The (Chrysler) Dodge Neon SXT car review

Review Notes: Dodge Neon SXT Automatic
   2002 Model Year 2003 Model Year
Personality Sports car in an economy body - but, with the automatic, struggling for the power it deserves Sports car in an economy body that just happens to have room for five
Major new features Four speed automatic, at long last Major tuning changes to both the automatic and five-speed for better acceleration, economy, and feel
Quirks A/C control, manual rear windows Dodge Caravan grille
Unusual features Rather high incentives good performance and space
Above Average: Actual purchase price, interior space, speed (manual), amenities, powerful air conditioning, handling
Needs Work In: Automatic transmission, gas mileage (24/31), a/c control Gas mileage (25/32), a/c control
Scrape test Passes Passes
Review by David Zatz

Most people have forgotten that the original Neon was revolutionary. Designed and built in the United States (unlike the Focus), profitable (unlike the Cavalier), economical, and fast, the Neon featured an engine with about 30 horsepower more than most competitors, complete with an extra 30 lb-ft of torque. It also had an interior larger than nearly anything in its class, and surprisingly good handling which helped it to win SCCA (stock car) races left and right. Every other automakers scrambled to boost their engine power and interior space, and more than one put a smile shape onto their front clip to match the Neon's audaciously cute form. Its few obvious drawbacks included a three-speed automatic and the lack of power windows. After about a year, front power windows arrived; rear power windows never did.

As the years wore on, the Neon started to look less attractive, even as it became a better vehicle. Initial quality glitches and a poor head gasket design, resulting in a nearly 100 percent failure rate for the first three years of manufacture, hurt the Neon, and Chrysler never really advertised its power, space, and handling advantages. Nor did they ever come out with a high-performance version, aside from the ACR versions with engines barely more powerful than the standard 132 horse 2.0 (the ACRs did feature superior handling and acceleration, thanks to suspension and gear ratio tweaks). The second generation - larger than the first, with a smiley but unattractive front clip, and poorly advertised - had higher quality but did nothing to rescue the Neon's fading reputation. Few remember the days when Neons went for far above their list price.

Still, the Neon has remained a good buy. It is still faster than most competitors, has a large interior, and handles very well. Compared to the Corolla, the Neon is a high performance sports car. It does well compared to the Civic EX as well, and lower Civics need not apply. Grassroots Motorsports found it beat all comers in its class, including the Civic and Focus.

For the first time since its introduction in 1993, the Neon was given a four-speed automatic in 2002 - badly tuned at first, but with one more speed than in the past. Gas mileage was still a disappointing 24 city, 31 highway, far better than any truck or minivan but low for the class (the Corolla gets about 10 mpg more, though equivalent Hyundais are similar). In 2003, that automatic was upgraded quite a bit, with revised gear ratios that make for faster, firmer shifts and better acceleration.

The 2002 transmission sometimes shifts roughly, takes a long time to make up its mind about downshifting, and has no manual second-gear position. It also shifts early, sadly not making good use of the peppy engine - though it is decent enough off the line, and the exhaust is tuned for a nice low growl.

The 2003 transmission is firmer, and while shifts can be felt, they are not unpleasant. It is far faster to downshift, and when your foot is down on the throttle it will hold the current gear all the way up to redline, which makes sprints much faster. Our two complaints may be impossible to resolve simultaneously: the fourth gear is a little low, leading to vibration and lower gas mileage at high speeds, and the second gear is a little high, so that highway sprints have a sudden pause when the car shifts up from first and ends up out of the power band. The engine is still growly and the exhaust is tuned for a deep implied-performance note, which some may take for lack of refinement. Off-the-line acceleration is very good, as is highway passing, where the fast downshifting of the current transmission is quite handy. Note that this is an adaptive transmission which adjusts to your tastes, so you may find after driving for a couple of weeks that it can read your mind better than it did when you first drove it. This may mean that you have less responsive but smoother shifts.

The manual transmission is easy to use, and makes the Neon far faster than the automatic, while giving you better gas mileage and, oh yes, $825 in your pocket. Do yourself a favor and learn to drive a stick - it's worth it in the Neon, and in many other cars, too. But if you need an automatic, be sure to get a 2003 or later model.

The interior looks cheaper than the original Neon, but the switchgear feels better. Controls tend to have a very high quality feel. We found the seats less comfortable than in the past, but that is a matter of taste. The 2003 model had cheaper looking fabric than prior years. On the other hand, its child-seat LATCH system is easier to use than most, and we like the hinged back restraint latch (you won't lose the cap). The tilt steering is also a superior design, with a continuous range so you can get it "just right." The aluminum wheels also look better than those of prior models.

The instrument panel is similar to other Chrysler vehicles, with black on white gauges surrounded by black bezels. Some Canadian and European Neons (in Europe, it's the Chrysler Neon) have a 300M style interior which would be welcome in this car - why should classy interiors be saved for full size cars? All gauges are full sized, making them easy to read. The odometer region also contains warning signals (which are unseen until used) for things like open doors.

Most controls are conventional and in sensible places. The cruise was mounted on the steering wheel, but is now on a separate stalk; the mirrors and front window controls are on the door. As always, the Neon features power front and manual rear windows. You can't get power rear windows.

The optional stereo has excellent sound and stereo separation, with separate sliders for bass, midrange, and treble. Balance and fade are handled by knobs, as they should be. The CD changer is mainly invisible without bending over - not a good placement, so load it before you drive.

The climate controls are very poorly designed in one respect - to turn on the air conditioner, you turn the fan knob to the left. To shut it off, you turn the fan knob to the right. This nonsensical system has led many Neon owners to drive with air conditioning on all the time, and is inconvenient even for those who understand it. The vent control makes much more sense, and was one of the first to let people choose positions between, say, bi-level and heat. The fan is quiet even when on full blast, and the air conditioning is exceptionally powerful - a major advantage over Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, though it hurts engine power a bit. All controls are designed to be operated by people wearing gloves.

Head room is very good in front, and moderately good in the rear. Rear leg room is very good, and there are two pass-throughs to the trunk (we miss the original Neon's superior fold-down seats). Those who inhabit the back seat have no cup holders, while the front has three and a place for things like highway passes or sunglasses; the front console also has a clever built-in coin stacker/holder, which is far easier to use than most. Both front doors have map pockets, both rear passengers can use nets attached to the back of the front seats.

The trunk is large for the class, but the opening is not, so it may be hard to put oversized objects in. A separate cutout makes it easy to get to the spare tire without emptying the trunk completely.

This Neon is more comfortable in many ways than the original. The suspension is far better at isolating the passengers from bumpy roads, while retaining the Neon's superior handling. Small complaints, such as rattles from the frameless windows, are gone, as are most of the little Neon quirks first-generation owners had to deal with. However, putting the Neon into a comfy sweater also took away some of its charm. Chrysler execs apparently did not understand that you do not change a winning style - the new front clip is nowhere as good as the original, and took away much of the Neon's distinctive look. The interior changes seem to be largely unnecessary, and the one feature which should have been changed - the a/c control - was not. There are also still no rear power windows, though you can get traction control with the antilock brakes.

The 2003 models changed the front clip for the third time in three years, making it more consistent with Chrysler's big-selling Dodge Caravan, of all things. Going back to the lovable 1995-1999 design is apparently not acceptable. The current clip includes a cross-eyed-headlight look, with driving lights in the inner part of the headlights. There is also now a limited-edition SRT-4 model with stunning acceleration and handling.

For the casual buyer, the Neon offers a good value, thanks partly to massive incentives. The base price of our 2002 model, $14,730 (working out to around $11,500 "actual" price), was quite reasonable, and includes air conditioning, a six-speaker CD player, rear defroster, intermittent wipers, tilt wheel, tachometer, keyless entry, light package, and other niceties. Our loaded model had ABS ($740), a power moonroof (it goes up and down, but doesn't slide open), cassette/CD changer, side airbags, auto locks, an alarm, automatic transmission ($825), spoiler, and chrome wheels ($600). It adds up.

Our 2003 model ran for $15,675 base (with $2,500 of rebates that's $13,175 before haggling and dealer discounts) with an automatic - with no ABS, moonroof, side airbags, or cruise control. It did have auto locks, Sentry Key theft prevention, map lights in the day/night mirror, electric trunk release, power front windows and mirrors, an alarm, chrome wheels, and a good quality CD player. The SXT may not be the ideal model for everyone; but there are a lot of good deals on Neons, thanks to Chrysler's inept marketing.

Other good drives in this price class include the Toyota Corolla, which layers on comfort, fuel economy, and reliability at the cost of handling and acceleration; the Mitsubishi Lancer, a competent sedan which has just been redecorated; and the aged but still competitive and heavily discounted Pontiac Sunfire. You may also want to try a PT Cruiser, which you can probably get for $14,000 with good bargaining, and which delivers good handling, comfort, and interior space.

The Neon is a very good value, even with the automatic. It's worth an open-minded test drive, especially with the seven year, 100,000 mile warranty and Chrysler's ongoing quality enhancements. Many people are shocked at the Neon's interior space, acceleration, and, especially, its handling and stability. We think you may be pleasantly surprised, too.

Note: has an extensive Neon section, including reviews of the base Neon and the Neon R/T.   Also find a deal on the Dodge Neon online.