Performance is the biggest news for Dodges compact, front-wheel-drive, four-door Neon sedan for the 2003 model year. A hot new SRT-4 edition that packs a 215-horsepower engine will go on sale in the upcoming year.
Dodge will continue to offer the SE sedan, which now serves as the base model, along with the value-packed SXT and the sporty R/T (road/track) version. The race-oriented ACR (American Club Racer) sedan has been discontinued.
All Neons feature new front and rear fascias, headlights and taillights. The new steering wheel contains an aluminum Dodge medallion. New wheels and wheel covers are installed on each model, and an in-dash six-CD player is now available in the SXT and standard in the R/T sedans. For value-conscious and performance enthusiasts, more options and packages are now available. One new offering is a Sport Appearance Group for the SXT that adds a spoiler, fog lamps and aluminum, Euro-style, 15-inch wheels.
Dodge is considered the performance-oriented division of DaimlerChrysler, and the Neon fold includes both the new SRT-4 and the R/T model, which is equipped with a 150-hp engine, sport suspension and tires, and racy exterior trim.
Since its redesign for the 2000 model year, the Neon has come only as a four-door sedan. Its overall length is 174.6 inches, which is just a hair shorter than the Honda Civic sedan. The Neons styling evokes a kinship to the original model, which debuted for 1995, but designers say they attempted to give the second-generation model a more mature, substantial appearance. Standard SE tires measure 14 inches in diameter, the SXT gets 15-inchers, and the R/T moves up to 16-inchers.
The Neon seats five occupants on a pair of front buckets and a three-place, 60/40-split, folding rear seat. A rear-window defogger and a center console with four cupholders are standard. The Neons cargo volume is 13.1 cubic feet. Standard SE equipment includes a cassette stereo, Millennium cloth upholstery and a center console. The SXT adds a tachometer, air conditioning, power windows and a CD player. Royale leather upholstery is optional for the R/T model.
Under the Hood
A 132-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers all Neon models, except for the sport-oriented R/T sedan, which gets a high-output 150-hp version of that power plant. The base engine teams with either a four-speed-automatic or five-speed-manual transmission, while the stronger four-cylinder is available only with the manual gearbox.
Antilock brakes are available as optional equipment on the SE and SXT sedans only. Side-impact airbags are also optional in all models.
Nimble handling and reasonably brisk performance with the 132-hp engine help make the smallest DaimlerChrysler model appealing to compact-car buyers. The Neon sedan is particularly easy to drive, and it has quick and crisp steering; it flaunts a friendly personality. The Neon is somewhat bouncy through harsh urban pavement, but the ride is fine on the highway. The taut suspension is nicely controlled and seldom overreacts, but the sedan hits some bumps harder than expected.
Despite its undeniable merits, the Neon fails to stand significantly above the competition. Noise is one drawback. A quieter engine could make the Neon a stronger rival to such class leaders as the Civic. The four-speed-automatic transmission is a welcome addition that brings the powertrain up to date. Rear-seat headroom is marginal, and the interior tends to elicit a feeling of snugness. The seatbacks especially in the rear arent very comfortable.