- Two doors, the correct number. Look, it's even got a little spoiler!

A Defense of the Dodge Neon

4w ago


The Dodge Neon hit roads for the 1995 model year in 1994. And we'll get this out of the way now: the Neon was the laziest internal rebadging job ever produced. It was Chrysler's own flesh and blood through and through, but you could essentially choose your badge for the hood, as the rest of the car was identical whether you opted for the Dodge, Plymouth, or in some markets Chrysler Neon.

The Neon is a car of choices. Two or four doors, take your pick. Dodge or Plymouth. Are you happy with the stock 2.0L SOHC 4-banger rated at 130hp? Or are you gonna pony up for an extra cam to wring out 20 more dormant horses?

Actually, let's pause for a second on the engine. Some people will rag on the 1st generation Neon for being slow. It was not built as a performance vehicle. If you could afford to go fast, you weren't buying a Neon (eventual SRT-4 notwithstanding). But what the Neon could do was kick the ass of every single one of its rivals in terms of power.

The SOHC and DOHC Neon humiliated both equivalent trims of Honda Civic at the time by 28 and 25 hp, respectively. Small differences by today's standards- but monumental when you're discussing engines barely clearing 100 horsepower. The base Nissan Sentra was beat by 15 hp, while even the sporty Sentra SE-R fell 10 hp short of the DOHC Neon. Meanwhile, the 130 horsepower base engine Neon absolutely shames the 88 horse base Ford Escort. Even the sporty Escort ZX2 S/R that came a few years later fell short of the DOHC Neon. The same story continues with the Toyota Corolla, Saturn S-Series, and Chevrolet Cavalier.

Anyway, the Neon is a car of choices. The most important of which comes in deciding if you'd like to row your own gears. The first generation Neon offered a choice of a 3-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission. While the stick was quite good, the automatic was an easy way to ruin a great car. It was a holdover from the retired Dodge Omni / Plymouth Horizon. The 3-speed wasn't geared high enough for reasonable highway cruising, meaning the engine was essentially always screaming above 60 mph. An automatic Neon would rob you of an average 5 mpg over the manual.

The Neon was a cheap car. The interior was cheap to match. In fact, a first generation Neon could not be optioned with power rear windows. But the underlying mechanics were unique for a vehicle at this price point. In addition to the aforementioned powerful engines, it rode on a sporty independent rear suspension setup that many of its rivals lacked. What resulted was a smoother ride and more nimble handling. Couple this with the fact that its a small car built in the age of plastic, but just before rollover regulations, and you've got a featherweight FWD autocross contender. With power to boot!

What you think of the looks is at your discretion. Personally, I think they look happy to see you, like a chipper sidekick. Others may argue that they're dopey or cheap looking. But the Neon does not put on airs. What you see is what you get. The styling was modern and on cue for the period, as was the trend of 90s swoopiness. The rounder, the better.

Reliability stands a place of debate on these. I acknowledge that Chrysler electrics in the 90s were definitely not reliable. A '96 Neon served my family for the first 18 years of its life dutifully. While I will attest to its reliability for most of its life, there were problem areas. For instance, we have no idea how many miles it had when we let it go. It had to be somewhere north of 200k, but that's all I could extrapolate from the odometer since the dash cluster only worked intermittently for the last few years. I must lament: most of the fixes we had to perform were a result of the car being eaten away by oxidation. It's just an unavoidable reality of life in Pennsylvania where every winter the roads are paved with rock salt and seasonal depression.

So, the Neon is powerful, quirky, and reliable provided you don't mind driving without gauges. And I think it deserves your respect. But I can't demand it, that's up to you.

The Dodge Neon is a car of choices.