New Car/Review

Plymouth Neon

The Plymouth Neon, It will make you Glow

by Larry Weitzman

Plymouth has been a fixture on the automobile scene for over 70 years. This year will be its last. The Neon will remain but the familiar sailing ship logo is going to Davey Jones Locker. Not to worry, every Plymouth model will continue with a badge relabeling, possibly making those old Plymouth badges valuable.

The Neon LX, which is also produced under the Dodge logo, is all new for 2000. Wheelbase is up by an inch at 105 inches. Overall length has grown by 2.6 inches to 174.4 inches and width is up by .2 inches to 67.4.

This new found size has improved all interior dimensions substantially. Front and rear hip room is up by about 2 inches and shoulder room has increased by about an inch. Even the trunk is bigger by nearly 15% to 13.1 cubic feet.

The new body is familiar, but the design is sleeker. The front end is recognizable, but the sheet metal is softer with more detail. The wheel wells have more flare which creates an eye catching break in the upper body side crease. The "A" pillars flow directly into the front fenders and hood. The rear end is cleaner with a hint of rake. Even the cabin looks sleeker and the cab forward design is made more apparent. Give the designers at Chrysler a "A" for taking a good looking product and only fixing what needed improvement.

On the inside are rich looking cloth buckets in front that are firm yet very comfortable. The thick cloth material adds some luxury to a car that's designed to be inexpensive. There is a lumbar adjustment. Cab forward design makes for a particularly spacious environment.

Full instrumentation is located in the driver's binnacle including a good sized and legible 120 mph speedo and an 8,000 rpm tach with a 6,500 rpm redline. The black on white gauges turn into white on black with its trick instrument lighting. Flanking the speedo and tach are the customary fuel and temp gauges.

The center stack which has a pod look, contains the simple to use AC controls and a digital sound system comes with a high power am/fm cassette which produces clean, accurate sound. Underneath is a plethora of cubbies, storage and cupholders. The shifter emanates from the center console and there is an armrest/storage compartment to the rear.

Rear seaters will delight in the amount of rear seat room. For two passengers, the room is spacious considering the Neon's overall size. Most adults could tolerate several hours without complaint and maybe even get some shut eye. The seats are very firm, but comfortable and the leg room is more than adequate as long as a Sacramento King is not occupying a front seat.

The seat backs are 60/40 pull downs for enlarging the well shaped trunk. With the split seat, two passengers can occupy the rear while still using the expanded trunk for things like skis or snow boards.

But the Neon has garnered a reputation for performance. The standard engine is a 2.0L SOHC, 16 valve inline four. Even though the horsepower remains the same at 132, it arrives a 400 lower rpm which adds to the engine's responsiveness. Ditto for torque. It is now up by one pound to 130 at 4,600 rpm which is again 400 rpm lower. This should mean a little more performance. It you are trying for maximum performance, the electronic rev limiter will interrupt your fun at 6,750 rpm. It is reasonably smooth throughout the rev range becoming a little gnarly near reline and delivering a barely perceptible roughness at idle.

Power is transmitted to the front wheels via a slick shifting 5 speed manual or a three speed automatic. Yes, I said three speed. In this day when trannies are either four speed autos and in higher line cars, 5 speed autos, it is surprising to find a three speed auto. It does hamper performance. With first gear being so tall (it will do 56 in first at redline and 95 in second), off the line performance won't require a chiropractor.

Running from 0-60 took an average of 10.37 seconds. This is about on par with other compact automatics, but with 132 horse on tap from 2 liters, a four speed automatic would probably lower that time by a full second. Passing also suffers, with 50-70 taking an average of 6.27 seconds and up a steep grade requiring 11.84 seconds. These are about average for the class.

But if you pass on the automatic you will not only save $600 (that's a cheap price for an automatic these days and maybe that has something to do with why it has only three speeds), but the tranny will be the standard 5 speed stick. I would pass on the automatic in a New York heartbeat.

With the stick cog swapper, it changes the character of the Neon from an inexpensive economy commuter to a mini sports sedan. It will knock a full two seconds off the 0-60 time to the mid eights and lower passing times by a full second. There is even an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) class just for Neons, and trust me on this one, no one is running a factory automatic.

The manual is easy to use and very smooth shifting. The clutch is light and linear. Snicking through the gears will elicit a smile or two on the way home from class or the office.

Handling is on the crisp side. With four wheel independent suspension using MacPherson struts up front and Chapman struts with links in the rear, the Neon can groove the twisties. Front and rear link-type antiroll bars compliment both ends. There is sufficient travel to damp out large bumps and undulations, but smaller and sharper imperfections can make their way to the cabin.

On Ponderosa Road, the Neon did a reasonable job of quelling the washboard, but there was some ride noise. In the two 90 degree turns, it held its line easily without a waiver or a tail wag. The freeway was better. Road noise was average for the class and it kept most small irregularities at bay and from the cabin. With the three speed auto, the engine turned a rather high 3,000 rpm at 70 mph. The manual would shave a couple of hundred rpm off that number.

In the twisties of Green Valley and Latrobe, the Neon really shines (no pun intended). The steering is accurate and it tracks very true. When pushed hard, it will let you know when the limits are approaching and it exhibited no vices. Large 15 inch wheels, running relatively fat 185/60 all season touring tires certainly help.

Another benefit of the stick over the automatic is the fuel economy. The auto is rated at 25/31 mpg city/highway. The manual is rated at 28/35. I averaged less than the city average at 23 mpg during my test period due to my heavy right foot. With the manual, 30 plus mpg should be the norm. I had no extended highway time to make any estimates, but the EPA is usually pretty conservative.

Brakes are front discs with rear drums. There is an ABS option which combines traction control and standard rear discs in place of the drums. At $595, it is money well spent considering the varied driving conditions encountered in El Dorado County.

The price of admission for this sporty sedan is $12,490 plus $510 for destination. My test car had package 22G which gives the purchaser a $690 discount over retail and nets out at $1,820. It includes about everything you need including power windows in front (the rears are muscle powered), AC, heated mirrors, power trunk release, keyless entry, power locks and a myriad of other little niceties. I would add to that the ABS package for $595 and the single play, in-dash CD for $125 (an in dash four pack is $375) and maybe the cruise control for $225.

That totals $15,765 and there is currently $1,000 rebate available till April 3, 2000 which brings the price well below $15,000 making it a very attractive compact econo, sporty sedan. Shingle Springs Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, Lincoln and Mercury has a good selection of Neons for testing. If you need to get straight, go find a twisty road. It will clear your head of problems (including transportation issues) quickly.

SPECIFICATIONS: 
Price                    $13,000 to about $16,000

Engine                   2.0L SOHC, 16 valve inline four
                         132 hp @ 5,600 rpm
                         130 lbs-ft of torque @ 4,600 rpm
                         Redline, 6,500, Rev Limiter 6,752
	
Transmission             Three speed automatic
                         Five speed manual		

Configuration            Transverse mounted front 
                         engine, front wheel drive

Dimensions:
Wheelbase                105.0  inches
Length                   174.4  inches
Width                    67.4   inches
Height                   56.0   inches
Weight                   2,559  pounds
Track (f/r)              58.0/58.0 inches (58.1 with rear discs)
Fuel Capacity            12.5   gallons
Turning Circle           35.5   feet
Coefficient of drag      0.342
Wheels                   15X6  inches
Tires                    185/60X15. 185/65X15 optional at n/c

Performance:
0-60                     10.37  seconds
50-70                    6.27   seconds
50-70 up hill            11.84  seconds
Top Speed                Well into triple digits but not advised
Fuel Economy             25/31 mpg automatic, 28/35 mpg manual
                         Expect 25-27 mpg in El Dorado County with
                         the auto and 30 plus mpg with the manual.
                         Highway mileage should better the EPA
                         numbers is staying within the speed
                         limit.

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