The Dodge Neon has always been inexpensive and fun to drive. But this year's models are much more pleasant to live with on a daily basis. Nearly one-third of the Neon's components have been changed since its 1994 introduction. This year's models are quieter and ride nicer than earlier Neons. Interior details are much closer to the Honda benchmark. Chrysler's continuing improvements to the Neon are the result of learning a hard lesson. When it was first developing the Neon for its Dodge and Plymouth divisions, Chrysler organized some consumer clinics to poll potential buyers. Consumer input can be a valuable source of information when developing a new product. People who came to the clinics said they were tired of the rising prices of cars. What America needs is a good five-cent cigar, they said, a practical, reliable car that provides the basics without ballooning those monthly payments so much. This seemed to make sense and Chrysler listened. It was a big mistake. In an effort to hold down costs, the Neon debuted with few frills. It came with a cheap interior and relatively little engineering and manufacturing effort went into minimizing noise and vibration. The Neon quickly gained favor among car enthusiasts and others who enjoyed an inexpensive car that was a blast to drive. But a large group of shoppers complained that the car lacked the features of its competition. It's noisy, they said, and it seems to lack refinement. Many of these people turned their shopping efforts elsewhere. Now, four model years later, Chrysler has the benefit of spending a lot of quality time on the old drawing board. They've been engineering small solutions to address minor deficiencies. As a result, the 1998 Neons are much more refined than the early cars. Noise, vibration and harshness are substantially improved. More convenience features make the Neon attractive to people who want a lot more out of life than a fast economy car. Chrysler's efforts should satisfy the masses. But what about that small group of enthusiasts who applauded the Neon's acceleration performance and appreciated its entertainment value? Will they be left out in the cold? The answer comes in the form of the new Dodge Neon R/T, an enthusiast's model that focuses more on performance than frills. For less than $15,000, the R/T comes with Viper stripes and most of the hot rod hardware found on the ACR competition model that helped the Neon win three consecutive National championships in SCCA Showroom Stock racing.