Neon survived the terrible 2s.Maybe its third year on the market will be a charm. The Neon twins, Dodge and Plymouth, arrived in the 1994 model year. Thecars offered but one slightly noisy, slightly underpowered 4-cylinder engineand only a 3-speed automatic as an option. To keep the sticker price down,such items as anti-lock brakes were optional and power windows wereunavailable. Then, too, the automaker promoted that you could pick up a Neon for about$8,500, which was true, provided you equipped it in early cave. Customersattracted by the "Hi" and "Yo" advertising campaigns found they could pick upa nicely equipped Neon for about $12,000--a good price, but more than a tadhigher than $8,500. They responded "Hey!" and "Yow!" In 1995 Chrysler got caught at times with a few more Neons in dealer stockthan in consumer garages and some members of the media predicted doom andgloom--even before Kirk Kerkorian stepped in. Enter 1996. Some changes have beenmade, which for the most part are for thebetter. We tested a 1996 Plymouth Neon Sport coupe powered by a 2-liter,150-horsepower, 16-valve, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder, the engine that wasmissing in 1994, when only a single overhead cam, 132-h.p. 4 was offered. The 150-h.p. engine provides punch to a car saddled with paunch from itsweaker 132-h.p. kin. The 150-h.p. engine is lively and spirited. You can zipfrom the light and slip into the passing lane. The smooth shifting 5-speedmanual (you'll still have to settle for a 3-speed automatic) is a goodcompanion that helps get the most power and performance out of the engine.Those who fear a manual will find this 5-speed is a learner's delight with itssmooth clutch and shift-lever movement. The combo is not only quiet, it also garners a 28-miles-per galloncity/38-m.p.g. highway rating. The fuel gauge needle moves reluctantly. Tofurther stress fuel economy and driving range, Chrysler is converting the11.2-gallon metal Neon gas tank to a 12.5-gallon plastic one for 1996. Those looking for a high-mileage commuter for work or a high-mileagetransporter for getting the kids to school will find Neon allows you tostretch the weekly fuel allowance. Though a subcompact, interior room is impressive. To make the Neon evenmore functional, you need only pull down the seat backs to open the cargo holdleading to the trunk. And those seat backs lay flat so you can slip skis,luggage, golf clubs or grocery bags inside without having to perform abalancing act to keep the contents from toppling. As for safety, dual bags are standard and ABS is a $585 option. We'd stilllike to see ABS made standard, but Chrysler wants to keep the sticker pricedown. The problem with ABS as an option is that when torn between ABS and astereo/compact disc system, youngsters with limited funds often will opt forsound over safety. A noteworthy change for 1996 finds power windows now offered in Neon coupesand not just sedans, available since 1995. Again, however, power windows arean option at $265. Youth, especially women, are demanding power windows andpower locks as a safety feature to prevent people from reaching in forpurse--or worse, the ignition keys. Chrysler says power windows were proposed for the car, but consumers whotook part in product clinics voted against them to keep the price withinreach of youthful buyers. What Chrysler found, however, was consumers who pay frequent highway tollswere annoyed with roll down/up windows, so optional power windows were added.And though tollway users hollered the loudest, those who want the safety andsecurity of push-button window operation benefited, too. The base price of the Plymouth Neon Sport coupe we tested was$12,500--hardly $8,500, but still a reasonable figure considering the amountof equipment. Standard equipment on the test car included energy-absorbing 5-m.p.h.bumpers with fog lights; side door-guard beams; 14-inch, all-season radialtires; power brakes and steering; tilt steering wheel; four-wheel fullyindependent suspension for minimal harshness over bumps; gas-charged strutswith front and rear sway bars; sporty power hood bulge; power dual remotemirrors and door locks; tinted glass; electric rear window defroster; floorconsole with dual cupholders and coinholder; remote hood and deck lid release;driver/passenger vanity mirrors; AM/FM stereo with clock; and body-coloreddoor handles/bodyside moldings. About all you need to round out the package would be air conditioning,power windows and ABS. Neon is an alternative to General Motors' Saturn, which offers two featuresthat Neon lacks--plastic body panels that won't rust and crinkle in minorrun-ins and traction control. There have been reports Neon will add a convertible in 1999. Chryslerofficials won't comment. If Saturn adds a droptop in 1998, Chrysler may dolikewise.
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