When Chrysler set out to create a dramatic new model with the Neon, it developed a unique marketing approach as well. The standard-setting compact vehicle, which has now been benchmarked by import automakers for its engineering design, paved new ground by marketing two brands under one image - identical cars with only a surname difference.
The goal of the Plymouth/ Dodge Neon was to reach a new and larger group of small-car buyers who were disenchanted with the lack of standard safety features, interior room and, particularly, fun in their vehicles.
To address these and other concerns, the Neon offered a new engine that boasted the most horsepower in its class, the longest wheelbase in the small-car segment, standard dual airbags and side-impact protection. And all this was done at a yer-kiddin' base price of $8975.
The Neon sedan has been a sellout since its introduction in January 1994 as a '95 model. It was joined by the Neon coupe, which has been in production since late fall of '94. The Neon 5-passenger sedan comes in three trim levels - base, Highline and Sport - while the coupe is available in Highline and Sport only.
An array of options nearly as long as the Neon's 104 in. wheelbase is offered individually or in a variety of packages. A top-of-the-line, trim-packaged Neon, such as our test model Highline, can screech around corners for a price above $15,000.
Our test car came with an option package that included air conditioning, power door locks, dual remote exterior mirrors, 4-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS), 3-speed automatic transmission and a CD player. This boosted the price to $15,042, including destination charge.
The Neon's sporty styling features an aerodynamic, cab-forward architecture that improves looks, wind drag and noise. The sedan actually has a coupe-like appearance while the coupe boasts a power bulge hood and trunk lid spoiler. The doors for both have frames upper glass and offer the only hardtop-style glass-door construction available in this class (meaning that when you open the door, there is no frame over the upper portions of the window).
The neon's oval, bugle headlights are truly one of this car's most memorable features. And its sloping hood, high rear end and bubble roofline make it cuter than other subcompacts.
Identification is crucial for this car, so a decal - Pentastar for Plymouth models; Ram's Head for Dodge versions - is located on the front center of the hood, and Neon badges are found on the passenger-side fender and trunk lid.
Suspension systems are new and fully independent with front MacPherson struts designed to enhance steering feel and promote longer tire life. Lower control arms attached to the frame and suspension cross-members work to reduce noise. Rear suspension is multi-link independent with two lateral arms and a fore-aft tension strut on each side.
Standard safety features include dual airbags and a knee-bolster passive restraint system, front and rear door beams, child-safety locks on rear doors and a 5-mph bumper system. Optional equipment includes 4-wheel ABS and an integrated child safety seat.
Neon's packaging gives this small sedan a bigger-car feel. Front and rear doors swing open wide and are as large as those of many midsize cars that offer best-in-class ingress and egress. The wheelbase exceeds that of the Toyota Camry's and provides a more-than-generous interior.
The cabin's increased glass, accentuated by thin greenhouse pillars, creates an airy atmosphere. A low cowl affords a good command of the road and, although front and peripheral visibility is excellent, we found rear views limited and distracting due to the angle of the rear glass.
Our test model had comfortable, reclining low-back bucket seats with adjustable headrests up front and a folding 60/40 split bench seat in the rear. There were integrated armrests at each door, with a center padded armrest available as an option. The fixed, angled armrests did not fit the outboard limbs of all of our test drivers and, therefore, were not particularly useful.
We did find the standard cloth-covered sun visors (with a driver-side shade panel and ticket clip) and illuminated visor mirrors for driver and front passenger to be thoughtful, convenient touches.
Instrumentation is clear with large white-on-black dials, and although primary and secondary controls are within easy reach, some graphics are confusing and sticky to operate.
The interior is comfortable and long on roominess, but falls a bit short on storage. However, the neon's storage units do include a glove box and a floor-mounted center console with dual cupholders, small
storage trays and coin holders. Also, the optional padded armrest opens to accommodate the storage of CDs, cassettes and other small items.
The 11.8 sq. ft. trunk space is adequate for a car of this size, with above-average access enhanced by split rear seats. Spare tire access is also good.
One negative note: We were less than enamored with the stiff manual windows, which we found to be unnecessarily difficult to operate.
It is just as the ads say: The Neon really is fun to drive.
The neon's 2.0-liter SOHC 4-cylinder delivers 132 hp at 6000 rpm and 129 lb.-ft. at 5000 rpm. It's nimble and quick, providing equal power when passing or taking off from a stoplight. In terms of the latter, our test model nearly matched Chrysler's reported a 0-to-60 mph performance of 8.8 seconds.
The power-assist steering on our Neon was precise, and it fulfilled our needs on a variety of road conditions. When combined, the Neon's steering and fully independent suspension delivered top-notch handling.
The braking, assisted by our optional ABS, was sure and firm. We put the car through several stopping exercises on both dry and slick surfaces, and were pleased with the way the system brought our car to a halt.
Evidence of vibration and harshness on the Neon was virtually nonexistent; noise was more of a mixed bag. Although we were unaware of any road or wind noise, there was an obvious rumble coming from the engine, which made for a not-so-quiet ride.
EPA fuel efficiency ratings with the standard 5-speed manual transmission are 29 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway; with the 3-speed automatic those ratings decrease slightly to 27 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway.
This new entry-level vehicle is very competitive in its value-for-the-money factor. It boasts a number of best-in-class ratings: base horsepower and torque, shift effort, handling, aerodynamic drag coefficient, structural stiffness, front and rear legroom, rear-seat ingress and egress, and climate control operation.
We found the Plymouth Neon a delight to drive with the combination of its handling and power. Chrysler has worked hard to develop a fun-to-drive vehicle and, from our accounts, the company is succeeding. Chrysler also has done well in presenting a distinctive exterior that imparts a friendly - almost cuddly - appearance to prospective customers.
Before we get overly gushy here, we should remind you that there are some interior flaws - storage, engine noise and rear visibility - that need to be addressed, especially for a car that can reach $15,000 in price. But these relatively minor concerns shouldn't stand in your way the next time you visit a Plymouth or Dodge dealer to test drive a Neon.