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Performance - the affordable and fun-to-drive kind of performance - has returned to the Dodge Neon lineup. The Neon was completely redesigned and re-engineered last year and the result is a roomier, more refined compact four-door sedan.
But the performance models that were part of the fun of the previous generation had to wait until this year. For 2001, Dodge has re-introduced the high-performance R/T and competition ACR models.
This is the second generation of the Neon, which was completely redesigned for 2000. It carries many of the styling cues of the 1994-1999 models, but has been thoroughly modernized. The ovoid headlamps, for example, look familiar, but now feature jewel-like reflectors that add sophistication. The design of the front fascia is more integrated. A new tail lamp design along with more pronounced wheel arches offer a crisp, less rounded look.
More significant is the change in the Neon's side profile. The base of the front windshield has been moved forward 3 inches. This major design change gives the car a more raked, cab-forward appearance that's in keeping with the Dodge Intrepid and other Chrysler sedans. The more aerodynamic windshield shape improves the Neon's ability to deflect water away and it helps reduce wind noise.
Overall, the Neon is longer and wider than the pre-2000 models. It rides on a longer wheelbase with a slightly wider track (the distance between the front wheels). These changes make for a roomier interior, but they also smooth out the ride quality and increase stability at high speeds. The ground clearance has been raised slightly to accommodate longer suspension travel, which further improves ride quality. Yet the floor pan has been lowered, which significantly increases trunk space.
The new body structure is much more rigid, which ultimately results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride. Full frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tighter seat of door to body. The latest sound-deadening technology helps isolate the cabin from engine and road noise.
The interior of the new Neon was completely redesigned last year and is much nicer than before. For starters, there's more of it. The bigger cabin offers more front hip room and more space for nicer seats. The driver sits a little higher than before for improved visibility.
Back-seat passengers benefit the most from the larger interior with more head, shoulder and hip room. It's not a bad place to spend short- to medium-length trips. The trunk is significantly deeper than before. The rear seats split and fold down for carrying additional cargo.
Sporty gauges grace a redesigned instrument panel with a wide dashboard brow. Premium door trim and materials that are soft to the touch provide a richer appearance and feel. The interior comes standard with four cupholders and AM/FM/cassette with six speakers. Everything is easy to use and works well except the stereo: It sounds mediocre at best and the buttons small and hard to operate while driving.
The new Neon rides smoother and quieter than before. There's less wind noise, less engine noise, less road noise and less vibration. The Neon seems quieter and more refined than Chevy's Cavalier.
Chrysler redesigned the Neon's fully independent MacPherson-strut front and rear suspensions. The ground clearance was raised slightly to provide significantly more suspension travel. (Jounce travel was improved by 15 percent in the front and by 30 percent in the rear.) This greatly improves overall ride quality while decreasing the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Softer springs and premium shocks give the Neon a smoother ride than before.
Neon's redesigned single overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine feels more powerful than its predecessor. A new air induction system broadens the torque curve, which makes the car feel more powerful around town. A new exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover and timing belt cover, and attention to a myriad of details reduce noise.
The brake pedal feels firmer. The brake system was redesigned for improved pedal feel. The thickness of the front brake rotors was increased and low-metallic linings were used to keep them from squealing. We recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with antilock brakes ($595). Whether slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers to maintain steering control in panic braking situations. Disc brakes are (in theory) less likely to fade out on mountain roads than the standard rear drum brakes. The ABS option also includes traction control, which helps the driver maintain control when accelerating on slippery surfaces.
The Neon rides nicely, handles well and is more stable than the old Neon. It's quite stable at high speeds. It soaks up road vibrations well and offers good acceleration and very capable handling.
The R/S model is more fun to drive. Handling response is much crisper and the engine is more responsive. Ride quality is acceptable. The steering is quicker with a 16:1 steering box replacing the standard 18:1 ratio. Increased horsepower was achieved without sacrificing fuel economy.
While we welcomed the 2000 Neon for its increased sophistication, we're happy to see the arrival of the sporty R/T model to round out the line.
The Dodge Neon offers good value in a compact sedan. It's roomy and comfortable and it's smoother and quieter than pre-2000 models. The Neon offers a good value, but be sure to look past the base price. Air conditioning, antilock brakes, remote keyless entry, power windows and other conveniences we're beginning to take for granted are all extra-cost options.
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