2004 Dodge Neon Expert Review:Autoblog
First impressions of this snarling, turbocharged, 230-hp Dodge Neon include two important factors. First, the exhaust is very loud. It sounds almost like a motorcycle roaring down the street. I'm not quite sure if this would grate on long term owners or become a comforting backdrop to the daily commute. Second, even with the impressive engine, suspension, exhaust and wheels the SRT-4 is still a Neon.
What that entails is an interior that feels dated. The Neon hasn't been drastically altered in a long, long time and it shows. Yes, the SRT-4 has very snazzy gauges plus leather and aluminum-esque touches all around, but there is no escaping the 1990s aura of the dash. Only going by first impressions I do enjoy the shifter. It's quick, easy and ergonomically located. Keep checking in, the next few days on the open road could easily make up for any of the styling miscues.
After digesting some comments from Neon owners I will admit that the interior build quality of the SRT-4 is pretty solid for an economy car and if the current non-SRT's are this well put together they probably offer decent value. What the SRT-4 badge delivers though is 230 horses to the front wheels and in two days of city driving I've been completely unable to open the car up and not for a lack of trying.
I've had a few straight-aways for a block or two and the car felt good. However, there seems to be so much more lurking there, untapped. The low-end power is not as accessible as I would like and compared to the Subaru WRX, the turbo takes way too long to kick in. I do think the ride is a bit softer than the WRX and other manufacturer tuned vehicles I've driven with the exception of the VW R32. Of course the SRT-4 is about $6,000 less than either the WRX STI or the R32 and I hear it's going for invoice these days too (around $18-$19K).
I'm also not in love with the stereo. It's better than most domestic econo-boxes but not by much. The oddity of power windows in front and manual windows in the back is perplexing but with the sunroof open there's no need for more wind. This SRT-4 is just an oddity in almost every respect and is one of the few cars that has taken me so long to get a grasp of.
It took too long to get out on the open road. City life is sometimes suffocating for high-powered cars like the SRT-4. I decided to use my Sunday morning to flex this mini-muscle car's power. Hitting the slightly arching onramp to the local expressway I got the first taste of the brute force the SRT-4. Most of the tuned cars I test have hair-trigger gas pedals that instantly tell you they mean serious business. But that also means on the way to the grocery store you have to exert all your driving ability just to wrangle the demanding vehicle.
Surprisingly the SRT-4 is not like that. Around town I've found it a very unremarkable, easy to drive car that simply has a maniacal exhaust note. It sounds more like a Harley Davidson than a Neon. But when you need it the car's power erupts easily when pushing the gas pedal down forcefully. I even hit a toll way that allowed me to do a very legal 0-60 test. I was out of the toll-gate and gone in no time. The turbo-gauge danced for me, the shifts flew smoothly and quickly and I was soaring down the highway as fast as recent memory allows.
The SRT-4 actually rides very solidly on the highway and I was impressed for the first time in a long time by a Dodge product. Not being a truck or SUV fan, what Dodge is undoubtedly best at, I've found their cars drab, underpowered and unappealing in almost every respect. I still don't love the looks of the base Neon but at least the SRT-4, with its viper scooped hood, large spoiler and ground effects, offers some masculinity. The car is also solid as a rock. There's no rattling or other awkward noises coming from anywhere and that was a surprise since the model itself is no spring chicken.
There were definite drawbacks on my early Sunday drive. Out in the suburbs I failed to execute a tight U-turn I'm sure would have been a breeze for a Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evo. That is one of the attributes buyers will have to settle with since they are still driving a Neon, a car not originally designed for high performance applications. Tomorrow I'll discuss more of the pros and cons in the final overview of the SRT-4.
Looking at the SRT-4 out my window it's a mixed feeling to know it's going back today. In the end I don't think it's a car I would ever spend $20,000+ on. But for a week of joy-riding it's a blast. Those that would be seriously interested in the SRT-4 would first have to be Neon fans. I was impressed with this Neon's solid structure, sturdy ride & stop on a dime brakes, but not the standard Neon looks. The visceral thrill from the turbo boost comes not just from its power but also the sound it makes. Unlike other turbos I've driven that make a subtle "whoosh" sound, the SRT-4 makes a loud whistle straight from Knight Rider. Sweet.
The performance value of the car really can't be argued against. Everything else however…For example power windows and sunroof should be simple options. But every time I rolled down the windows they took so long I thought they were fully down when they were not. The same goes for the achingly slow sunroof. Plus the awkward switch for the sunroof disrupts the look of the interior. The stereo grew on me but only when listening to loud hard rock or hip-hop. There isn't much range for this bass driven unit. Environmental controls were also out of date in look and feel. And then there are the gauges. The silver and green scheme is flashy during the day time, but at night they are almost impossible to see, even with the dimmer on the highest level.
But all the little annoyances are clearly overshadowed by such an easy, everyday super car. The Viper styled hood scoop and seats, along with one of the coolest shifters I've tested in a domestic car, cement it as one of the top vehicles in this segment. In the end the SRT-4 is about performance but still makes a great commuter. The looks won't impress anyone but the tuners and car enthusiasts you regularly pass on the road.
New Car Test Drive
Dodge Neon is practical and fun to drive. Neon features a roomy interior and is available at an affordable price. The base model delivers extraordinarily good fuel economy; its EPA rating recently earned one of the top 10 spots in a survey of the most fuel-efficient vehicles you could buy.
The Neon SXT comes loaded with the features most buyers want in a compact car yet retails for just $15,435; incentives can knock $2,000 off that price.
Buyers looking for more fun can opt for the sportier R/T or the high-performance SRT-4. The latter boasts a turbocharged 2.4-liter engine, a sports suspension, a heavy-duty gearbox, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and 17-inch performance tires. The SRT-4 engine has been recalibrated for 2004, and is now rated at 230 horsepower and 250 pounds-feet of torque. In fact, the 2004 Neon SRT-4 continues to be the second-quickest car in the Dodge product line, accelerating from 0-60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. Only the Dodge Viper turns in a quicker time.
The 2004 Dodge Neon lineup consists of the SE, the sensibly equipped SXT, the sporty R/T, and the high-performance SRT-4. All are four-door sedans.
SE ($13,125) is the base Neon, and it is basic. SE has wind-up windows, manual door locks, and 14-inch tires on steel wheels. Power windows, mirrors and locks are not even available. Air conditioning costs extra ($1,000). There's no tachometer, and no keyless remote. Mirrors and bodyside moldings are black. However, SE is equipped with Millennium cloth front bucket seats, a 60/40 split folding back seat, AM/FM/cassette stereo with four speakers, and vanity mirrors. Floor mats ($50) are optional. AM/FM/CD stereo ($175) is available, as is cruise control ($250).
SXT ($15,435) adds air conditioning, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, power front windows, power door locks (with speed-sensitive automatic locking), keyless remote, power mirrors, power trunk lid release, tachometer, map lights, 15-inch aluminum wheels, and body-color door handles and bodyside molding, A trunk lid spoiler ($50) is offered with most exterior colors. A power sunroof ($695) is also optional, as is a six-disc in-dash CD changer ($300). A Sport Appearance group ($150) for the SXT includes the spoiler and adds fog lamps, a body-color or satin-silver instrument panel bezel, and differently styled 15-inch aluminum wheels.
SE and SXT come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated 132 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic transmission is an extra-cost ($825) option on SE and a no-cost option on SXT. Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard on both models. Antilock four-wheel disc brakes (ABS) are optional ($595-$695) and come with electronic brake proportioning. We highly recommend opting for ABS as it allows the driver to maintain steering control in a panic-braking situation.
R/T ($17,275) is designed to be fun to drive. It comes with a 150-horsepower High-Output Magnum version of the 2.0-liter engine, plus a sports suspension, P195/50R16 all-season performance tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels, firm-feel power steering, four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and EBD, performance-tuned exhaust with dual brushed stainless tips, unique front and rear fascia, fog lights, rear spoiler, premium cloth upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The six-disc in-dash CD is standard. Interior lighting is upgraded and a trunk light is provided. Leather-trimmed upholstery ($715) is optional and the package includes a compass and an outside temperature readout on the rearview mirror. The power sunroof is optional. The Neon R/T comes with a five-speed manual gearbox; an automatic transmission is not available.
SRT-4 ($20,450) features a turbocharged 2.4-liter engine, heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission, 17-inch aluminum wheels with 50-series ultra-high performance three-season tires, high-performance suspension, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, Viper-inspired sport seats, plus special trim inside and out, including new bright pedal pads. SRT-4 is available only with a manual transmission.
Safety features include optional seat-mounted side air bags ($390), which are a smart option but they don't provide the head protection of a curtain system. Three-point seat belts are provided for all three rear-seat positions. The LATCH child safety-seat anchor system, an emergency inside release for the trunk lid, and child-protection door locks are standard on all 2004 Neons.
Dodge Neon is distinguished from other small cars by its cab-forward profile, arched roofline, and ovoid headlamps. New front and rear fascias, exterior door handles, bodyside moldings and other detail work freshened the Neon for 2003. Neon's appearance hasn't changed for 2004.
Neon's long wheelbase and wide track contribute to its roomy interior, ride quality and high-speed stability. Full-frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tight seal. The current Neon has a more rigid body structure than first-generation models, which results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride.
SRT-4's grille is an inverted version of the standard Neon grille. Just behind the lower grille sits a cast-aluminum intercooler; Dodge left it visible in keeping with the car's intent. A functional hood scoop and unique integrated fog lamps emphasize SRT-4's aggressive look. The tall rear basket-handle spoiler is designed to look outrageous, and it succeeds. Sill-mounted ground effects give SRT-4 the look of a sport-compact racer. Big tires fill the wheel well openings. Special wheels are designed to channel air to the brakes to help keep them cool.
Dodge Neon features a roomy cabin. The driver sits high for good visibility. The Neon's front seats offer lots of hip room and legroom. The Neon offers more hip room, comparable legroom, and less headroom than the Honda Civic. The rear spoiler that's standard on R/T and optional on SXT restricts rearward vision down low, but not unduly.
The SXT's seats are quite comfortable, cushy and supportive. The side bolster seemed a bit soft at first, but felt fine while driving. The cloth upholstery feels good and looks durable. Vinyl trim on the front edges of the seats gives them a nicely finished look and feel.
Dash and door trim are made of a premium material that is soft to the touch, providing an attractive appearance and feel and avoiding the plastic look in many other compacts. The body-color bezels that come with the Sport Appearance package add a racy accent to the SXT. Map lights are mounted on the rear-view mirror, generally not the best location as your co-driver may accidentally adjust your mirror when using the light switch. Otherwise, switchgear is easy to use and works well, though the turn signal stalk on our SXT wasn't smooth. The stereo sounded mediocre. Having to press a button to get the key out of the ignition slot seems like an unnecessarily annoying extra step.
Back-seat passengers benefit from the large interior. It's not a bad place to spend short-to-medium-length trips. Rear-seat roominess is about average for the class.
The trunk is reasonably large, and average for the class. Gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space, but afford a relatively large trunk opening. Lift-over height is on the high side. The rear seat splits 60/40 and folds down for carrying additional cargo.
SRT-4 comes with special interior trim, including a satin-silver center stack, shift knob and door handles. SRT-4 seats are modeled after those in the Dodge Viper with enhanced lumbar and lateral sections for better support when cornering. Agate-colored cloth is designed to grip the driver. Cast aluminum pedals look like those seen in racecars. A turbo boost/vacuum gauge sits to the right of the instrument cluster, underneath the dash brow.
The Dodge Neon offers sporty handling and good acceleration performance, but it isn't the most refined car in its class.
Neon's single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine delivers decent power. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, which makes it quicker than many more-expensive compacts, including Honda Civic LX, Mazda Protege LX, or Nissan Sentra GXE. It lacks torque down low in the rev range, however. Step on it while cruising at 3000 rpm and it slowly gathers speed. There's a small rush of power that starts somewhere around 4000 rpm, but there isn't great gobs of it. New motor mounts introduced for 2003 reduce noise somewhat. Still, the 2.0-liter engine is relatively unrefined, and its boomy and raucous behavior is transmitted into the cabin.
The automatic transmission was recalibrated for 2003 for improved driveability, and a new, more elaborate electronic controller promises better communication between engine and gearbox. The manual gearbox works well, but shifting is clunky.
The suspension nicely balances ride quality and handling agility. The Neon is fun to drive on winding roads. It responds well in emergency lane-change maneuvers. Neon's fully independent strut-type suspension offers high ground clearance and long jounce travel, which reduces the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Soft springs and premium shocks are tuned to enhance the Neon's ride quality. Indeed, we found that the Neon does not bottom out the way many cars do. When we hit a sharp dip, the Neon's suspension was soft enough to absorb the harshness of the dip, yet it was firm enough and had enough travel to avoid bottoming. As a result, the front of the Neon did not scrape on the pavement where many others have scraped before. This makes for a more comfortable ride and there's less need to slow to a walking pace for dips.
The brakes that come standard on the Neon stop the car quickly and are stable under hard use. The Neon stops more quickly than many of the other cars in its class. Still, we recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Whether the roads are slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers maintain steering control in panic braking situations. And disc brakes are less likely to fade on mountain roads than are the standard rear drum brakes. Disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake distribution (EBD) are standard on R/T and SRT-4. They work well, and the pedal feels good.
The R/T model is more fun to drive than the standard Neon SE and SXT. Handling is much crisper and the ride quality is acceptable. The engine is more responsive and the R/T's increased horsepower is achieved without sacrificing fuel economy.
Far more exciting to drive is the Neon SRT-4. Its turbocharged engine develops 230 horsepower at 5300 rpm and 250 pounds-feet of torque from 2200 to 4400 rpm. According to Dodge, it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.8 seconds. The SRT-4 was developed with input from Dodge engineers who spend their weekends road racing with the Sports Car Club of America. Bigger-than-standard front brakes stop the SRT-4 in 120 feet, according to Dodge. The Neon SRT-4 can walk all over a Ford Focus SVT, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, or MazdaSpeed Protege in terms of acceleration and braking.
For 2004, Dodge has recalibrated the SRT-4's engine control module and specified larger, higher-flow fuel injectors, not only for more horsepower and torque but also for a broader torque band. That means less shifting under normal driving conditions. Also new for 2004 is a Quaife torque-sensing, limited-slip differential, to provide more traction when accelerating out of the corners. Standard tires are B.F. Goodrich KDW2 three-season radials, specifically developed to match the SRT-4's suspension and handling characteristics, with a tread pattern and rubber compound that maximize grip for cornering, accelerating and braking.
Dodge Neon offers good value in a compact sedan. It's roomy and comfortable. The latest version is smoother and quieter than pre-2000 models, but still isn't at the top of the class in terms of refinement. The well-equipped SXT offers a strong value. The R/T offers a bit more power and a more responsive driving experience, while the racy SRT-4 delivers some of the best performance in its class.
Dodge Neon SE ($13,125); SXT ($15,435); R/T ($17,275); SRT-4 ($20,450).
Options As Tested
Sport Appearance Group ($150) includes body-color instrument bezels, trunk-lid spoiler, fog lamps, special aluminum wheels.
Dodge Neon SXT ($15,435).
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