Building affordable yet appealing compact cars has often been a struggle for American automakers. Popular Japanese nameplates have done well as a result, and U.S. consumers are familiar with their reputations for quality and reliability. So Dodge took a different tack when it introduced the front-wheel-drive Dodge Neon sedan and coupe (alongside the identical Plymouth Neon) for the 1995 model year: The company made it fun to drive. The suspension and steering were carefully tuned to make the car handle well in the corners, and a pair of engines was available, including a 140-hp DOHC four-cylinder -- a lot of power for an economy car at that time. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Neon was cute as a bug and cheaper than most peers, either. It quickly caught on with budget-minded shoppers and was popular with young driving enthusiasts looking for a domestic alternative to import performance cars.
Unfortunately, Dodge lost its way when it redesigned the Neon for the 2000 model year. The car was a bit more refined than the original but was heavier, more expensive and no more powerful. The arrival of the turbocharged Neon SRT-4 sedan for 2003 brought some enthusiasts back into the fold, but by then most economy-car buyers had flocked to other brands. The Dodge Neon was discontinued after the 2005 model year; its successor is the Caliber four-door hatchback.
Most Recent Dodge Neon
Sold from 2000 to 2005 in sedan form only, the second-generation Dodge Neon offered a roomy interior, a smooth ride, nimble handling and strong brakes. Downsides included weak and unrefined engines, excessive wind and road noise, and an overall lack of polish and feature content compared to other economy cars. Crash test performance was mixed, as the Neon earned solid ratings in government tests but performed poorly in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) testing. Antilock brakes were optional on all model years; side airbags became an option in 2001.
Initially, buyers could get only a buzzy 132-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with either a five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic. The performance-oriented Neon R/T and ACR models arrived for 2001 with a 150-hp four-cylinder. They were quicker than other Neons, but you could only get them with the manual gearbox. A four-speed automatic finally replaced the three-speed unit in 2002. The Plymouth version of this car was sold only in 2000 and 2001 and was never offered with the 150-hp engine or the four-speed auto.
The Neon SRT-4 sedan is one of the few bright spots in recent Dodge Neon history. Sold from 2003 to 2005, this scrappy econosport sedan represented the most performance you could buy for $20,000. Key ingredients were a high-boost turbocharged 2.4-liter engine good for 215-230 hp and 245-250 lb-ft of torque (output increased slightly from year to year) and a completely retuned, track-ready suspension. Not only could this Neon get you to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, it was a cinch to place in the turns, particularly the 2004 and 2005 models, which came with a limited-slip differential.
Past Dodge Neons
Sold from 1995 to 1999 in sedan and coupe form, the original Dodge Neon was smaller and cuter than its successor. It also offered a better combination of features and performance for its day. Refinement was never its strong suit, though, and Neons with the base 132-hp engine and three-speed automatic transmission were noisy and slow. However, when equipped with the optional twin-cam engine, the five-speed manual transmission, and the upgraded running gear offered on Sport and R/T models and Competition Group-equipped base models, the first-generation Neon could be a lot of fun to drive.
Resale value has always been a weak point of the Dodge Neon, so buying a used one will cost you very little. The flipside is that reliability is also below average on this car, so you should expect to put some money into repairs. A thorough check by a mechanic is recommended before you buy -- steer clear of any Neon with a history of engine or transmission problems.