Dodge Neon has been restyled for 2002 with a stronger Dodge identity. The new look actually shortens Neon by about an inch. More significant is the upgraded automatic transmission option, now a four-speed instead of a three-speed, for quieter running on the highway, and better fuel economy.
In fact, the whole Neon lineup has been re-shuffled for better value. A lower-priced base model packs nearly as much equipment as last year's SE, while the SE and ES models move up in content. The high-performance R/T and competition ACR models still deliver some of the most driving fun you can have in a small, economical car.
The second-generation Neon appeared in 2000 with a raft of refinements, and it has been refined further since then. It still carries many of the styling cues of the 1994-1999 models, but was 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 and, for 2002, incorporates the cross-hair grille that has become a Dodge hallmark. A new tail lamp design, along with more pronounced wheel arches, present a more crisp, less rounded look.
More significantly, the 2000 re-design moved the base of the windshield forward three inches, giving the Neon an even more raked, cab-forward appearance like big-brother Intrepid and other Chrysler sedans. The more aerodynamic windshield deflects water better and helps reduce wind noise.
For a small car, Neon has a relatively long wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) and wide track (the distance between the left and right wheels), which contribute to its roomy interior, smooth ride quality and stability at high speed. Long suspension travel also helps provide a compliant ride. The current-generation Neon has a more rigid body structure than the earlier version, which ultimately results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride as well. Full-frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tighter seal. The latest sound-deadening technology helps isolate the cabin from engine and road noise.
Neon's long wheelbase, wide track and cab-forward architecture provide a big cabin, with generous front hip room and plenty of space for plush seats. The driver sits high, for good visibility.
Back-seat passengers benefit the most from the large interior, with an abundance of 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 seat splits and folds down for carrying additional cargo.
Sporty gauges grace a curvy instrument panel with a wide dashboard brow. Premium door trim and materials that are soft to the touch provide a rich appearance and feel, much nicer than the original Neons. The interior comes standard with four cupholders and an AM/FM/cassette stereo with six speakers. A new rear-view mirror with integral compass and exterior temperature is optional on SE, ES, and R/T with the leather group. Everything is easy to use and works well except the stereo: It sounds mediocre at best and the buttons are small and hard to operate while driving.
The current-generation Neon rides smoother and quieter than the earlier version of the car. There's less wind noise, less engine noise, less road noise and less vibration. This latest Neon seems quieter and more refined than Chevy's Cavalier.
The Neon's fully independent, strut-type front and rear suspensions are designed for high ground clearance and long jounce travel. This greatly improves overall ride quality while decreasing the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Soft springs and premium shocks also contribute to Neon's smooth ride.
Neon's single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine feels powerful. Last year, a new air induction system broadened the torque curve, which made the engine feel more eager around town. Neon's exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover and timing belt cover are all designed for reduced noise.
The brake system was also overhauled in 2000, and the pedal feel in Neons built since then is greatly improved. At the same time, the thickness of the front brake rotors was increased, and low-metallic linings were introduced to minimize squealing. We recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS ($595 on base, SE, and ES; standard on R/T and ACR). On slippery roads 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 are 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 satisfyingly stable at high speed. It soaks up road vibrations well and offers good acceleration and very capable handling.
The R/T 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. And the R/T's increased horsepower is achieved without sacrificing fuel economy.
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 base model's sticker is temptingly low, but remember that air conditioning, antilock brakes, remote keyless entry, power windows and other conveniences we're beginning to take for granted are all extra-cost options.
The SE and ES models come with air conditioning and a higher level of equipment. The sporty and fun-to-drive R/T rounds out the line with heightened levels of performance.
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