They say good things come in small packages. That's certainly true of the new Dodge Neon R/T. But the snazzy, compact Neon R/T is not only a good thing, it's a quick one. The R/T is a new model for 1998 that, for a reasonable price, delivers terrific performance, lots of equipment and solid quality. Those with long memories will recall that Dodge attached the R/T ("road and track'') letters to its muscle cars of the late '60s and early '70s -- then again to modern muscle machines such as the Dodge Viper and V-8-powered Dakota pickup. The R/T designation isn't affixed to the Neon just for cosmetic or marketing purposes. Many of the car's underpinnings have been suitably beefed up. PERFORMANCE, HANDLINGStandard Neons come with a 132-horsepower, 2.0-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine and either a five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic. The R/T model turns up the heat a bit. It has a 150-horsepower version of the 2.0-liter, DOHC engine. The only gearbox available is a five-speed manual. When you first start moving, the R/T doesn't seem much like a rocket. In fact, the 2.0-liter engine could use more muscle at lower speeds. But the power builds strongly as the tachometer needle climbs past the 3,500 range. The five-speed transmission is slick and easy to shift. The clutch is easy on the leg, so driving this car in heavy city traffic won't wear you out. Despite being driven with an extremely heavy foot and with the air conditioner on most of the time, our test Neon got exemplary fuel economy. It logged 28 mpg in city driving and 39 on the highway in a 480-mile, weeklong test. The Neon R/T has a performance-tuned, four-wheel suspension system that includes front and rear sway bars, specially designed springs and 14-inch wheels. All this keeps the car firmly grounded when taking corners at fast speeds. The four-wheel, power-assisted disc brakes are strong and they stop the car very quickly. But the optional anti-lock system available on the regular Neon is not offered on the R/T. That seems unusual. A high-performance car needs the best brake system available. Power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering is standard. It has a nicely weighted, solid feel. FIT AND FINISH The Neon R/T is basically an economy car, but a few options bump its appeal to a higher level. For $1,150, the ``Value/Fun Group'' package adds a power sunroof and power windows, mirrors and door locks. This package is an outstanding value -- on some luxury vehicles, the sunroof alone costs more than $1,150. Other options included a tilt steering wheel and cruise control. You get both for $350. Floor mats add another $50. The R/T model has seats that offer more support than the standard Neon seats, and special upholstery. The front buckets are comfortable on long drives. The rear seats also offer good support, and there's an uncommon amount of head and leg room in the back of the Neon. The rear se at cushions fold forward so that bigger items can fit inside the car. I like the stylish white-on-black instruments and the uncluttered dash. The controls for the air conditioner and radio, in the center of the dash, are very easy to reach and use. The steering wheel-mounted switches for the cruise control are a classy touch. This car feels as tightly made as any Toyota or Volkswagen I tested lately. But some Neons tested by enthusiast magazines have had minor problems, and spare parts were sometimes hard to get. The best part of the Neon R/T is the value it offers. It is a great looking little car that offers good performance and plenty of room. You get your money's worth and a lot more. 1998 Dodge Neon R/TBase price: $11,355. Safety: Dual air bags and side-impact protection. Price as tested: $15,095 EPA rating: 29 mpg city/41 mpg highway Incentives: $1,500 Truett's tip: The Neon R/T is a funky, spunky compact that offer s snappy accel eration, crisp handling and pleasing looks. It also delivers outstanding value for the money.
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