wheels and tires. The styling was sleeker than the original, with thinner pillars along the roof, but it retained the cute car themes, such as the smiling "face," established by the original.
Even the base Neons for 2001 were ES models, and side airbags became an option. Antilock brakes were now standard on the R/T and the ACR model returned with the intent of going after more SCCA victories. Edmunds Automotive Editor John DiPietro tested the 2001 Neon R/T and found some stuff to like and dislike. "Though rated at a respectable 150 hp, the Neon's 2.0-liter inline four didn't win us over," he wrote. "Unlike the dual-overhead-cam 150-horse engine of the previous-generation R/T, this version is of single-overhead-cam design." It still has four valves per cylinder, so nothing is functionally lost. In terms of sheer output, the Neon R/T is more potent than its primary sporty compact sedan rivals: the Nissan Sentra SE (145 hp), Ford Focus ZTS (130 hp) and Mazda Protegé ES (130 hp). But numbers don't always tell the story, as a fairly quick 0-to-60-mph sprint of 8.3 seconds, for example, doesn't convey the engine's buzzy nature, which makes it seem that although the R/T can definitely run, it doesn't seem to enjoy it. The sole transmission choice is a five-speed manual gearbox, which is what most enthusiasts prefer, but somewhat vague gearshift action and a heavy clutch effort further blunt the driver's efforts to enjoy this car in a straight-line blast through the gears....
"Handling is about as good as it gets in a small front-driver, with the Neon demonstrating an eagerness for the twisties through its well-weighted steering, balanced chassis and flat cornering attitude. The R/T's composure when pressed in the curves was the most endearing trait of the car. Test pilot Neil Chirico was moved to say: 'Short-wheelbase vehicles always go through the slalom with ease, and this vehicle was no exception. It has a nimble overall feel and is quite tossable when tackling the twisties.' And we'd like to extend more kudos to the suspension team for providing this level of handling along with a ride that won't beat one up when the car is negotiating pockmarked pavement.... Would we buy the Neon R/T? Before we answer that, let's look at what else we could get for around $17,600 or less (we can do without the leather seats.): A Mazda Protegé ES is similarly priced; a Nissan Sentra SE is nearly $1,000 less; and a Ford Focus ZTS is nearly $2 grand less (though it wouldn't have a sunroof). Let's just say that we wouldn't necessarily be visiting a Dodge dealership to get our econocar jollies."
The last Plymouth ever built was, by the way, a gray 2001 Neon.
A fourth gear was finally added to the Neon's automatic transmission for 2002 and the lineup was changed once again, with SXT appearing as a new trim level. A Neon R/T was included in Edmunds.com's 2002 Econosport Sedans Comparison Test where it finished, almost inevitably,
6th out of six. "Nearly every moving part of this car lacks polish," the test summarized, "from the buzzy engine to the unrefined feel of the gearshifter." But all hope was not lost, because what was coming for 2003 promised to be epic.
That was the turbocharged Neon SRT-4 and Edmunds.com immediately placed it into the four-car
2003 Econosport Sedans Comparison Test where it finished...first! It handily out-pointed the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Ford SVT Focus and Mazdaspeed Protegé. Big surprise. "The abrupt transformation from homely Neon to tire-shredding SRT-4 comes courtesy of Dodge's Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO)," wrote Senior Editor Ed Hellwig, "a newly formed team of grease monkey hot rodders masquerading as upstanding corporate engineers. To them, the Neon wasn't an anemic little commuter car with cute headlights, it was a compact chassis just waiting for some serious power and the right suspension....
"Like most vehicles to emerge from manufacturer speed shops, the SRT-4 benefits from a massive infusion of power thanks to a larger 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine force-fed by a Mitsubishi-sourced turbocharger. With up to 15 pounds of boost dialed in and plenty of cool air from a seven-row intercooler, the SRT's mighty inline-4 comes rated from the factory at 215 hp and 245 pound-feet of torque. That's a full 40 hp more than the Sentra SE-R Spec V and a whopping 60-point spread in their respective torque numbers....
"Under full boost, 1st gear disappears in a torrent of tire smoke, but the big 17-inch Michelin Pilots dig in for 2nd and never let up from there on out. The car pulls strongly through 6000 rpm with only a minimal drop-off in power as it approaches its 6240-rpm redline. The only notable weak spot is the shifter, as it takes its time getting into gear, allowing the turbo to lag behind on every shift.
"Attempting to get numbers at the track was a lesson in wheelspin management. Hot temperatures and an uphill straightaway didn't help matters much, but the numbers speak for themselves. With a 0-60-mph time of 6.3 seconds, the Dodge was over a second-and-a-half quicker than its closest competitor, the Mazdaspeed Protegé (7.9 seconds). Its quarter-mile time of 14.9 seconds beat the Nissan's by a full second (16.2), while its quarter-mile speed of 94 mph was a full 10 ticks faster than its next closest competitor's....
"The Neon's flabby underpinnings were ditched as well, replaced with a full complement of thicker sway bars, retuned springs and beefy four-wheel disc brakes. The transformation makes for a car that feels lighter on its feet despite the fact that the SRT-4 is actually heavier than the standard model. Ride quality has been compromised, but not by much, as it remains compliant enough for everyday driving — just don't expect to sip your morning coffee without a few tongue scaldings."
With that sort of rip-snort performance, one might expect Dodge and SRT to have rested on their laurels for 2004. But instead they upped the SRT-4's output to a full 230 hp for that year. Otherwise the Neon was pretty much a carryover.
There were some new trim pieces for the SRT-4 during the 2005 model year, but Dodge wasn't funneling much development money into a car that was soon to be replaced. The last Neon was built during September 2005. The little car named after an inert gaseous element was history.
What came next would be a whole new sort of munition.
Instead of replacing the Neon with another sedan, Dodge decided a small wagon — or at least wagonlike thing — would be more appropriate for a world very different from the one the Neon had been born into. "This is a completely new model for Dodge and it serves as the company's most affordable car — starting MSRP is $13,985, including destination," wrote Inside Line Senior Automotive Editor Brent Romans in his first drive of the Caliber. In just about every regard, it's better than the Neon. True, overcoming that hurdle isn't particularly difficult given the Neon's geriatric age. But even against newer competing vehicles like the Mazda 3 hatchback and Toyota Matrix, the Dodge Caliber shapes up as being something that interested hatchback-buying consumers will want to check out."
The Caliber isn't just fresh metal on the old Neon chassis, but a fresh platform. In fact, the similar Jeep Compass shares much of the Caliber's engineering and is produced alongside it at Chrysler's old Omni/Shadow/Neon plant in Belvidere, Illinois. "For the Caliber's initial launch in North America," Romans went on, "Dodge has three styles available (SE, SXT and R/T) and a hat trick of four-cylinder, twin-cam engines: a 1.8-liter, a 2.0-liter and a 2.4-liter. These are all-new engines and have been designed in conjunction with Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Their architecture is fully up-to-date, including variable valve timing for both camshafts, aluminum construction and, for the two larger engines, dual balance shafts.
"The 1.8-liter four is rated at 148 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque and the 2.0-liter at 158 hp and 141 lb-ft. The 2.4-liter engine gets the blue ribbon with 172 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. Dodge claims that these engines are 5 percent more fuel-efficient than the ones they replace." And unlike the Neon, these engines can drive not just the front wheels but the rear as well since all-wheel drive is an option.
In Inside Line's first full test of the Caliber, a Caliber R/T AWD with the 172-hp 2.4-liter four and the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) ran from zero to 60 in 10.1 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 17.7 seconds at 79.7 mph. That's rather slow for a small car with a relatively large engine, even with the CVT transmission and AWD. However, the Caliber isn't really all that small. While its 103.7-inch wheelbase and 173.8-inch length mean it doesn't cast a shadow much larger than the old Neon's, all that equipment had the test machine weighing in at a porky 3308 pounds.
As this is written, the whole automotive community awaits the debut of the Caliber SRT-4 with a promised 300 hp from its turbocharged 2.4-liter four. That ought to make 3308 pounds disappear instantly.
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