2000-2004 Dodge Neon Review and Competitive Comparisons
Summary: don't you wish they could get some Ford and Chevy buyers to road-test a Neon?
The original Neon appeared on the market in January 1994...as a 1995 model. For five years, Chrysler refined it without changing its appearance, eventually replacing about a third of the chassis parts. By 1998, the Neon had become what the 1994 models should have been.
Five years and two months after the first release, the 2000 Neons started to appear at dealers. The troublesome frameless windows and exhaust donut were gone, and the whole car had been tweaked to make it easier to own. Was it really a new car? Yes and no -
- yes, there were substantial changes that enhanced the car's ride and handling ... to the point that one English auto magazine called it the best car ever to be imported from the US.
- no, the character, drivetrain, chassis, and suspension still have the same basic design.
The ride is better, especially on bumpy roads, yet handling seems to be just as good, thanks to stiffer sway bars and other changes. The trunk is larger, there is more interior room, and the doors have frames; yet, despite the added weight, the engine feels more responsive, and it can still do 0-60 in roughly 8.0 seconds, at the cost of highway mileage and noise. The lovable front end has been replaced by what can best be described as a generic small-car front.
The engine has been tweaked to provide more low-end power, making “stoplight” performance better. The Neon’s ability to get away from a standing start now matches its ability to run down the highway.
There have been minor changes to the instrument panel, including a cruise control light (including a separate, helpful SET light) and an odometer that lights up when the door is opened, so mechanics don’t need the key to read the mileage. A new, pleasant white-faced instrument package is eminently readable at night. Cubbies and a new cup holder have been added, as well as a nonskid sunglass tray. The change tray has been redesigned so you can use it while driving, the air vents are larger and quieter, and the headlights have been moved to a stalk. It still looks like a Neon inside.
The stereo has been improved, but the climate controls carried forward with that oddball “turn the fan left for a/c, right for vent, except when the defroster is on.” Someone should tell Chrysler that customers get confused by this, and drive with the a/c on all the time, then complain about their slow Neons with bad gas mileage (I suspect this is why Consumer Reports found the Neon to be “anemic” and also achieved rather poor fuel economy).
The engine mounts have been revised so the car feels more solid and smooth on takeoff — and they are more durable as well. There is room for a supercharger, but that’s speculation.
Handling is fine. Even with midgrade Eagle GA tires, the Neon clearly outperforms a Corolla using performance Potenza 930 tires. Thanks to Chrysler for beefing up the sway bars and making other adjustments to compensate for the smoother ride and longer wheelbase; the car feels nimble and stable at all speeds and is unfazed by strong winds. The brakes also seem to grip better, and more readily. On the whole, with smoother shifting and a more refined engine, this version of the Neon is much easier to drive smoothly in the city than the original.
Where did Chrysler screw up? The extra highway power, gained from a revised fifth gear ratio, comes at the cost of engine noise when traveling over 60 mph. We like the new power in fifth, but keep wanting to shift into a higher gear; we think they went a little too far. (This becomes especially clear when you move to the smooth Corolla). Though we like the addition of traction control (not available on our test car), we think it odd that the tachometer is part of a power lock/alarm package. This is especially true since the engine gave no audible indication it was approaching redline, but suddenly wham! we were there, and the rev limiter hits hard.
In our experience, gas mileage was the same for both the new and old Neon; but the EPA tells us there is quite a penalty, with estimated highway mileage plummeting from 38 mpg to 34. We're not sure who to believe, especially since our driving included time trials, which eat fuel, and high-speed driving well above most speed limits, which should have have hurt us given the change in fifth gear. City mileage estimates are almost identical.
This redesign is a winner. Though it was more evolutionary than revolutionary, it made the Neon is the best economy car for those who want any measure of performance. With a Corolla-like ride, no personality quirks, a zoomy and torquey engine, and the best handling in its class (with a racing pedigree to prove it), the Neon truly stands out above the competition. (If only it still looked like the original!)
Quick Review (March 1999)
Style is not bad at all in person. Fit and finish is excellent.
Under the hood it is evident that they did some good work on the engine mounts and the throttle body and air box. It looks like the front may have been extended slightly to allow repositioning of the battery and airbox.
Interior panels and dash appear to be higher quality and even the base has fabric on the doors. Base models come with black background instruments and the high level models come with white dial faces. Seats are vastly improved. Some nifty juggling of the emergency brake handle to the passenger side has allowed for a large cupholder behind (rear of car) the shifter. Existing cupholders are still in place. The dash is similar to Intrepid and has a neat recess just about the size of a sunglass case in the center. The bottom of that recess has some skid resistant material on it which should allow putting your sunglass case there without having slide all over the place. The high beams are actuated by clicking the stalk toward the driver rather than pushing away for beams in the first generation. The light switch and dimmer switch for the dash lights are on the same stalk. Fold down seats appear to be standard in all levels.
So far this is what I've heard [about Neon problems]. These are not scientific and just what "floats around".
- Rough idle,with some reporting fluctuations in rpm (sometimes dips momentarily below 800RPM)
- Keyless door malfunctions (can't open doors remotely)
- High wind and moderate engine drone at 70-80MPH cruising.
- Dashboard peeling
- Random downshifting with auto gearbox on long uphill drives.
Now, what you need to ask is the prevalence of these defects for all the numbers produced. I own a 2000 ES 5 speed and can say this:
The engine is louder than a comparable Japanese car. But, then again the car will do 0-60 between 7.9 to 8.3 sec depending on what mag you read. It has a sound that I find exciting when revving thru the first three gears. Others who have driven it agree also. There is a 132 HP engine on the other side of the dashboard, and it can be heard. It is not at all noisy at highway speeds in 5th gear. I do not know about the automatic model’s noise at highway speeds.
Mine idles smoothly and the vibration felt through the steering wheel is minimal. As far as dashboard peeling and interior problems, none for me, and the interior is very well done and is comfortable. I have done several 400 mile trips and the seats are more than just nicely stitched. [We've seen a twelve year old Neon with high mileage that had no dashboard peeling.]
This is one of those cars that you either love or hate.The 1995-97 models had problems and Neon’s reputation is affected by them. There are however more owners satisfied with their Neons than those who are not.
I recommend the 5 speed over the auto, but in this country most people do not care to drive a manual. The manual model flies, and its gearbox is a joy to shift.
I paid less than $14,500 for mine fully loaded except for sunroof. The VW, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and Saturn were much more expensive and dull. It is a capable, and fun car to drive, and that is primarily why I bought it. Your criteria may be different.
...The Dodge Neon is a well made, exciting car to drive (especially 5 speed) that is very inexpensive to buy.
Speaking of competition:
We still prefer the Neon to the Civic.
Those who are willing to pay for handling and power should look at the all wheel drive Subaru Impreza.
The Toyota Corolla may be the foremost Neon competitor (in the same price class), and it has a completely different character. With a peppy 125 hp engine (since enhanced) that achieved 38 mpg in our tests, a superior ride, many creature comforts, and a Toyota reputation, the Corolla was an outstanding small car. Though no match for the Neon in handling, under everyday driving the engine nearly as snappy. The Corolla clearly outshines the Civic, Escort, and other competitors; as did the first-generation Neon, to be fair. [The Corolla's prices have been lowered in recent years, narrowing the gap further]. The automatic Corolla, with its four-speed, is definitely a step above the three-speed automatic Neon.
From 2002 to 2003, the Corolla grew and became the same size as the Neon inside, still with far better gas mileage - especially with the automatic! - and better sound insulation. The Neon's main advantages over the Corolla are price and two seconds zero-to-sixty, or so, and handling. The Corolla's main advantages remain comfort - if perhaps a bit over-insulated - resale price, and expected reliability.
We compared the 2012 and 2013:
- Acceleration. Neon easily beats the Corolla. For most, the cars will seem roughly evenly matched. This remains in 2003.
- Gas mileage. The Corolla has a major edge where and when gasoline is expensive or people care about pollution. This is even more pronounced in 2003.
- Handling. Unquestionably superior in the Neon. While the Corolla tends to be unstable in windy or high-speed conditions, the Neon is unfazed. The Corolla also has a hard time with accelerating on turns. The Neon is better in rain and snow, too. Still true in 2003.
- Visibility. Similar.
- Space. Neon has a much larger trunk, and the pass-through is also larger. The Neon's interior has more space in front and back. No longer true - 2003 Corolla's even.
- Convenience. Not updated.
- Neon continues its front-but-not-rear-power-windows and awkward vent controls.
- Corolla has goofy radio controls and no lighting package - that means no underhood light.
- Neon has an optional package that includes lights mounted to the rear view mirror, but does not have a standard trunk or gas cap release.
- Corolla has more closed storage compartments, Neon has a useful change tray.
- Neon automatically locks the doors at 18 mph (with power locks). As with all Chrysler products, the driver's door automatically unlocks when you pull the handle; no need to unlock your door!
- The Neon lets you control when the headlights go on, instead of automatically turning them on every time a cloud passes.
- Ventilation. Neon has better airflow, far more powerful a/c, and effective side window de-misters. Not updated.
- Servicing. The Corolla makes you empty out the entire trunk to get to the spare tire ...the Neon does not, and also has instructions on the underside of the wheel cover. Not updated.
- Safety. Corolla can be ordered with side airbags.
- Quality. Corolla has better reliability according to most indicators, though Neon is quite good; Corolla has far higher resale value.
- Price. Neon's a bargain. Corolla has good resale.
- Noise. Similar until you get over 60 mph - then the Neon's engine starts to make itself known. The Corolla's engine is very quiet and well-mannered.
- Overall. The Neon is faster and handles better, and is far larger (than pre-2003 Corollas), and the Corolla feels more refined and has better gas mileage. Both are far ahead of the other small cars on the market, and neither is a mistake to buy.
Comparison to Civic and Corolla
|2003 Corolla||2002 Civic||2002 Neon|
|Trunk space||13.6 cubic feet||13 cubic feet||13 cubic feet|
|Optional engine (Civic: EX)||127||114||150||135|
|Civic HX has 117 hp, higher gas mileage ratings; 2003 Neon SRT to have 205 hp.|
|Gas mileage (EPA)||City||Highway||City||Highway||City||Highway|
|Base engine, manual trans||32||40||33||39||27||33|
|Base engine, automatic||30||38||30||38||24||31|
|Optional engine, manual||32||37||27*||33*|
|Optional engine, auto||31||38|
|Performance (manual trans.)|
|0-60, base engine||9.5 sec (AAA)||10.4 sec
8.1 sec (AAA)
|0-60, optional engine||n/a||9.0 sec (AAA)||7.9 sec (Grassroots)|
|Handling (AAA ratings)||7 (LE)||7 (EX)||8 (ES or SE)|
$12,568 CE to
|$12,670 - $19,000||
About $10,000 (S)
* 38 front, 36 rear on EX model.