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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.