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2004 New Car Review : Dodge Neon SRT-4

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2004 Dodge Neon R/T - Wings West Edition

2004 Dodge Neon SRT-4

There is no doubt that the Viper is the quickest car in the Dodge lineup, but what's the second-quickest?

A Neon! I can see the look of disbelief on your face from here.

A Neon is an economical small car, perfect for commuting and running errands. And, while there have been sporty versions, like the R/T and ACR (the initials stand for American Club Racer), they are not what is usually thought of as high-performance automobiles. This one is, and seriously.

Meet the Dodge SRT-4.

It's what happens when a Neon is left too close to a Viper, unsupervised. The little car that started life with the friendly ``Hi'' ad campaign gets serious attitude and the performance to back it up. Dodge muscle cars of the 1960s set the performance-value standards for their day. The SRT-4 is their spiritual descendant, but with no trace of nostalgia. Look elsewhere for a retro-mobile.

The SRT-4 is a cruise missile aimed at the heart of the sport-compact segment, developed by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. A large percentage of the SRT development staff races Neons, and it shows. Developed from the Neon SRT concept car that hit the auto show circuit in 2000, the SRT-4 made its debut in 2003 with 215 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque from a turbocharged 2.4-liter engine. With heritage and specs like that, Dodge could be excused for leaving it alone for its sophomore year. But a ``leave it alone'' attitude is for losers, not racers.

Meet the new hot Neon: 230 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque, with a limited-slip differential developed with specialist manufacturer Quaife and near-perfect suspension tuning to get that power to the ground in an almost civilized manner. It's a turnkey factory-built tuner car with a full factory warranty. You could probably spend the $20,450 base price just on the engine and suspension upgrades to a standard car.

I've just spent a most impressive week with a 2004 SRT-4. A car this good can't be built from a flawed base, and so the SRT-4 also shows the essential goodness of the basic Neon. Dodge has done its homework on the sport-compact class and entered with a very serious contender. The SET-4 is not a car for everybody, but it is civilized enough for everyday use, especially for its young enthusiast target buyer. The Mopar muscle cars of the 1960s may be long gone, but their spirit lives on.

APPEARANCE: With even a quick glance, the SRT-4's ``Viper meets Neon'' theme is immediately apparent. All Neon models were given sleeker front styling with a large Dodge crosshair grille last year, but the SRT takes things a bit further with a look very much like the 2000 show car. The grille, bumper fascia, and hood are unique, and, with their lumps, bumps, and vents, they look like they came right off the track.

The regular Neon looks friendly; the SRT-4 looks mean. The front has Viperesque interpretation of the Dodge grille, with smaller openings above, a chin spoiler below, and prominent foglamps. The hood bulges to clear the larger engine, and features a scoop that directs cooling air toward the turbo and exhaust manifold. A large, wide intercooler peers through the grille, and red brake calipers peek through 17-inch spoked alloy wheels. The SRT-4 sits lower in front than at the rear for a rakish look, and a the largest wing found on a Dodge since the 1969 Charger Daytona sits atop the rear deck. This is not a car for anyone who wants to keep a low profile.

COMFORT: The SRT-4's interior appointment is contemporary sport-compact, in basic black with silvery plastic accents on the center stack and racer-look aluminum-covered pedals with rubber inserts. Instruments are hooded by the dashboard brow and finished in white with black numerals and metal bezels. A small add-on boost gauge sits to the right of the main instrument cluster. Both the top part of the steering wheel rim and the shift boot are finished in woven leather that has a pattern that looks like carbon fiber, an appropriate touch. The standard seats are ``Viper-inspired'' with high side bolsters. These were replaced in my test car with the milder Neon R/T seats, which offer easier access and still have very good support and comfort. The rear seat is standard Neon fare, with room for two people in reasonable comfort or three more cozily. The trunk is usefully large, and a space-saver spare sits under its floor. The SRT-4 is not a spartanly-equipped race car. A good climate control system and AM/FM/CD stereo keep occupants comfortable and entertained, and front power windows add convenience. The rear windows are manual. Materials and fit and finish are very good.

SAFETY: Active safety is enhanced by good acceleration, braking, and maneuverability, and the SRT-4 excels in those categories. (The ability to use the car's abilities is, of course, the responsibility of the driver.) Passive safety features include three-point safety belts for all positions, side-impact door beams, and dual ``Next Generation’’ front airbags.

ROADABILITY: Somebody at Dodge really knows how to set up a suspension. Although softer than that of the racing-oriented Neon ACR, the SRT-4's fully-independent strut suspension is very firm for near-zero body roll in hard cornering and excellent, precise handling. But the damping is spot-on correct, so the wheels stay firmly in contact with the pavement, and ride comfort is very good considering its performance mission. It also deals admirably with irregular real-world pavement. Hey, don't expect a luxury car ride from a high-performance sport compact. Despite the massive amount of torque transmitted through the front wheels, equal-length halfshafts and a Quaife-developed limited-slip differential help the power get to the ground without interfering with steering. Torque steer is remarkably minor, only noticeable under wide-open acceleration uphill, when weight is transferred off of the front wheels. The four-wheel disc brakes have larger discs than the R/T and standard antilock.

PERFORMANCE: The turbocharged and intercooled 2.4-liter twin cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine found under the SRT-4's bulging hood is basically the same as that found in the Chrysler PT Turbo, but there are differences in manifolds and calibration. A new engine control module and larger fuel injectors help boost power this year from the previous 215 horses and 245 lb-ft to 230 ponies at 5300 rpm and 250 lb-ft between 2200 and 4400 rpm. It's not peaky and there are no sudden surprises, so driving is easy - just watch that right foot. As long as the revs are up, there is no turbo lag. This means anything over 2200 rpm in first and second, and 3500 in third through fifth. Power comes on strong and just keeps building, with very little fade until the rev limiter cuts in. Sixty mph comes up in less than six seconds, even without serious clutch abuse. Linkage to the five-speed gearbox is stiff but precise, and clutch effort is appropriate to the power involved. Somehow, Dodge got by the Federal inspectors with minimal muffling. The SRT-4 snarls viciously under acceleration, and burbles and pops on over-run like a race car. The only weak point is fuel capacity - when you play hard, the 12.5 gallon tank empties quickly. Chalk it up to the entertainment budget.

CONCLUSIONS: Meet the first Mopar muscle car of the 21st Century, the Dodge SRT-4

2004 Dodge Neon SRT-4

Base Price $ 20,450
Price As Tested $ 21,335
Engine Type turbocharged and intercooled dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size 2.4 liters / 148 cu. in.
Horsepower 230 @ 5300 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 250 @ 2200-4400 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length 105.0 in. / 174.4 in.
Curb Weight 2,900 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 12.6
Fuel Capacity 12.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement unleaded premium gasoline: 91 octane recommended 87 octane acceptable
Tires P205/50 ZR17 BF Goodrich G-Force T/A KDW II
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent Chapman strut
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 22 / 30 / 19
0 to 60 mph 5.8 sec

Side air bags $ 390
Viper-inspired seat delete -($ 50)
Destination charge $ 545