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2002 SEMA: Chrysler Wants “Coolest” by Marty Padgett (11/11/2002)
“Say hello to Neon.” When Dodge first rolled out its stylish little subcompact some years back, the automaker’s ad campaign focused on the car’s friendly face. Well, there’s a new Neon out this year, and it’s not going to look quite so friendly when you see it racing up in your rearview mirror.
The SRT-4 is the latest addition to the Dodge division’s rapidly expanding lineup of high-performance cars and trucks. And it could go a long way towards reviving the Neon nameplate, which has faded into the wallpaper while other manufacturers have put a premium on power.
All Neon models underwent a facelift for 2003, with new front and rear fascias and modified head and taillights designed to make the subcompact sedan look a lot more like the midsize Dodge Intrepid. There are new wheel covers and a palette of new colors, as well.
But what distinguishes the SRT-4 is best seen by popping open the hood. There you’ll find a new, turbocharged, 2.4-liter engine pumping out an impressive 215 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque. That in-line four is mated to a quick-shifting, five-speed manual gearbox. The new Dodge sport subcompact gets a sport-tuned suspension, oversized four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and 17-inch wheels shod with high-performance tires designed to put all that power to the pavement.
The Neon has always been fun to drive—if you didn’t mind its distinct lack of power. That’s no longer an issue. With a base price of $19,995, Dodge claims this is the fastest car in the world under $20,000. The SRT-4 is, in fact, the second-fastest car in the Dodge lineup, its sub-six second 0-60 times lagging behind only the 500-hp Viper sports car.
There is a clear family resemblance, starting with the familiar crosshair grille. The SRT-4 version of the Neon also gets a functioning hood scoop and a high-arching rear spoiler. Those are reasonably subtle visual cues, and you’ll be likely to take some of the Japanese rice rockets by surprise when you launch into warp speed when the light turns green.
TheCarConnection spent a long weekend with the SRT-4 out in Phoenix, driving it under a variety of different conditions. And there’s no question this is a whole new Neon.
2003 Dodge Neon SRT-4Getting the most out of the SRT-4 requires
a little bit of learning. Like virtually every front-wheel-drive performance
car, there’s some torque steer, the tendency to dart to one side or the other
under hard acceleration. But Dodge engineers have done an extremely good job of
minimizing this problem. Of more serious concern was the occasional tendency to
wheel hop on some pavement. Use all the engine’s power, and you’d literally
start to pogo as the front tires struggled for grip. It didn’t happen often, but
when it did, it proved quite disconcerting.
2003 Dodge Neon SRT-4Enlarge Photo
Learning the feel of the clutch could reduce the occurrence of these problems. And the SRT-4’s heavy-duty gearbox deserves nothing but praise. It’s quick and precise, a much-needed improvement over the base Neon transmission.
The SRT-4 lives up to the new definition of “muscle car.” No longer is it good enough to simply accelerate in a straight line. Today’s performance machines must deliver good handling, and they need to stop fast, as well. The four-wheel discs clearly live up to expectations, the ABS system keeping the car pointed where you want, even when the beep-beep of a radar detector convinces you to scrub off some speed in a hurry.
The beefed-up suspension minimizes body roll, especially in tight turns. We were particularly impressed during hard acceleration runs across the desert, where road surfaces tend to bob and weave, leaving your head to toss and turn in a base model Neon.
Dodge has made some much-needed improvements in the Neon this year, with a larger center console and more refined materials. And there are additional upgrades in the SRT-4, most notably with the addition of an attractive and useful turbo boost gauge. The console, shift knob and door handles are all done in satin silver. The limited-edition model gets performance seats modeled after the ones in the Viper. And there’s an interesting carbon-fiber-patterned leather used for the steering wheel and shift boot.
While the SRT-4 is designed for a different crowd than your normal Neon owner, it also offers an assortment of safety features found in other Neon models, including the LATCH (Lower Anchors and upper Tethers for CHildren) child seat anchorage system, and a safety cage integrated into the body. Seat-mounted, supplemental side air bags also are offered as an option, while driver and front passenger air bags are standard.
With its high-arching roof, the Neon isn’t likely to be the car that first comes to mind when you’re looking for a sport compact. But the new SRT-4 package is likely to change some minds. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of car for the money. And when it comes flying up from behind, it’s likely to take many folks by surprise.
2003 DODGE NEON SRT-4
Base price: $19,965 (incl. $515 destination)
Engine: 2.4-liter turbocharged in-line four, 215 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 175.7 x 67.4 x 56.5 in.
Wheelbase: 105.0 in.
Curb weight: 2970 lb.
EPA City/Hwy: NA
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags, optional side airbags, 4-wheel disc brakes, ABS, integral safety cage
Major standard equipment: Air Conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, power windows, door locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; seven years/70,000 miles powertrain