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Dodge Neon is practical and fun to drive. Neon features a roomy interior and is available at an affordable price. The base model delivers extraordinarily good fuel economy; its EPA rating recently earned one of the top 10 spots in a survey of the most fuel-efficient vehicles you could buy.
The Neon SXT comes loaded with the features most buyers want in a compact car yet retails for just $15,435; incentives can knock $2,000 off that price.
Buyers looking for more fun can opt for the sportier R/T or the high-performance SRT-4. The latter boasts a turbocharged 2.4-liter engine, a sports suspension, a heavy-duty gearbox, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and 17-inch performance tires. The SRT-4 engine has been recalibrated for 2004, and is now rated at 230 horsepower and 250 pounds-feet of torque. In fact, the 2004 Neon SRT-4 continues to be the second-quickest car in the Dodge product line, accelerating from 0-60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. Only the Dodge Viper turns in a quicker time.
Dodge Neon is distinguished from other small cars by its cab-forward profile, arched roofline, and ovoid headlamps. New front and rear fascias, exterior door handles, bodyside moldings and other detail work freshened the Neon for 2003. Neon's appearance hasn't changed for 2004.
Neon's long wheelbase and wide track contribute to its roomy interior, ride quality and high-speed stability. Full-frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tight seal. The current Neon has a more rigid body structure than first-generation models, which results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride.
SRT-4's grille is an inverted version of the standard Neon grille. Just behind the lower grille sits a cast-aluminum intercooler; Dodge left it visible in keeping with the car's intent. A functional hood scoop and unique integrated fog lamps emphasize SRT-4's aggressive look. The tall rear basket-handle spoiler is designed to look outrageous, and it succeeds. Sill-mounted ground effects give SRT-4 the look of a sport-compact racer. Big tires fill the wheel well openings. Special wheels are designed to channel air to the brakes to help keep them cool.
Dodge Neon features a roomy cabin. The driver sits high for good visibility. The Neon's front seats offer lots of hip room and legroom. The Neon offers more hip room, comparable legroom, and less headroom than the Honda Civic. The rear spoiler that's standard on R/T and optional on SXT restricts rearward vision down low, but not unduly.
The SXT's seats are quite comfortable, cushy and supportive. The side bolster seemed a bit soft at first, but felt fine while driving. The cloth upholstery feels good and looks durable. Vinyl trim on the front edges of the seats gives them a nicely finished look and feel.
Dash and door trim are made of a premium material that is soft to the touch, providing an attractive appearance and feel and avoiding the plastic look in many other compacts. The body-color bezels that come with the Sport Appearance package add a racy accent to the SXT. Map lights are mounted on the rear-view mirror, generally not the best location as your co-driver may accidentally adjust your mirror when using the light switch. Otherwise, switchgear is easy to use and works well, though the turn signal stalk on our SXT wasn't smooth. The stereo sounded mediocre. Having to press a button to get the key out of the ignition slot seems like an unnecessarily annoying extra step.
Back-seat passengers benefit from the large interior. It's not a bad place to spend short-to-medium-length trips. Rear-seat roominess is about average for the class.
The trunk is reasonably large, and average for the class. Gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space, but afford a relatively large trunk opening. Lift-over height is on the high side. The rear seat splits 60/40 and folds down for carrying additional cargo.
SRT-4 comes with special interior trim, including a satin-silver center stack, shift knob and door handles. SRT-4 seats are modeled after those in the Dodge Viper with enhanced lumbar and lateral sections for better support when cornering. Agate-colored cloth is designed to grip the driver. Cast aluminum pedals look like those seen in racecars. A turbo boost/vacuum gauge sits to the right of the instrument cluster, underneath the dash brow.
The Dodge Neon offers sporty handling and good acceleration performance, but it isn't the most refined car in its class.
Neon's single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine delivers decent power. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, which makes it quicker than many more-expensive compacts, including Honda Civic LX, Mazda Protege LX, or Nissan Sentra GXE. It lacks torque down low in the rev range, however. Step on it while cruising at 3000 rpm and it slowly gathers speed. There's a small rush of power that starts somewhere around 4000 rpm, but there isn't great gobs of it. New motor mounts introduced for 2003 reduce noise somewhat. Still, the 2.0-liter engine is relatively unrefined, and its boomy and raucous behavior is transmitted into the cabin.
The automatic transmission was recalibrated for 2003 for improved driveability, and a new, more elaborate electronic controller promises better communication between engine and gearbox. The manual gearbox works well, but shifting is clunky.
The suspension nicely balances ride quality and handling agility. The Neon is fun to drive on winding roads. It responds well in emergency lane-change maneuvers. Neon's fully independent strut-type suspension offers high ground clearance and long jounce travel, which reduces the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Soft springs and premium shocks are tuned to enhance the Neon's ride quality. Indeed, we found that the Neon does not bottom out the way many cars do. When we hit a sharp dip, the Neon's suspension was soft enough to absorb the harshness of the dip, yet it was firm enough and had enough travel to avoid bottoming. As a result, the front of the Neon did not scrape on the pavement where many others have scraped before. This makes for a more comfortable ride and there's less need to slow to a walking pace for dips.
The brakes that come standard on the Neon stop the car quickly and are stable under hard use. The Neon stops more quickly than many of the other cars in its class. Still, we recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Whether the roads are slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers maintain steering control in panic braking situations. And disc brakes are less likely to fade on mountain roads than are the standard rear drum brakes. Disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake distribution (EBD) are standard on R/T and SRT-4. They work well, and the pedal feels good.
The R/T model is more fun to drive than the standard Neon SE and SXT. Handling is much crisper and the ride quality is acceptable. The engine is more responsive and the R/T's increased horsepower is achieved without sacrificing fuel economy.
Far more exciting to drive is the Neon SRT-4. Its turbocharged engine develops 230 horsepower at 5300 rpm and 250 pounds-feet of torque from 2200 to 4400 rpm. According to Dodge, it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.8 seconds. The SRT-4 was developed with input from Dodge engineers who spend their weekends road racing with the Sports Car Club of America. Bigger-than-standard front brakes stop the SRT-4 in 120 feet, according to Dodge. The Neon SRT-4 can walk all over a Ford Focus SVT, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, or MazdaSpeed Protege in terms of acceleration and braking.
For 2004, Dodge has recalibrated the SRT-4's engine control module and specified larger, higher-flow fuel injectors, not only for more horsepower and torque but also for a broader torque band. That means less shifting under normal driving conditions. Also new for 2004 is a Quaife torque-sensing, limited-slip differential, to provide more traction when accelerating out of the corners. Standard tires are B.F. Goodrich KDW2 three-season radials, specifically developed to match the SRT-4's suspension and handling characteristics, with a tread pattern and rubber compound that maximize grip for cornering, accelerating and braking.
Dodge Neon offers good value in a compact sedan. It's roomy and comfortable. The latest version is smoother and quieter than pre-2000 models, but still isn't at the top of the class in terms of refinement. The well-equipped SXT offers a strong value. The R/T offers a bit more power and a more responsive driving experience, while the racy SRT-4 delivers some of the best performance in its class.
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