Curbside Classic: 1997 Plymouth Neon – Brightening Up The Compact Class

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Regardless of profitability and quality of its vehicles in the long-term, there’s no denying the feeling of hope and optimism surrounding the Chrysler Corporation in the mid-1990s. After more than a decade of generally competent but mostly unemotional K-cars, Chrysler finally appeared ready for the future, replacing the outdated K boxes with an expanding portfolio of highly-styled, significantly modernized vehicles.

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Instead of minor evolutions of the Aries/Reliant, new Chrysler products from 1992-onward largely owed their styling to concept cars, resulting in their highly expressive looks.  The 1992 Dodge Viper, 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and 1993 LH sedans (Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vison) were the first production models of Chrysler’s “Renaissance”, the latter of which were the first to actually replace K-car variants, the “C-body” New Yorker and Dynasty.

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The next step in Chrysler’s de-K-ification was to replace the “P-body” Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance compacts, which had been sold with minimal changes since the 1987 model year. The underlying goals for the P’s successor (internally codenamed “PL”) were naturally to create a compact that was affordable to own, efficient on fuel, and spacious. Atypical of an economy car from this era, Chrysler also sought to create an entry-level car that was stylish and fun-to-drive.

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It should be noted that the PL was ultimately sold under only one nameplate, regardless of brand. Dodge and Plymouth had been sharing badge-engineered designs for years, but this was the first time their vehicles shared the same name. Along with identical grilles and taillight clusters, this move was an easy way to cut down on production and marketing costs. Apart from the tiny respective brand logos glued to the hood and rear brand badging (if it was even included, and if so, was usually just a decal), the Neon was indistinguishable in Dodge and Plymouth guises.

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Export-market Chrysler-badged Neons were also virtually identical, aside from market-specific regulatory modifications. While selling all versions of this car under the same name may have been a questionable move, for better or worse, it allowed the model to gain more publicity and notoriety by its model name. Also, because it was largely referred to as simply “Neon”, it took on a somewhat separate identity from its “establishment” parent company and brands.

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At the time of the Neon’s launch, Bob Lutz was famously quoted in stating, “There’s an old saying in Detroit: ‘Good, fast or cheap. Pick any two.’ We refuse to accept that.”  Lutz went on to say, “We think the Neon will be one of the first small cars people will want to buy instead of have to buy.” With Chrysler’s new concept of platform teams, having a dedicated small car platform team exclusively working on the PL body helped ensure that these bold plans for the Neon weren’t just a bunch of PR fluff.

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The goal of making a stylish compact dictated that the Neon was to look nothing like its predecessors, nor anything else in its class. The Neon’s styling was initially previewed with a 1991 concept car of the same name. Apart from the interesting sliding doors, most of the concept’s basic styling made it into the production Neon with few drastic changes. In fact, the concept’s round headlights, in particular, became the production Neon’s most distinctive styling feature and a trait it would stick with until its demise in 2005.

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As the second interpretation of Chrysler’s “Cab Forward” design language, which was first seen in production form on the LH sedans, the Neon shared its general design characteristics with its larger siblings. This meant it similarly featured a long wheelbase with short overhangs, expansive windshields, and a windswept, arching silhouette. Despite unchanged length and width over the Shadow/Sundance, the Neon rode on a seven-inch longer wheelbase, making for increased interior space and superior handling.

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Wide doors and an expansive greenhouse gave the Neon’s cabin a very open, spacious feel. B-pillars were especially thin, as the Neon’s door glass was in fact frameless, uncommon for its class. Instrument panels looked somewhat like shrunken down versions of the LH’s, meaning a very purposeful layout with a rounded upper dash and a squared-off center stack. Wraparound style armrests were integrated into the door panels, with the optional front power window switches jutting out on their own little pods (curiously, power rear windows were never available).

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Although styling may have been somewhat derived from earlier concepts and the production LH, unlike its predecessors, the Neon’s body, platform, and most mechanics were completely new and unrelated to other Chrysler products.

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Two completely new engines were offered, both among the highest output in the compact class. The base engine was a SOHC 2.0L inline-4, making 132 horsepower and 129 lb-ft torque. Optional, was a DOHC version of this engine, bumping horsepower and torque up to 150 and 133, respectively. A 5-speed manual was standard, and at the time of its introduction, the 5-speed Neon posted the quickest 0-60 sprint of any modern production Chrysler-built vehicle after the Viper. For those preferring a self-shifter, a rather antiquated 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic was available, and really, the Neon’s only blemish in terms of powertrain.

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All Neons featured four-wheel independent suspensions, using MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in the rear. Brakes consisted of standard front discs and rear drums, with anti-lock brakes optional. Substantial measures were also taken to keep the Neon’s weight down, making for better performance and fuel efficiency.

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Numerous components, including body panels, hinges, brake, suspension, and engine components, were made from lightweight materials. Fascias were engineered to be supported by the wheel arches, requiring no additional support framework. Base curb weight was down some 300 pounds over the Sundance and Shadow to a svelte 2338 pounds. Combined with the car’s higher output engines, the Neon boasted a best-in-class weight to power ratio of 17.1 to 1.

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Early branding of the Neon heavily played upon the car’s fun personality and decidedly cute looks, with playful advertisements and a very expressive color palate, featuring many bright “neon” colors, including our featured car’s officially-named “Magenta”.

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Instead of traditional chrome, neon shades of color were used for the exterior badging, and several eye-popping wheel designs were available to choose from. Interiors were not forgotten about either, with several whimsical upholstery patterns available to match the rest of the car’s fun theme.

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Over time, however, the Neon grew up some, with advertisements, colors, and trim all becoming more conventional and somewhat less playful. 1998 brought the Style Package to Plymouth Neon sedans, that exuded a somewhat young professional vibe, with more subdued exterior color choices, body-colored door handles, power windows, power sunroof, CD changer, and an exclusive tan-colored interior among its standard features.

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Contemporary reviews generally praised the Neon’s styling, driving dynamics, and overall refinement, all things Chrysler engineers set out to accomplish. The Neon was not without its immediate faults, as engine and wind noise were commonly cited as negative by most reviewers and many consumers. Over time, several common reliability issues surfaced, most notably the car’s early proneness to blow head gaskets, which Chrysler repaired for owners under warranty. The car’s frameless windows also proved problematic, as too much force when closing the door screwed with their alignment, worsening wind noise.

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The Neon had by no means a perfect track record, but it did have many victories, most notably being the first American small car in years to make a profit. A triumph of cross-functional platform teams, the Neon production began a relatively quick 31 months after project approval. Including the new engines and renovations to existing assembly plants, total development cost for the entire Neon program was only $1.3 billon. This was roughly the same figure as for the Shadow/Sundance, and less than one-quarter the development costs of the Ford Mondeo/Contour/Mystique program.

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It was by all means a success in regards to sales, with nearly 1.2 million first generation Dodge and Plymouth versions sold in the United States. Due to the high demand, Neon sales were not dependent on the typical steep discounts and rebates, with Neons usually selling for sticker price or even above in some circumstances. Sales of the Dodge Neon totaled over 720,000 units, which was within 40,000 to that achieved by the Shadow, a car sold for three years longer. Even in its worst single-year, the Dodge Neon topped the Shadow’s best.

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Comparing Plymouth Neon sales to the Sundance is a bit unfair, as sales of all Plymouth models sharply fell in the late-90s due to Plymouth’s starving lineup and circulating rumors of its discontinuation. Despite this, Plymouth still sold a healthy 458,290 first-generation Neons over the course of five model years, compared to the 633,310 Sundances it sold over eight model years.

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The first generation Neon was sold through the 1999 model year, by that point it had become a decidedly more grown up car. The maturity was continued with the second generation Neon that was introduced for 2000. Slightly larger with less eccentricities, the car had evolved into a far more mainstream compact sedan both inside and out. The welcoming round headlights remained, but exuded a slightly more formal “Hello” as opposed to “Hi”.

Related Reading:

1995 Dodge Neon coupe

2000 Chrysler Neon

Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance

1997 Eagle Vision

1999 Plymouth Breeze