Performance was the biggest news for Dodges compact, front-wheel-drive, four-door Neon sedan for the 2003 model year, which also marked the debut of a new high-performance SRT-4 offshoot model. A redesigned Neon isnt likely for a couple of years. Changes for 2004 are largely limited to the SRT-4 edition.
Dodge continues to offer the SE sedan, which serves as the base model, along with the value-packed SXT and the sporty R/T (road/track) version. For value-conscious and performance enthusiasts, more options and packages are available. A Sport Appearance Group for the SXT adds a spoiler, fog lamps and 15-inch Euro-style aluminum wheels. The R/T model is equipped with a 150-horsepower engine, a sport suspension, sport tires and racy exterior trim.
Since its redesign for the 2000 model year, the Neon has come only as a four-door sedan. Its overall length is 174.4 inches, which is nearly identical to the Honda Civic sedan. The Neons styling evokes a kinship to the original model, which debuted for 1995, but designers say they attempted to give the second-generation model a more mature, substantial appearance. Standard SE tires measure 14 inches in diameter, while the SXT gets 15-inchers and the R/T moves up to 16-inchers.
The Neon seats five people on a pair of front buckets and a three-place, 60/40-split, folding rear seat. A rear-window defogger and a center console with four cupholders are standard. Cargo volume is 13.1 cubic feet. Standard SE equipment includes a cassette stereo, Millennium cloth upholstery and a center console. The SXT adds a tachometer, air conditioning, power windows and a CD player. Royale leather upholstery is optional in the R/T model.
The steering wheel contains an aluminum Dodge medallion. An in-dash six-CD player is optional in the SXT and standard in the R/T sedan.
Under the Hood
A 132-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers all Neon models but the sport-oriented R/T sedan, which gets a high-output 150-hp version. The base engine teams with either a four-speed-automatic or five-speed-manual transmission, while the stronger four-cylinder is available only with the manual gearbox.
Antilock brakes are standard on the R/T and available as optional equipment on the SE and SXT. Side-impact airbags are optional in all models.
Nimble handling and reasonably brisk performance with the 132-hp engine help make the smallest DaimlerChrysler model appealing to compact-car buyers. The Neon sedan is particularly easy to drive, and it has quick and crisp steering. The Neon is somewhat bouncy through harsh urban pavement, but the ride is fine on the highway. The taut suspension is nicely controlled and seldom overreacts, but the sedan hits some bumps harder than expected.
Despite its undeniable merits, the Neon fails to stand significantly above the competition. Noise is one drawback. A quieter engine could make the Neon a stronger rival to such class leaders as the Civic. Rear-seat headroom is marginal, and the interior tends to elicit a feeling of snugness. The seatbacks, especially in the rear, arent very comfortable.