Hardly Noble, but not Inert Either

An American take on the small car.

Before the all-conquering SUV transformed the automotive landscape, America’s taste in automobiles was really quite conservative and the traditional three-box sedan in a variety of sizes was very much the norm. Americans didn’t really buy into the European fashion for hatchbacks, preferring station wagons or pick-up trucks for lugging loads around. Even younger buyers, whom one might have expected to be more receptive to new fashions, still wanted to drive around in a car just like mom or dad’s, only smaller and, ideally, more economical.

Bob Lutz, who had joined Chrysler in 1986 as Executive Vice President in charge of global product development, saw an opportunity to develop a new small car that would be specifically aimed at younger American drivers. It would take Chrysler’s contemporary styling tropes, which were cab-forward proportions and organic, curvaceous shapes, and adapt them to create a small car with a friendly, unthreatening face and a ‘fun’ personality that would appeal to twenty-something Americans and, in particular, to female drivers.

Designer Tom Gale came up with just such a car. It was called the Neon and was available in four-door sedan and two-door notchback coupé variants. It was simply but pleasantly detailed, with a slim single-slot front air intake bookended by oval headlamps, an arched roofline and one particularly neat detail, frameless door windows. With no fixed quarter-lights in the doors, the Neon had a commendably clean side profile.

‘Small’ was, of course, a relative term and the Neon had a wheelbase and overall length of 104” and 171¾” (2,642mm and 4,364mm) respectively. This made it almost as large as the first-generation European Ford Mondeo. It was powered by a 2.0-litre inline 16-valve, four-cylinder engine with either a single or double overhead camshaft cylinder head. The SOHC unit produced maximum power of 133bhp (98kW) and torque of 129 lb ft (175Nm) while figures for the DOHC unit were 150bhp (110kW) and 133 lb ft (180Nm). The engines were installed transversely and mated to either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transaxle gearbox driving the front wheels.

Image: oldconceptcars.com

If the exterior was rather attractive, things took a step in the wrong direction when one sat inside. The dashboard and trim panels were finished in a quite convincing leathergrain pattern but were hard and hollow to the touch. Using the electric window switches in the door panels caused them to yield to the pressure, making an unpleasant creaking noise in doing so. It was clear to see where cost savings had been made.

In fairness, the Neon really was a cheap car. When launched at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1994, the entry-level model carried a sticker price of just $9,450 (which was at that time equivalent to about £6,350). This undercut the price of the entry-level US Ford Escort by a substantial $850 (£570). The Neon was sold under both the Plymouth and Dodge brands in the US, in a range of trim levels. The base models were just that, with no air-conditioning, manual rear window winders, an AM/FM radio without a cassette player, steel wheels with small black plastic hub caps, and textured grey rather than smooth, body-colour painted plastic bumpers.

Given that many Neons were driven by young, inexperienced drivers, the grey plastic bumpers were probably a blessing as they did not show minor scrapes like the painted ones. The appeal of the car to younger drivers was enhanced by a range of bright and cheerful non-metallic paint colours. Top-spec Neons came with luxuries such as air-conditioning, leather upholstery, electric door mirrors and even (fake) wood trim on the dashboard.

Image: carsot.com

The 1,996cc engine, even in lower-powered SOHC form, was good for a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 10.8 seconds and a top speed of 124mph (200km/h). A long fifth-gear ratio helped to give it a respectable combined fuel economy figure of 36mpg (7.85 l/100km).

Car and Driver magazine tested the Neon in at launch in 1994. Although it started as a base-spec model, the test car came equipped with a range of extras including air-conditioning, power steering, intermittent wipers, heated rear window, manually adjustable (from inside) door mirrors, tinted glass, radio-cassette player and bodyside mouldings. These extras lifted the cost to $11,552, so not quite the bargain indicated by the ‘come-and-get-me’ sticker price.

One of the first things the reviewer commented upon was the unusually tall roofline and long wheelbase, which made the car’s interior significantly more spacious than many competitors. Headroom, both front and rear, was “exceptionally good” and entry and egress was facilitated by door openings that were “exceptionally large.” The long wheelbase allowed the high, curving roofline to be “carried gracefully over the passenger compartment.” The boot space was 11.8 cu ft (334 litres) but was compromised by goose-neck hinges. The boot lid opened down to bumper level.

Image: caranddriver.com

Thanks to the 2-litre engine, “Standing on the Neon’s gas is more fun than anyone would expect of [a] thrifty car.” The performance “encourages spirited driving, and its handling is well balanced, with good suspension travel, in any normal road maneuver.” The five-speed manual gearbox “works fine, with low-effort shifts and a reasonably rewarding feel, although not much sense of machinery gets through the cable linkage.”

Safety requirements were reasonably well catered for, with standard twin front airbags, side-impact beams and additional safety latches on the doors. Anti-lock brakes were optional, but available on even the entry-level model. The interior was comfortable with a good driving position, a soft, chunky plastic-skinned steering wheel and pedals ideally placed for heel-and-toe operation.

Overall, the reviewer came away highly impressed with the Neon, summarising it as follows: “Can we live with an $11,552 Neon? Yes, very well, thank you. The lesson of the Neon is that common sense makes a really nifty car. Which is bad news for Saturn and other small cars that have relied on low prices. They simply can’t measure up for roominess and performance.”

The Neon hit the sweet-spot in the US and over 250,000 were sold in 1995, its first full year on the market. Chrysler also spotted an opportunity to enter the Japanese market with the Neon, thanks to a strong Yen, which would make it temptingly cheap in Japan, so it was adapted for RHD production, in four-door form only. However, it flopped in that market and fewer than 1,000 were sold. However, the availability of a RHD version facilitated exports to the UK, where it was sold under the Chrysler badge through Jeep dealerships from June 1996. There was strong initial interest, tempted by what appeared to be a lot of car for the money, but supply issues and a patchy dealer network hindered sales.

Image: consumerguide.com

The first-generation Neon remained on the market for five years until 1999 when it was replaced by a second-generation model that was largely a re-skin of the original, but with changes to improve refinement. Sadly, these included replacing the frameless door windows of the original with one-piece door pressings that cut into the roofline. The distinctive front end and proportions of the original were retained, and it took more than a glance to distinguish the new model from the old. The second-generation car was produced in four-door saloon form only. A wider range of engines was offered, in 1.6, 2.0 and 2.4-litre capacities.

Your author had the opportunity to drive a second-generation Neon while our Jeep Cherokee was in for a routine service. It did not make a strong or lasting impression, but it was perfectly pleasant, if entirely unremarkable. The exterior was in metallic blue, complemented by an interior of grey plastic trim panels and blue cloth upholstery. It was an interestingly different proposition to European cars at the same price point, especially being a saloon.

A rather more interesting variant of the second-generation car was the Dodge Neon SRT-4. A Mitsubishi-sourced turbocharger was bolted on to the 2.4-litre engine to increase maximum power and torque to 215bhp (160kW) and 245 lb ft (332Nm). The SRT-4 reached 60mph (97km/h) in just 5.6 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 153mph (247km/h). Needless to remark, trying to put all that power and torque through the front wheels was tricky, although torque-steer was minimised by equal-length drive shafts and it was still a highly entertaining drive.

The SRT-4 was distinguished visually by a large Dodge  ‘crosshair’ air intake in the front bumper, a bonnet air scoop and large boot spoiler. At a price of just $19,995 in December 2002, it was a real performance car bargain, prompting Car and Driver to describe it as “the quintessential budget hot-rod.”

Image: caranddriver.com

The Neon remained on the market until 2005, when it was replaced by the Dodge Caliber, a chunky looking five-door compact crossover. That was not, however, quite the end of the Neon story: the 2015 FIAT Tipo / Agea saloon was rebadged as a Dodge Neon for the Middle-East, South American and Mexican markets. It was originally intended to sell it in the US as well, but falling demand for small saloons caused this plan to be dropped.

The Neon was by no means a great car and European reviewers were characteristically sniffy about its no better than average quality and refinement, but it fulfilled its target market’s needs well. Total North American sales over twelve years were in excess of 2.1 million cars.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

45 thoughts on “Hardly Noble, but not Inert Either”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. The Neon didn’t sell in large numbers in the Netherlands and I’ve never driven one. Still I have a bit of a soft spot for the saloon version. It’s probably because of the friendly face, the frameless door windows and the lack of rear quarter windows. The interior plastics are a let down for spoiled consumers. I wonder how much more the MSRP would have been with a nicer interior.

    Like you I have a shut-line obsession, but I suffer from a quarter window issue as well. Once they were operable, which was good and then they weren’t. There only function is now to make the sure the window can wind down all the way. I like clean shapes and forms, so the less windows in the side profile the better. I wonder if there are fellow DTW readers who have a quarter window issue like me.

    1. I spotted this example close to home yesterday. It’s been ages since I last saw one.

    2. Freerk – i guess that’s Amsterdam. It’s a beautiful place, but I think parking there would give me nightmares.

  2. Examples of the first two generations were everywhere on our roads at that time, invariably wearing funny number plates and clogging the fast lane.

    Meanwhile it’s ages since I last saw one.
    Weren’t there plans to base the Alfa 159 successor on the Neon? A phantasy of horrors…

  3. Interesting fact I did not know is that Tipo was supposed to be sold in the US market. When new, it had pretty good reviews as “back to basics” car with surprisingly good quality, equipment and finish for the price. Back in 2016, it cost around 11 000 euros in PL, and was first Fiat to be popular in years over here. I’m a bit fascinated by Tipo, as it was really true old-time Fiat, with good value and no frills. It would make great spiritual successor for the Neon in my opinion, maybe a bit too small for the US market tho…

  4. I remember a few of these in Ireland, where they came with a 1.8 litre engine. They were a similar price to the Escort, but most Escort buyers chose the 1100cc engine – the 1800cc Neon engine made the car too expensive for tax and insurance and ensured that resale value would be a problem. I don’t remember seeing the face-lift version.

  5. My guilty secret is that I’ve always liked the original Dodge Neon. I kept it to myself, because everywhere I looked, people seemed to criticise it. I was a bit of a fan of Chrysler’s curvy cab-forward aesthetic at the time, and would have liked to have seen it taken further. The Neon seemed somehow delicate and quite lithe, for a three-box saloon car. I think the low bonnet, clean lines and the large glass area were big contributors. The stance was good too, which was quite unusual in a small-wheeled low-end model. I also appreciated its face : simple, clean and friendly, with echoes of the gen 1 Twingo in there. This was before headlight design got completely out of hand, and was all the better for its simplicity.

  6. It´s the kind of small saloon Renault might have done. It´s not what you´d expect from the USA at all. It was however made to cost as much as a Ford Fiesta but was almost Mondeo sized (for the time period). Hence the cheapness of the trim, fit and finish. That´s the American market for you.

    1. Richard, I agree it’s not your average USA car, but I can’t see any Renaultness in it at all. From the top of my head Renault was producing the 19 Chamade and the 21 must have been on its way at the time. I don’t see the resemblance.

    2. I mean it could have been a Renault – the Kangoo, the first Twingo are a little like this car but I think this one came before the Kangoo. It´s not an American design, more like something made by Alessi. It´s a car inspired by Post-Modernism.

    3. Ah, now I understand much better and I see your point. To me it always seemed to have a Japanese flavor about it. It’s not in the same league as, let’s say A Nissan Pao, but somewhere between a regular Japanese car of the time and a Pao.

  7. Hello all. Nice to see some love for the Neon here. Like Freerk, I particularly like the first-generation model with its frameless door windows and its friendly, unaggressive countenance. The comparison with the first-generation Twingo is certainly appt.

    I don’t know if it was related to how much car you appeared to be getting for the money but, after four days, I have yet to see a single Neon on the streets of Chicago, although there are plenty of old cars of other makes to be seen. Maybe the cheapness of their construction made them less than durable, or perhaps the residuals made them throw-away when anything significant went wrong?

    1. Hello, Daniel. I think the lack of Neon sightings on northern U.S. streets has to do partially with the use of road salt that does in most cars of the Neon’s vintage (even the very newest Neon is almost old enough to vote these days) and largely to do with the purchasers — either people buying a cheap car who didn’t have money left over to maintain it properly (firsthand or later) (not even accounting for the general lack of understanding of the role of maintenance among younger owners) or people who bought the hotter versions and drove the whee out of them for as long as they lasted.

      A friend of mine had a Neon that required a premature (and non-warranty-covered) head gasket replacement. The car was cheap inside and out but it was relatively comfortable for jumping around town and it got him through some lean years. He sold it when it got to be too difficult to get in and out of, buying a chunky Ford Escape to replace it.

    2. Yes, the Neon is indeed pretty much extinct from the North American fleet. The newest models are 17 years old now. Conversely, its direct competitor, the J-Car Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, which ended production at the same time, are still seen chugging along regularly.

  8. Given Chrysler’s habit of developing “new” platforms on a shoestring with a lot of carryover from previous models (albeit rebodied), is it known if the original Neon platform was distantly related to the K platform (and by extension the L platform aka Horizon / Omni)?

    1. Having sold Mk1 Neons which were wholly reliable and quite an easy sale once you got the customer behind the wheel, I bought my partner a mk2 for Christmas one year. It was a 2.0 with a 4-speed auto and was wholly reliable, a trait which continued for its next owner. It was also a surprisingly decent drive. Having access to a fully equipped workshop meant I was able to give the car a good going over. No area seemed deficient despite its cheapness. They used Honda Civic seat frames doncha know?

    2. Good afternoon S Ward. Good to hear that the Neon was robust and reliable in your experience. That’s an interesting fact concerning the seat frames. Presumably, they were supplied by the same sub-contractor Honda used, rather than directly by Honda?

      By the way, welcome to DTW!

  9. The Neon was also sold in South Africa, though not terribly successfully. I considered one at the stage I was to buy my first completely new car (it had been used cars prior to that) but an ex-colleague who had relocated to the US thought my idea was crazy as he said the quality was crummy.

  10. Hi Daniel, I’ve seen a few Neons, recently even. They registered briefly with me when they came out, I seem to remember, but faded into obscurity soon after that. One of the problems with American marques in Europe seems to me to have been that at some point they decided to make a big effort to sell in Europe, didn’t sell as much as they’d hoped, gave up, then hit some sort of upswing again, made a big effort to sell cars in Europe… etc. That’s a bit trite, of course, their travails being more nuanced than that. Still, I remember a few times when GM or Chrysler (Ford usually seemed content to let its European outposts do their thing) made big product pushes, only to fall away again (completely in the case of GM).

    Looking back I like it particularly because it’s a car that doesn’t get made any more in various respects being a sedan and a non-aggressive design, but mainly: it has narrow pillars and a large glass area. What’s more, it’s a very neat design (the four door considerably more so than the two door, I think), something I didn’t really appreciate before reading this, so thank you.

  11. Do you also have the feeling that cars in the US cost less than in the Eu? Were does it come from? Energy cost?

    1. Lower levels of taxation and lower energy costs plus a weaker regulatory environment. Wages are lower.
      The median wage is 34K dollars. In Germany it´s 42k Euros. The EU median is much lower: 14K euros which includes former Soviet bloc countries like Bulgaria. Actually it turns out to be a messy thing to resolve. Maybe US cars are made to a much lower standard? But why? Why does poorer Europe have better made cars?

    2. Hi richard, i am surprised for example when i look at tv series played in the 80s (ie the americans) the european cars really looked much better in my opinion.

    3. It´s a long discussion. The European cars on American television were the higher-end cars made in Europe. Low cost European cars never made it over in any appreciable numbers. To solve this we need to compare purchase power of the two markets and establish the feature content and value. There are so many variables to consider though. It could be that Europeans are prepared to spend more on their car than the average American; or if you assume Americans want a bigger vehicle body as a minimum then the remaining value will be spread more thinly over the metal, so to speak. Think about the BMW 320i from 1986 which is a very small car by US standards but has the content of a Cadillac from two classes up. For me the difference is about how the cars are screwed together and ways of handling joints and junctions. For some reason Japanese and European designers cared more about percieved quality and trained their customers to care. American designers had other interests. It would seem to me that the US makers served up cars suited to their market and European makers did the same; there´s not really any right and wrong in this one. I can see the value of a big, cheap saloon like a Caprice as much as a refined and feature-rich car like an Opel Adam or Lancia Lybra.

    4. I have read something interesting, eu citizens spend on average 10% of their income on car products (car, insurance,gas, etc) per year whereas the americans something like 20%. More or less. For me in a perfect world there should be more keycar.

    1. Actually surprised Daimler-Chrysler did not consider developing a Neon (if not more likely a Mitsubishi GS platform) based Smart above the Colt-based Forfour yet below the stillborn GLK-derived Formore.

  12. Hello Daniel! Another fantastic article about USDM cars. I wanted to point out that the first interior photo is of the second generation Neon. The first had quite a styled dashboard to match the exterior (with a very unique airbag). You can see photos of the interior in the same Car and Driver review that provided the rear three-quarters view of the white Neon.

    Chrysler also had a wonderful ad campaign for the Neon, utilizing the “cute” factor, with a head-on shot of the car with the words “Hi” above it on a white background (https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/33594663996_1dab6a3508_b.jpg). I was a Junior/Senior in high school when these cars came out, and they were very popular with kids my age at that time, with even non-car people talking about the Neon.

    1. Hi Timothy. Thanks for reminding me about that dashboard photo. I actually spotted that I had used an image of the second-generation car’s, then promptly forgot about it! Images of the first-generation interior seem to be surprisingly rare, but I’ve found one and substituted it above.

      I can easily imagine the Neon as a perfect car for students, being cheap to buy and run.

    2. Daniel, thank you for your kind replies! I don’t want you to think I’m being too harsh or judgemental – when I think of all the trivial bits of cars out there in the world that I don’t know, I’m amazed…so please keep up the good work!

    3. Now that you mention the dashboard: I think the dashboard of the Neon was held in place with only two bolds. Once undone, you could easily lift the entire thing out of its place. It was designed for easy access in case something needed repairing. I might mix it up with another, but I think it was the Neon.

  13. Definitely always a fan of the design, and I can definitely understand Richard’s point about it making a nice sibling to Renault’s original Twingo. It was cheap-ish in the UK, as I recall, but never seemed to compare well with European competitors based on refinement and build quality.

  14. A curious Neon fact is that, in the UK at least, the automatic transmission was a no-cost option for the first generation cars. Not as good as it sounds, as the A413 / 31TH autobox was an ancient three-speed unit with its origins in the A404 used in the VW-engined Omni and Horizon, but strengthened for later low-end Chrysler applications.

  15. The Neon engine has the distinction of being designed specifically for the car, with – it is said – Lamborghini involvement. Either Chrysler’s or Lamborghini’s engineers, or both had their eyes closely on the Mitsubishi Sirius motor, particularly the top end. The Neon unit is a ‘bedplate’ engine, like the Rover K series and Fiat FIRE, with the bedplate below the main bearing centreline, and through-bolts fixing into it holding together a stack of castings up to the cylinder head.

    Done properly, it results in a strong and light bottom end. Although the Neon engine has an iron block, it suffered K series like head gasket failure, as a result of penny-pinching and over-hasty development. Unlike the the K series, the problems were resolved before the Neon engine was used in later products.

    The BMW-Chrysler Tritec/Pentagon engine used in the first generation MINI (R50) is effectively a scaled-down (as distinct from reduced capacity) Neon engine, and was used in the 1.6 litre Neons sold in Mexico, and also in the PT Cruiser. There’s not much evidence of BMW influence in the Tritec / Pentagon, and for various reasons, BMW abandoned it for the next-generation MINI, in favour of the PSA joint venture Prince engine. The ‘orphaning’ of the engine gave Fiat do Brasil the opportunity to buy the IP rights and the Curitiba factory at a bargain price, and it continues in production as the Fiat E.torQ, now with an aluminium block, but still using an SOHC 16V head.

    1. Were displacements smaller than 1.4-litres envisaged for the Tritec/Pentagon engine or was it always conceived as a 1.4-1.6-litre?

      Also curious to know if like the Neon engine, the Tritec/Pentagon engine possessed a similar potential for featuring an even longer stroke by the time it became the Fiat E.torQ?

    2. As Fiat chose to expand the E.torQ outwards, rather than upwards, I’d guess that they were constrained by the design and tooling when lengthening the stroke was considered. Even the 80.5mm bore of the 1747cc engine looks like sailing close to the wind, unless they have used some offset conrod trickery to increase the 85mm “native” bore spacing.

      It’s possible that a smaller engine capacity was considered for the Tritec in its MINI application. The reasoning behind using the “cheap little Brazilian engine” was to keep costs as low as possible to make the product viable at mainstream supermini prices if the markets did not accept the premium pricing of the MINI. When it came to market the biggest problem was producing enough of them, so there was no need for a catchpenny 1.1 or 1.2 litre entry level model. Although the Tritec was claimed to cost less than half the price of a Rover K series, the benefit evaporated with the increasing strength of the Brazilian Real against the Euro, and the Hams Hall-built Prince engine was designed to cost no more than Tritec, but with a far more advanced cylinder head and valve gear.

      It’s worth noting that one of the reasons given for abandoning Tritec after one MINI generation was that the SOHC 16V head was not compatible with the sort of advanced variable valve timing systems which would be required to meet forthcoming European emissions standards. And yet, Fiat are still selling E.torQ engined cars in Europe, with the same SOHC 16V head design.

  16. First-gen Neons were popular with the tuner crowd in southern California in the mid90s. Local dealers would advertise the bare-bones entry models as the ideal base for customization; why pay more for luxuries that are destined to be stripped out anyway? It wasn’t uncommon to see wild builds with outrageous exhaust notes cruising around Orange County back then, before Civics and Imprezas cornered that particular market. Curiously, the Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick was another favorite of that demographic.

  17. These were good cars. Real easy to work with. Great ownership proposition. Cheap parts. And yes, they do look great, especially the first ones.

    Meanwhile, SRT-4 does the standing 1/4 in 14 secs. From rest 96km/hr is an easy 5 1/2 seconds away. The car weighs in at ~1,300 kg. Take out the door cards and the dash etc. and you can knock the weight right down. The car really responds well to losing weight. Better yet, transplant the SRT-4 engine/trans etc. into a first series shell. So very tunable.

    A good handler. Much fun. Great memories. What’s not to like? Time to find another and do it again.

  18. When I started work after Uni, the company I worked for had previously been owned by Daimler Chrysler. As such low level managers had a choice of company car – First gen Merc A class or second gen Chrysler Neon. I borrowed a Neon once for a site visit. I’ve never driven a car as terrible as that Neon. Terrible NVH, shocking fuel economy and the worst brakes I’ve ever used. Just complete toss.

  19. I had a few experiences with Neons. The first was a co-worker had a 1995 2dr coupe, which he’d modified with some DC Sports and Eibach pieces. At the time I drove a 1988 Mustang 5.0 coupe, but the Neon was quite an impressive little pocket rocket I thought.
    My sister had a 1997 4dr, which she didn’t love. That was because she wanted something else, but my dad happened to catch wind of the Neon on a lease return for a nice price, so he bought it for her. Automatic, with the Expresso trim. It really was a very decent little commuter, roomy and pretty peppy. But it developed some major mechanical issues after 6-7 years.
    As much as she didn’t want another, the Dodge dealer gave her the best trade-in and the price worked out best on a 2004 Neon SX 2.0. Again, decent performance, fairly comfortable even compared to my 2003 Dodge Dakota extended cab pick up. If I recall both the 97 and 04 suffered serious transmission failures which is why she walked away from them (the 04 replaced with a 2017 Civic).
    A lot of people tended to criticize the Neon (and the PT Cruiser for its Neon underpinnings) but I thought Chrysler had hit on something… a generally reliable car with a little personality at a reasonable price.

    1. Hi Mark. Welcome to DTW and thanks for sharing your personal experiences with the Neon. I agree that it was a pretty decent car and pretty good value too.

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