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2005 Dodge Neon SRT-4 Review Street Racer Extraordinaire

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Dodge Neon SRT-4
Street Racer Extraordinaire
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Dodge

Now, here’s a youngster I can relate to! Some may accuse me of being a bit curmudgeonly in my old age. I find it hard to understand modern styles like a two-day growth of beard, the baseball cap as costume worn inside a nice restaurant and baggy pants. But I can understand the Neon SRT-4.

The sales brochure is blatantly aimed at boys and girls not far either side of 20-years-old. Punctuated with images of skateboards, bare midriffs and low-riding pants, Neons in bright colors enhance the lifestyle scenes of hanging out, study and play. There is nothing stodgy about this little car.

Our test car is the SRT-4 pocket rocket in an eye-catching color called “Orange Blast”. In the bright sun it reminds me of a color Mitsubishi used on a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show called “Melting Header Orange.” I immediately notice the chrome-tipped dual exhaust and the flashy 17-inch, low-profile (50-series) BFGoodrich high-performance tires. As the delivery guy from the Dodge press fleet hands me the keys with a knowing smirk he acts as though I am in for an unexpected treat. He’s right. I knew right away that I wouldn’t want to give this one back.

Inside I barely squeeze my bulk across the high bolster of the “Viper-inspired” performance bucket seat. Once in, though, it feels like a great big hand holding my ass in place with lots of lateral support. The shifter with cue-ball knob falls easily to hand low beside the seat. Everything on the dash is marked and laid out well enough that I’ll need to look nothing up in the book. Fit and finish appear better than I had expected. The little round boost gauge peeks out from under the clam-shell dash like a little tubeworm. The sporty gauges, silver with red needles and SRT logo, are very attractive and beg to be stimulated. A turn of the key pops the raucous motor to life and we’re out the driveway like a shot.

This little tyke handles like a jackrabbit. Steering is quick and tight, suspension is firm and crisp, and acceleration is (forgive the trite word) awesome. It reminds this senior reporter of the famed Dodge Omni GLH (“Goes Like Hell”) Turbo, the hot shot version of the earliest K-Cars. Power comes from a turbocharged, intercooled, 2.4-litre, dual-overhead-cam, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. Rated at an amazing 230-horsepower and 250 lb.-ft. of torque the little mill launches the Neon SRT-4 like a rocket with barely noticeable turbo lag. Beyond 3000 rpm the thrust is magnified. Torque-steer, of course, is quite evident and hints at the barely contained civility of our stimulating test car. With a 12.5 gallon fuel tank, happy only with premium fuel, expect mileage in the mid 20s and cruising range of around 280 miles with few worries.

My first little jaunt is about 20 miles of freeway to meet a pal for lunch at the culinary arts college. Zipping through modest traffic is a stitch. I do my best not to offend anyone but I can’t resist spooking a few slowpokes. I park away from all the more mundane cars in a large parking lot so that I can admire it from afar. When I come back a couple hours later another SRT-4, this one in black, is parked right next to mine – an example, I suppose, of the camaraderie of youth who instinctively gather in groups of the like-minded. His is mighty dirty. Mine glows orange in the winter sun.

Throughout the next few days driving I notice that the transmission is a bit balky, particularly going into second gear. The shifter seems a bit stiff and unreceptive. I’m also hearing and feeling a barely perceptible noise and vibration near the clutch’s friction point. Thinking there might be a problem with the throw-out bearing or some related trouble I consult my local Chrysler dealer. The repair write-up guy insists that what I’m feeling is related to this high performance 5-speed being filled with automatic transmission fluid rather than the usual gear oil. “Perfectly normal,” he insists. Though that sounded a bit fishy to me our media contact at Dodge confirms that a unique form of automatic transmission fluid is used because of the limited slip final drive.

The Neon platform is an old one but this is the second generation having been completely revamped for the 2003 model year. DaimlerChrysler went through the car updating and redesigning the substructure as well as freshening the styling substantially. Crush zones were added into the design to make it safer in a crash. Recent crash testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration resulted in three and four stars (out of five) in the variety of categories tested - reasonably good scores for a compact.

Back seat and trunk space are quite generous for such a small car. A tad more than 13 cubic feet of trunk space with fold down rear seat backs make for plenty of cargo potential. Two rear seat passengers will have lots of room and even a third will be comfortable if they’re not all too big.

Built in Belvidere, Illinois with 84% US content the SRT-4 was developed for 2003 introduction by an enthusiastic, dedicated team of young engineers within the Street and Racing Technology Group at DaimlerChrylser. Inspiration was gathered from the street racing and tuner cultures spreading around the country from origins in the southwest. In addition to the hot motor described above the SRT-4 features a functional aerodynamic wing on the back, heavy-duty, 5-speed manual New Venture Gear T-850 transmission, cast aluminum wheels, a 160-mph speedometer (top speed is rev-limited at 148, however), a Quaife automatic torque biasing limited-slip differential, AutoMeter turbo boost gauge mounted neatly under the dash lip, and performance tuned 4-wheel disc antilock brakes, along with all the other stuff we’ve come to expect like power windows and the like.

Standard sound system for the SRT-4 is an AM/FM/Single CD with six speakers. Optional, and recommended for audiophiles (most youngsters are, of course), is a system called Kicker/SRT Livin’ Loud which includes nine speakers with 10” subwoofer, a 75-watt amplifier and 178 watts of total output. According to the sales brochure “The neighbors will hear the music; from where you sit you’ll be able to feel it.” In my curmudgeonly mode I’d say the latter is fine but the former is not. If you’re a youngster, I suppose, both are important.

The SRT-4 does not share the 7/70 powertrain warranty that applies to other Neons. I suppose the philosophy is that owners might drive them too hard and fast for Dodge to back it to that level. Instead, the powertrain, as well as the rest of the car, are warranted to 3years/36,000 miles.

Base price on our SRT-4 is $20,050. The only option listed is $150 for that brash orange paint job. With the $545 destination charge the sticker’s bottom line says $21,325.

If you have a Jones to go racing be advised that the SRT-4 has been homologated to qualify for competition in the SCCA’s SPEED World Challenge road racing series, a 10-race series at some of the US and Canada’s legendary race courses.

I wonder if the Dodge folks would loan me one for the season.