After the aborted beater attempt, I bought my wife a 1998 Jeep Cherokee Sport with the inline six and four wheel drive. Other than moaning a bit about how the brake caliper bolts snapped on me while changing the pads, I don’t really have too much to say about it. So we are going to mostly skip right over it except to mention that its large potential tire replacement cost lead us directly to what was probably the most reliable car I’ve owned. And yes, it really was a Neon!
While we’d had the Jeep a for decent length of time, I can’t say I ever bonded with it. It was really my wife’s desire to purchase it, and once she’d done an unintentional 360 spin with it on the highway in winter, she was less enamored with its truck-ish nature. The automatic transmission clunked into gear even after I changed the fluid and filter, but what really got us looking for something else was the cost of replacing the tires which were now getting rather low on tread.
A quick aside for the American readers: Tires cost quite a bit more here in Canada than down south. I’m not exactly sure why this is. It could be taxes and levies or perhaps it is just as simple as living in a smaller market, but whatever the reason, tires generally cost 25-100% more than in the US. A reasonable set of rubber for the Cherokee had been quoted at a rather larger number than I wanted to put into a vehicle I didn’t particularly like, so it put us into casual car shopping mode.
On a whim, we ended up checking out the local Chrysler/Dodge dealership after receiving one of their rather misleading flyers in the mail. My wife was rather hands off this time, perhaps stung by the Jeep’s failure to meet her expectations, and let me handle the car search within reason. I knew we wanted something with a manual gearbox, and with a small child to haul around, four doors were almost mandatory.
On the lot I spied a sharp looking black Neon with the factory snow flake style alloy wheels I quite fancied. I took a quick peek inside, and sure enough it was a five speed manual. While I wouldn’t have necessarily sought out a Neon, friends of ours had bought one brand new in 2000 and had no issues with theirs. The husband racked up massive miles on the poor car traveling to remote well sites down the rough back roads of Northern Alberta, so they had to be reasonably sturdy. I can’t recall all the details of the transaction, but from what I remember, we were able to trade our 1998 Jeep straight across for the 2000 Neon.
Oddly enough, as I was leaving the dealership an older woman ran up with another salesman in tow and offered to give me a couple hundred on top of whatever I’d just paid if she could have car instead. I found this rather bizarre, and to this day I’m not sure if it was a legitimate offer or some act by the dealership to make you feel good about your purchase. I was actually happy about my acquisition so I didn’t give it much more thought at the time.
Those of you with sharp eyes will notice that the badges on our Neon say “Chrysler”, not Dodge or Plymouth. Generally, Neons (and some other Dodge and Plymouth models) sold in export markets like Europe, Asia and Australia have been sold as Chryslers. In Canada, the first generation Neons were sold under the Dodge and Plymouth name plates, but starting with the second generation Neon for the 2000 model year, they swapped over to the Chrysler name plate, briefly but exclusively. There is some historical precedence for this in Canada as the Dodge Daytona was sold only as the Chrysler Daytona from 1986 on. Plymouth also made an earlier exit from the Canadian marketplace and was gone by the year 2000. To confuse the heck out of everyone, starting in 2003, the Chrysler Neon became the Dodge SX 2.0 in Canada instead.
Our car had the revised 132hp SOHC 2.0L four cylinder engine. The lusty DOHC motor from the first generation was dropped from the line up with the Neon refresh. On real life roads there hadn’t been as much of a performance difference between the SOHC and DOHC engines as the specifications would indicate. The second generation car had gained a few pounds, so the Neon’s reputation for zippy performance had been blunted slightly, but our early build car had the previous ACR five speed manual gearbox which restored most of the acceleration at the expense of extra fuel consumption on the highway. Later Neons reverted back to more relaxed and fuel-friendly gearbox ratios.
It’s amazing what a trim level choice makes to the interior of this era of Neons. Our friends had a base car in brown (he always jokingly insisted it was Cinnamon not brown) whereas ours was an LX in black. The interiors were shockingly different in regards to look and feel. Their car was cheap and nasty inside, while our car not only looked miles better, but the plastics and other materials felt like they came from the next class level up. We also had some rather nice white faced gauges that I haven’t seen very often on many other Neons.
While Neons generally get a bad rap for being a bit cheap inside, I’d argue this applies more to the first generation cars and not at all to the higher trim level second generation cars. Our interior was nicer than most of the “class leaders” of the era. One very odd quirk of this era of Neon is if you opted for power windows you’d only get them in the front. The rear windows would always be crank powered.
The title says “a good car”, and in the introduction I mention that it was likely the most reliable car we’ve owned. The Neon was with us for just over five years, and in that time it required only routine maintenance and even then not much of it. Gas, oil and filters were the only real expenses except for one little issue. That minor issue choose to present its self in rather dramatic fashion, however.
A little background is needed so bear with me. We had an almost-two year-old when our second son was born at the end of January. He was born early but healthy, and things looked good until a nurse punctured his bowel with an unnecessary feeding tube. Leaving out the depressing details, this meant a stay in the hospital of over a month for both him and my wife. We lived about forty minutes away in a commuter town, so every day for a month I’d go to work and then spend some time at the hospital before heading home.
It was an extremely cold February with temperatures ranging from -20C to -35C. The hospital required that one paid an attendant for parking, and as I was leaving, the drive-up I discovered that the driver’s side electric window would no longer go up. I had no luck with the unresponsive switch, so I had to drive for thirty minutes at highway speeds in -25C weather with the driver’s window fully down. I positioned myself as far to the passenger side as possible avoid the worst of the airflow but it was undoubtedly the coldest drive of my life. I retried the switch occasionally on the trip home and it, of course, it finally responded two minutes from home.
The switch was eventually replaced later that month when my wife rammed the Neon into a jacked up pickup truck with a big trailer hitch. The mismatched height caused his hitch to play havoc with our hood. We had to endure a brand new but rather nasty Pontiac Sunfire rental for a few weeks while it was repaired. I never thought I’d miss a Neon so much!
Not long after we got it back, we decided to take our two boys, a two year old as well as the now six month old baby, camping. The road leading to the camp site had quite a few curves and was on the bumpy side. While I was enjoying the drive, the two year old managed to vomit all over the back of the car. This happened shortly after he’d finished a full bottle of milk. I managed to clean up the partially digested milk reasonably well with only paper towels and river water while we continued camping, before getting a proper clean after the weekend. Strangely enough, the car never had a permanent stench to it. Perhaps not coincidentally, my wife got the minivan bug shortly after, and the Neon became our second vehicle (translation: my car). While very practical (see photo above) and even a little sporty, I lusted after something with fewer doors and less seats, so we eventually sold it on to a man buying his daughter her first car. Hopefully it provided her with the same reliable service it gave us.