After five model years, after the spark and glow and applause for the Dodge-Plymouth Neon had dulled, critics spoke their second thoughts. It was a humbling drumfire of free speech and crucifixion by commentary. Condemned Consumer Reports: "Fuel economy is unimpressive for a small car . . . ride is harsh and jittery." Damned Autograph '99, the car- and truck-buying annual of the American Automobile Assn.: "Automatic transmission is rough and clumsy . . . manual transmission is equipped with an imprecise shifter and a clutch that is hardly progressive." Trumped Consumer Guide's Automobile Book: "Gives up a lot of refinement in the name of spry performance . . . car has lost some steam to fresher new rivals." The opinion makers mostly spoke the truth. Despite its spunk and spirited shoving for a permanent place among ranking small cars, Neon clearly was a likable urchin that kicked up a storm of wall-to-wall engine, road and wind noise. But despite the published carping, the positive nuances of Neon refused to go away. Introduced in 1994 as an import basher, this dumpy subcompact was more fun than your own theme park. Adequately equipped, as they say (albeit with acres of plastic and cheap upholstery that might have launched a line of Austin Powers' sport coats), it was priced well at about $12,000. And although Honda's Civic and Toyota's Corolla and Ford's Escort were its designated prey, Neon oozed enough horsepower to run at the elbows of Accord and Camry and Taurus. By the late '90s, this Dodge had also changed the rules and was showing enough grunt to out-hustle and out-muscle those in, and often above, its class in weekend racing. Fortunately for the future--ours and its--the bright and dark sides of Neon were pretty obvious. Parent Chrysler, then single and not even engaged to Daimler-Benz, had no difficulty hearing its Neonites, their ombudsmen and common loathings concerning noise, clumsy construction and harsh handling. The company's redevelopment decision--realized in two years at a cost of $700 million--was to retain the car's fun and exuberance while exorcising its harsh, noisy negatives. Also to enlarge its customer body--1.5 million folk in 61 countries--by merging youthful and borderline rambunctious buyers with serious and suburban types. * And so the 2000 Dodge-Plymouth Neon arrives in showrooms next month as a larger, softer, quieter, smoother and roomier second generation. The ride has been fed a little lanolin. That imprecise shifter and unprogressive clutch have evolved into deft, well-modulated controls. A stiffer chassis, triple door seals and frame cavities filled with foam have quietened powertrain and road dins that once drowned out Roseanne. Adding a little more space to an already spacious, cab-forward interior means Neon has risen through the ranks from yeoman subcompact to compact with a surplus of usable room for stretching out and roaming. Thanks to all the chassis -stiffening and sound-deadening stuff, curb weight is up a few kilos and so fuel consumption is a few drops less but still offers a rather impressive (sorry, Consumer Reports) 27 miles per gallon in town and 34 mpg on interstates. Out: Chrysler's Lollipop Kid image created by an advertising campaign that was all about smiley faces, puppy fat and M&M wheels on a car that said: "Hi." With the coupe market decrepitating daily, Neon will be manufactured only as a sedan. Just one engine is available: the 2.0-liter, 132-horsepower, single-overhead four-holer that was in the original car. Although that single choice will annoy owners driving current Neons with 150-horsepower engines, Chrysler promises that there will be a sportier, more powerful engine available sometime before the Y2K bug eats the world. In: A more sophisticated approach to life, as a redoubling of Chrysler's effort to stick it to Honda, Toyota and Ford. Traction controls, anti-lock brakes, an alarm an d theft de terrent, cruise control and more warning chimes than a Christmas carillon are among Neon's many adult attractions. Styling isn't quite so chubby, and the rear end is heavily tailored and thoroughly European. Such soberness is clearly aimed at slightly older motorists who prefer to get their humor from Dilbert. Although a paint color called Cinnamon Glaze might be straining the boundaries of refinement a bit. (Didn't she own a strip joint in Wilmington in the '60s?) Plymouth will market a pair of Neons: a base sedan (and plastic wheel covers with no air conditioning is about as base naked as any car should be) and a sassier LX. Dodge's version will be identical except for badging (a sheep's head for Dodge, a sailboat for Plymouth) and designations, the same-old entry model accompanied by a dressier ES. Prices are up a little, with $12,890 the general admission fee for both. Neon's interior--but for white-faced instruments and the flowing cowl that shields them--is pretty routine. Gray. Mousy. Rotary dashboard controls. From ordinary to blah. Along with quieting road roar, wind hiss and engine clamor, Chrysler has softened and smoothed all basic driving operations. Noticeably. Nothing is quite as tense as it was, further evidence of Chrysler reaching for newer and older buyers. On the other hand, nothing has been improved into pulp. Brakes come on easily and early, with no hint of grab and no risk of shinsplints. Front wheels stay where they are pointed, which makes for remarkably secure, agile cornering. And whatever lumps or ruts might be pockmarking your passage, the Neon's marginally longer suspension travel does a good job on even bad asphalt. * Sadly, Chrysler remains in denial of its perennial plague: not sweating the little stuff. So many things about the Neon are ill-conceived or rough around the edges. Door and ignition keys require too much fidgeting and jiggling. The on-off-volume control for the radio nudges the station-seek button, so pumping up the sound to better enjoy Miles Davis also gets you a PBS program on surviving cheap vodka. And why only an outdated, power-sucking, three-speed automatic? Then there's something called "vehicle speed-sensitive power door locks with lock-out protection." Translation: Doors lock automatically when vehicle speed reaches 18 mph. Unlocking occurs when the car is at rest and in park. But only the driver's door unlocks. Passengers are left to fumble with their own release catches to exit. If traveling alone--with Wall Street Journal and Evian bottle on the back seat--a driver must exit the car and use the remote or an internal release to unlock the rear door before reclaiming aforementioned stuff. Bottom line: Too many movements that deny long-standing habits and only create frustration and mumbled blasphemies. Especially when it's raining. The good news is that "vehicle speed-sensitive blah, blah, blah" is an option on entry-level Neons. As standa rd equipment on LX and ES versions, pray that it can be disconnected. If your blasphemies weren't black enough to cancel such small benefits of prayer. 2000 Dodge-Plymouth Neon Cost Base, $12,890. Includes driver and passenger air bags, six-speaker AM-FM sound system and cassette player, power steering, child door locks. As tested, $14,540. Adds ES trim package, includes air conditioning, cruise control, central locking, electric mirrors, anti-lock brakes, tilt steering, traction control, alarm and anti-theft system and 15-inch alloy wheels. Engine 2.0-liter, inline-4 developing 132 horsepower. Type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-door compact sedan. Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, in 9.0 seconds. Top speed, estimated: 118 mph. Fuel consumption, as measured: 27 miles per gallon incity, 34 mpg on highway, with five-speed manual. Curb Weight 2,564 pounds. The Good: More s ophisticated styling and equipment, without subtracting from driving fun and youthful image. Still priced well for car of this pep and personality. Longer and roomier than first generation, with engine and wind noise hushed to a hum. The Bad: Base version pretty naked. Switches and levers still rough around the edges. Infuriating lockout system. The Ugly: The tacky plastic wheel covers on cheapo model.