EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

When the Neon first said “Hi” a few years ago, it said so with round headlamps that gave the car a high rating in the cute department. Credit Allentown’s own Lee Iacocca with that one.

A recent book about the Chrysler Corp. tells how Lee insisted the round headlamps should be used over the more Japanese-style headlamps the stylists favored.

Fast forward to the all-new 2000 Neon, with its stylish new suit of clothes. Say hello to its oblong headlamps and less distinctive front end. If the look is less rounded, it’s also more sophisticated and more in tune with the rest of the former Chrysler Corp.’s styling. If the old Neon wore jeans, the new one wears khakis.

Inside the vehicle, the increased sophistication is readily apparent everywhere you look.

The instrument panel is fresh and easy to use. The large instrument cluster has the usual array of speed/tach/fuel and temperature gauges. But they’re black on white.

The center of the dash houses the radio, buried under the climate controls. The climate controls are four simple twist knobs. The radio is familiar to anyone who has recently driven a Chrysler product. The AM/FM/cassette stereo provided decent sound.

The dash itself was trimmed in a nicer grade of plastic and the trim throughout the cabin seems of a better grade than previously. The center console, with its cupholders and various storage nooks, provides plenty of storage space. A center console bin adds space.

The front bucket seats proved much more comfortable than the ones they replaced. The fabric seemed more durable, mirroring the overall improvement in quality.

Interior space seems generous considering the car’s 174.4-inch length. Part of the credit goes to the car’s 105-inch wheelbase, long for a car this size. But the trunk was roomy, as well, seeming almost body-sized at 13.1 cubic foot.

If the duds are all-new, the drivetrain is familiar. A 2-liter 16-valve single-overhead-cam four-cylinder producing 132 horsepower and 130 pounds-foot of torque is the sole engine choice.

Last year’s hotter four with 150 horsepower isn’t available (neither is a coupe body style). The four-banger can be had with either a five-speed manual or an outdated three-speed automatic.

The test car had the automatic, and if ever a car needed a fourth gear, it’s this one. Engine noise is intrusive at highway speeds, speeds at which road and tire noise add to the din. But it’s much quiter than the old model, part of Chrysler’s attempts at refining the car. Part of the credit should go to Chrysler using triple door seals to help quiet things down.

Handling is typical for a small car. Bumps will be noticed, and you won’t mistake this car for one of Chrysler’s pricier offerings in that regard. But it’s nimble, with quick steering that gives it a very fun, tossable nature. The car felt secure, going where it was pointed. The improved chassis stiffness shows its merits here.

Front disc/rear drum brakes are standard, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock are optional and are highly recommended. They stopped this car easily and safely.

Standard on the base Neon is an AM/FM/cassette six-speaker stereo, four cupholders, rear defroster, floor mats, trunk lamp and a visor vanity mirror. Popping for the upper trim level (ES on a Dodge, LX on a Plymouth) gains power, heated mirrors, power front windows, keyless entry, security alarm and better trim.

Some petty annoyances: aside from the three-speed automatic, it would be nice if one could get power rear windows. Power windows are only available up front, leaving rear seat passengers crank windows, which is truely odd. And despite the superior build and overall stoutness of the car, the dome light flickered at times.

Prices start at $12,890 for a base car, around $15,000 with options.

But Chrysler has taken a perky little youth and smoothed out its rough edges, making a fun, sophisticated bright light in a crowded f ield of small cars.

2000 Plymouth Neon

Engine: 2-liter SOHC inline 4-cylinder Transmission: 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic Tire: P185/65R14 Standard: Manual adjustable morrors, floor mats, full-lenght console with storage bin, six-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo, power front disc/rear drum brakes, rear windown defroster, power outlet, power rack-and-pinion steering, compact spare tire, variable intermittent wipers, dual airbags. Base price, base model: $12,890 EPA rating: 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway

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