Plymouth Neon meets impossible goals: Cheap, roomy and fun
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
A subcompact sedan must be extremely inexpensive because that's the point: Offer cheap wheels to those on tight budgets.
To pare the price, automakers must scale down the engine, strip away any hint of luxury and forego the thought of fancy safety systems. What you end up with is a metal box on wheels with scant attention to safety, few perks for comfort and virtually no horsepower.
It's dull and definitely not fun to drive.
Neon dares to charge down a different course.
At $9,500, this subcompact 5-passenger sedan from Chrysler Corporation is certainly affordable, and at a glance you can see it is smoothly shaped with advanced styling lines, looking both elegant and cute.
The surprise of Neon shows up when you slip behind the sporty steering wheel, strap yourself into the expertly crafted driver's bucket seat, grip the new short-throw stick shift and pull out into traffic.
Watch out, though, because Neon contains something that nothing else in its class carries. It packs a punch.
That new 2.0-liter engine, with overhead cam and four valves for each of four cylinders, produces unexpected throttle response that climbs to 132-horsepower in a high-revving arrangement which brings a smile to the face of even a jaded sports car enthusiast like this writer.
Look around the cozy yet spacious interior compartment with its cab-forward design and stunning ring of glass and you will find other unexpected systems.
For one thing, two airbags have been installed for Neon's front occupants. Such safety systems usually show up only in far more expensive automobiles.
Then too there are so many little comfort touches.
Take the driver's and passenger's sun visors, for instance, items usually all but forgotten in most econo-cars of this wee class. Neon's visors have center-side sliding extension panels to cover the high middle section of the windshield to block glare when needed, and there's even a vanity mirror mounted on the passenger side, with optional auto-operating light bar.
Or consider the high-mounted rear stoplight required on all automobiles by federal law. Others in this class position that extra light at the bottom of the rear window, which is the cheaper way to go despite that red glare the driver sees in the rearview mirror at night. Neon's rear high light, by contrast, has been incorporated into the trunk design so it doesn't intrude on the driver's vision.
Details like these, when taken as a whole, add up to so much car, dollar for dollar.
Frankly, I'm amazed by Neon.
Following an invigorating 200-mile Neon drive charted across twisted back roads of Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, I spent the better part of an hour trying to come up with a derogatory comment -- some obvious weakness of the new car's design.
The closest would be a picky point about Neon's clever design for a trunk-to-cab pass-through section. It's accessible by folding down a section of the rear 3-person bench's seat back, and the device doesn't have a locking mechanism. Yet a spokesman for Chrysler's engineering team tells me they're working on one.
Perhaps the most amazing point of all about Neon is not that it delivers more perks per buck than anything before it in its class, but that it comes from Chrysler.
Ten years ago, this manufacturer was struggling to stay in third place behind the other two American giants. New management, fresh thinking and an awesome commitment to creative designs and quality control have turned that situation around in recent years.
Today, Chrysler has the market locked up on minivans, as it invented the concept. Its new Dodge Ram pickup truck can take on anything in the world and come out on top, and the company's cab-forward concept has spawned some stunning sedans like Eagle Vision and Chrysler New Yorker/LHS.
Now comes Neon, which will wear the badges of Plymouth and Dodge and be identical in all aspects.
Check out Neon's point of origin and you will discover another startling fact: This is the first modern subcompact in its price class to be conceived, designed and constructed strictly within the borders of the United States by an all-American team. Chrysler executives are quick to point out there was no Asian partner involved behind the scene, as has been the typical case with Neon's competition.
Wherever I travel in the quest to drive the newest cars -- and I log a lot of miles -- Americans ask the question: Can't we build a car as good as the Asians?
My bullish response is emphatic: Yes, we can, and Chrysler shows the way, with Neon as the latest proof.
Everything feels right about this little car.
It has a 4-wheel independent suspension system that provides an exacting and sporty ride quality. There's a no-nonsense rack and pinion steering mechanism and front disc brakes aboard, plus the affordable (around $500) option of an anti-lock brake system for additional safety.
Neon's engine hums, provides all the juice you need and still turns in impressive fuel economy figures as high as 38 miles per gallon on the highway.
A highly efficient 3-speed automatic transmission is another option if you'd rather leave shifting chores to the automobile, and you can also get an air conditioner and other perks without wrecking your budget. A Neon equipped with all of the preferred options amounts to about $12,000, and even the ultimate edition with sport suspension, larger tires and other goodies comes to only $13,300.
That cab-forward design, achieved by pushing wheels to the four corners of the rectangular plan for greater stability in handling, generates more than normal interior space -- almost 90 cubic feet. It means you end up with more elbow room, more shoulder space, more comfort and -- with those broad rear doors -- easy entry and exit.
The best of all features, however, is the one you will not find elsewhere in this class: Neon is fun to drive.
Whipping around slinky curves on River Road over a canyon path of the scenic Guadalupe, I had a ball with Neon. It's a dynamic machine that's pure pleasure all the way.
Chrysler deserves a standing ovation for this one.
1995 PLYMOUTH NEON
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 1995 PLYMOUTH NEON Specs
| Model Options:
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||SOHC 2.0-L I-4 16v
| Gas Mileage:
||$ 9,500 to $ 14,300