The cars we loved.
Chrysler’s Neon has the unfortunate reputation of being a dumpy car. First introduced in 1994, it was Chrysler’s cute and zippy compact that came in awkward looking coupe or sedan form. The Neon’s smiling front end inspired a clever advertising campaign that expanded the car’s visibility with the youth market significantly. They sold well and were well-built, but not as solid as Corollas, Civics or even Ford’s lowly Escort. The second generation, introduced in 2000 attempted to address those issues and tackle various segments of the market that the previous car only hinted at. One of those segments was luxury, yes luxury or as near to it as a Neon could come. The performance oriented cars were well represented, with the ACR, R/T and SRT -4 models being the most popular. Although many would find it difficult to believe, a small percentage of Neons passed for low-end near luxury cars, especially in international markets were the Dodge name did not conjure up images of hillbilly and MOPAR lovin’ rednecks.
It’s true. The Neon was sold in South America as well as many parts of Europe in more upscale trim levels. In England, you could buy your Chrysler branded Neon with heated leather seats and in place of the traditional Neon grill emblem, there was a Chrysler crest similar to the more upscale 300M. The luxury appointments were not limited to Europe, as North American Neons from Plymouth would become available with leather seats, power moon roofs and all the trappings of a small luxury car. Chrysler sold a popular version of the Neon in Brazil that was aimed at that countries popular compact luxury segment. In all of these sub luxury attempts, only the shared MOPAR parts betrayed a sense of true luxury. The dynamics of the auto marketplace were favorable to Chrysler in other parts of the world, but in North America the lack of overall refinement and resale value meant that the Neon never made it to the short list for many new car buyers.
Not that the Neon was a bad car. Technically, it’s fully independent suspension, multi valve engine and roomy cabin looked good on paper. It’s 3 or 4-speed automatic transmission got the job done, but was not the smoothest. Acceleration, handling and trunk space were Neon strong points, often placing it at the top of the compact sedan segment in America in those categories. Class leading performance was not enough as most Americans wanted an appliance, not a performance car. Their heater, cooler and radio on wheels had to isolate them from the outside in comfort .The Neon was noisy than most other small cars, even when sold in luxury trim. Complaints about engine and road noise as well as sub par gas mileage were common. This was made all the more obvious when considering smaller engines from Honda and Toyota that offered almost as much power with significantly better gas mileage.
Most luxury oriented Neons featured a 2.0 litre SOHC (sometimes DOHC engine), similar to what was in some Mitsubishi cars. Horsepower ranged from 132 to 150, depending on if it had single or double overhead cams. Plymouth seemed to promote it’s luxury Neons , while Dodge focused on value or performance. This was surprising when the Plymouth brand catered mostly to those looking for entry-level cars in the past. As Neons sold under the Plymouth name began to dwindle, Chrysler dissolved the brand and started calling the car the Chrysler Neon. In some markets the name was changed to SX, but there were still leather clad Neons to be had, although in ever smaller numbers.
As a used car Neons are plentiful. As a sub luxury car, they are rare. Highline and LX model cars in America are more likely to have leather interiors and the larger engines. There were very few manual transmissions in Neons. Aside from the few sporty models, most were 4-speed automatics. With a little more refinement the Neon could have been a formidable sub luxury car and could have helped revive (or jumpstart) a category that is under represented in America.