From the May 1999 issue of Car and Driver.
The Neon’s replacement, which arrives as a 2000 model, is called the Neon. Pause to absorb this electrifying news, then note that this is the first time in more than three decades that the Dodge and Plymouth compacts have been redesigned without their names being changed. It’s a sign of an automaker’s confidence in its current product when it elects to carry over a nameplate for that product’s replacement.
In the Neon’s case, we understand this decision. The cutesy Neon drew thousands of sought-after Gen X customers into Dodge and Plymouth showrooms for the first time ever. In recent years, DaimlerChrysler says the Neon has been one of the company’s best-built and most reliable domestic cars, too.
So it’s no surprise that the new Neon isn’t a radical change from the original model. It’s just 2.6 inches longer, 0.2 inch wider, and an inch longer in wheelbase than the 1999 model. The DOHC 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produced 150 horsepower is gone, however, leaving only the 132-horsepower single-cam version, mated to the same five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. (An R/T version arrives for 2001 with a 150-hp SOHC engine.) The two-door has been dropped (it accounted for just 23 percent of Neon sales last year anyway), as the four-door has passed through a kind of design puberty. The happy-face front fascia has grown a more prominent chin, and a new chrome mustache has sprouted on the grille.
Baby fat has disappeared from the all-new body, which stretches tightly around the wheel wells, giving the Neon a family resemblance to the rest of DaimlerChrysler’s domestic-car lineup. It reflects a more grown-up and serious image for the Neon.
Our first look at the 2000 (C/D, February 1999) documented these changes in detail. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel, on the road as well as at the track. What we’ve learned suggests a glowing future for the Neon.
A lack of refinement was a problem with the first design. And that’s the area where the new model has made the most significant strides. Wind whispers rather than whistles around the windows now. Bumps pass underneath more quietly, and the four-cylinder hums more distantly. The decibel-level drops measured by our sound meter are five at idle, four at full-throttle, and two while cruising at 70 mph, when compared with our last SOHC Neon (C/D, December 1995). Many factors are at work here—a stiffer body, a redesigned four-strut suspension, and full-frame doors with triple seals that replace the frameless-glass door design of before. On the engine, revised covers, manifolds, and a new mounting system reduce the hollow, whiny noises that plagued last year’s four-cylinder. Note that we said reduce, not eliminate. Bury the throttle all the way to the 6500-rpm redline, and a familiar booming sound greets the ear—it’s just less annoying now.
The interior has taken a significant step forward. It’s slightly roomier front and rear. Even better is the execution of its components. The hard interior plastic is still there, but it’s better hidden behind soft-to-the-touch and faux-metal surfaces. Chrome latch handles with beefy-looking lock buttons dress up the doors. The LX models (and ES models at Dodge) have adjustable headrests for outboard rear-seat passengers, and the trunk carpeting extends beneath the spare tire. After we spent some time in it, this Neon felt a half-class above rivals such as the Ford Escort and Chevy Cavalier.
With its stiffer body, revised shock valving, and increased suspension travel, the 2000 Neon is even more fun to throw around curves than the previous model. The steering is sharp and accurate. Controllable four-wheel drifts are a flick of the steering wheel away, and gross body motions are tightly controlled. The ride is noticeably firm—this is no Hyundai cushmobile—but it never felt harsh.
The brakes, though, have really been improved. Tromp on the pedal at 70 mph, and our four-wheel-disc and ABS-equipped test car clawed itself to a stop in 175 feet. That’s five less than it took the Ford SVT Contour we tested, and it’s within a couple of feet of the stopping distances of a Mazda Miata or Chevy Corvette. The optional anti-lock system has been granted electronic brake proportioning and traction control, and improvements were made to fade resistance and pedal feel, but we didn’t expect this. Some credit goes to the optional Goodyear Eagle LS tires, which could summon 0.82 g of grip in curves, matching the skidpad number of a BMW 328i. This is exceptional cornering and braking for a $15,000 econocar. The possibilities of the upcoming R/T and ACR racing models make us itchy with anticipation.
At 2644 pounds, the 2000 Neon is 148 pounds heavier than the last four-door Neon we tested. That car could run to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds; the new one needs 8.7. That’s merely average for this class—a Mazda Protege ES requires 8.4 seconds, and a Saturn SL2 needs 7.6-but our test car was quite green, with just 400 miles on the odometer. We think a broken-in Neon would be 0.3 to 0.4 second quicker.
Slower acceleration is about the only letdown in an otherwise comprehensively improved car. Surprisingly, the price hasn’t changed much at all—base prices stay below $13,000, with the LX and ES versions coming in at less than $15,000. If reliability is respectable on early-production cars, that will mark another welcome change from the previous model. If we can snag a long-term Neon soon, we’ll be the first to let you know if that’s the case.
The original Neon reminded me of Opie Taylor. Now Opie’s deep into puberty and has apparently attended a finishing school: The brassy, buzzy engine note has been largely subdued. Interior surfaces are more tasteful and upscale. This new Neon rides like a bigger car. And its clutch is light, with Honda-smooth takeup. (Too bad the shift linkage remains as clunky as Barney’s cruiser’s.) I sure hope this Neon is better built than our long-termer (December 1995), which was awash in loose trim bits, failed latches, and mysterious squeaks. What’s more, I had a girlfriend whose ’95 Neon shed mechanical debris around the planet faster than the Mir space station. —John Philips
The Neon and I took some 15-mph “speed tables” in a nearby subdivision at 30 mph, and the Neon’s buttoned-up-for-’00 suspension was barely challenged. Had the roads not been so twisty and the speed tables so close together, my Neon friend and I would have pushed that little envelope. You can feel and see the refinement in this second-generation Neon: The fit and finish is well executed in the new taupe interior. However, the shifter is notchy; trying to engage reverse is a joke. The turn-signal noise is loud and agricultural. And why the key-release button? Have we no faith in our Gen Xers’ intelligence? —Patti Maki
From its vastly richer-looking dashboard to its softer, quieter ride to the cushy surfaces that my elbows touch on the door panels, this Neon has moved up the automotive food chain. Yet while losing the old car’s go-kart ride, the new Neon maintains the quick reflexes and sharp handling that made the old one so charismatic and entertaining. Of course, the multifariously massaged engine still emits some 4000-rpm boominess, the rear seat is too low, and automatic transmissions with only three cogs have no place in the Western world, but on balance, the new Neon remains one of the more interesting small sedans on the market. —Csaba Csere
2000 Plymouth Neon LX
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Base/As Tested: $14,650/$15,955
Options: Anti-Lock Brake Group (includes traction control), $595; alloy wheels, $355; cruise control, $225; Light Group, $130
DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 122 in3, 1996 cm3
Power: 132 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 130 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
Suspension, F/R: struts/struts
Brakes, F/R: 10.1-in vented disc/10.6-in disc
Tires: Goodyear Eagle LS
Wheelbase: 105.0 in
Length: 174.4 in
Width: 67.4 in
Height: 56.0 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 51/39 ft3
Trunk Volume: 13 ft3
Curb Weight: 2644 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.7 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.6 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 28.7 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 9.0 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 13.1 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 12.4 sec
Top Speed (gov ltd): 119 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 175 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 24 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 28/35 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED