Curbside Classic: 1995 Dodge Neon Sport – Say Hi…To Dashed Expectations

Chrysler was really on a roll during its modern golden era in the ’90s. There were the LH cars, the 1994 Ram, the Viper and a new generation of minivans–and, of course, the Neon.  I thought these cute little subcompacts were really cool when they came out. They seemed so modern compared with the outgoing Sundance/Shadow twins, with their late ’80s looks and K-car derived underpinnings. The Neon had the right look and the right price, and seemed primed for success. Take the Sport Coupe, for instance. What could be better than an affordable, sprightly little autocrosser? Well, there were some snags along the way…

The Neon was a big deal for Chrysler. Riding the cresting wave of the 1993 LH full-size, cab-forward sedans, the Neon was supposed to be a breakthrough in terms of space, efficiency, and fun, and would finally give the Honda Civic some real American competition. Introduced by the now-famous “Hi” ad campaign and billboards in January 1994, as a very early 1995 model, the Neon, which was sold in identical Dodge and Plymouth versions, was a revelation. And what a revelation: it offered a low price, lots of space and, a bit later, a revvy little Sport Coupe model. And was this really an American car? Why, it looked like a Citroen or Peugeot, for crying out loud! The Neon was America’s last great hope to hold back the Japanese invasion, and Japanese execs were truly worried about it–at least before Neon head gaskets started popping like Fourth of July fireworks.

As the 1995 Dodge brochure put it, “Neon’s naturally rounded organic contours not only cheat the wind, but they’ll put a smile on your face every time you look at Neon’s face.” All in all, the Neon appeared to be an attractive, wholesome and modern little domestic. It even had dual airbags–something quite rare in this segment at the time.

Available in cheapskate-friendly, black-bumpered Base and slightly flossier Highline models (the latter is shown above), the four-door Neon seemed the right car at the right time. Both trim levels came with a 2.0-liter, SOHC 16-valve inline four with 132 hp and 129 lb-ft of torque–best-in-class at the time. But there was more to come…

Shortly after their introduction, the Neon sedans were joined by the Sport Coupe. The Sport Coupe wasn’t merely a two-door version of the sedans; it actually delivered some extra scoot, with a DOHC version of the 2.0-liter that made 150 horsepower and 133 lb-ft of torque–not too shabby for the featherweight (2,384 lb.) coupe.

image: weekendhorsepower.com

There was even a special race-prepped ACR Sport Coupe available for those who enjoyed autocross or gymkhana events. Available with either the SOHC or DOHC engine, these unique Neons also got four-wheel disc brakes, Arvin non-adjustable struts, heavier anti-sway bars, a five-speed manual (with a numerically higher fifth gear) and a higher final drive ratio, along with some other goodies. Laugh all you want at that rusted-out Neon next to you at a red light, but when properly equipped, a Sport Coupe or ACR Sport Coupe could run with–and even surpass–much pricier iron on a road course. They are much-loved track cars to this day.

While there was a lot of good in the original Neon, it was not without its faults. One of the biggest headaches involved inferior head gaskets that liked to fail at about 60,000 miles. Today, the fix is relatively cheap, which really isn’t of much consolation to the folks that bought them new. In no aspect was the Neon remotely a paragon of quality fit and finish, especially in the heyday of the “fat” period when Toyota and most other Japanese car makers were pushing the quality envelope like never before (or again). Say “Bye!”

Another interesting thing about these Neons were how distinctive they actually were. I clearly remember the Neon’s introduction, and seeing new ones at Key Dodge, in Moline, where my Mom got her Grand Caravans. I thought they were really cool, and I pestered my folks to snag me a deluxe Neon brochure when they took the ES in for service. I still have those brochures today! I also thought it was cool that they were built about three hours away, in Belvidere, IL.

I also clearly remember the “confetti” multi-color upholstery inside these cars, which added a bit of brightness to an otherwise dark interior. It was a cool touch, and quite in keeping with the go-go Chrysler Corporation of the 1990s. Of course, being in the eighth grade at the time, I knew nothing of the Neon’s reliability troubles. Chrysler seemed primed for decades of success during the 1992-95 period. How could they have fallen so far, so fast? Oh, that’s right: Daimler. But I digress…

Another way the Neon distinguished itself from other cheap wheels was its far-out color choices. Consider our featured car’s Nitro Yellow-Green paint. I clearly remember seeing this color car pictured in the brochure, and eagerly anticipated seeing some on the road. I waited, and waited…where were they? Well, the bright green, Strawberry Pearl and Magenta colors, while certainly adventurous, were not too popular, much like the High Impact colors on Mopar Muscle machines of the early ’70s. Today, of course, everyone wants one painted one of those colors. This Nitro Yellow Green coupe is the first one I’ve seen in years.

You may remember my first sighting of this particular Neon despite a lack of photographic evidence. Suffice it to say that I was fortunate to run across it again a few weeks ago, and in the very same spot. Yes, it’s a bit weathered and rusty, but it still caught my eye. I still really do like these Neons, though there are few first-generation examples running around the Quad Cities these days.

Sadly, the coupe was nowhere to be found among the reworked Neon lineup for 2000. The Plymouth version went away after the 2001 model year (in fact, the Neon was the only 2001 Plymouth); Dodge’s version, which lasted through 2005, was replaced by the dubious, wish-I-was-an-SUV Caliber. The Neon had essentially zero long-term impact on the Japanese, much to the relief of many Toyota and Honda execs. Hopefully, though, the new 2013 Dart will recapture a bit of that Neon ACR magic. Time will tell.

ED: The vintage Neon commercials are from–you guessed it–Youtube.