COAL: 1996 Dodge Neon Sport – A Pretty Good Car At a Pretty Bad Time

The last thing I needed in the fall of 1997 was the loss of reliable transportation, but sometimes life is like that, delivering exactly what you don’t need when it’s least expected or welcome. I was separated and in the process of divorce, living with my parents with no money to spare. A minor accident – my fault – had totaled my decade old Jetta. But as I pointed out in my previous article, when you are pre-occupied by a stressful situation this is exactly the time you are most likely to experience some sort of mishap.

So there I was, in the market for reliable and inexpensive transportation on very short notice. Where I landed was on a 1996 Dodge Neon Sport with 8,000 miles priced at $10,000. Not ideal, but in retrospect, a pretty good car at a bad time.

“There’s an old saying in Detroit: ‘Good, fast, or cheap. Pick any two.’ We refuse to accept that.” – Bob Lutz on the development of the Neon.

I had the dubious pleasure of verbally sparring with Bob Lutz once as a caller on the Diane Rehm show (on NPR) where he was a guest, but we’ll get to that. According to Wikipedia, Lutz began his service with Chrysler in 1986 as executive vice president and was shortly thereafter elected to the Chrysler Corporation board. Lutz led all of Chrysler’s automotive activities, including sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing, and procurement and supply. Lutz also served as president and chief operating officer, responsible for Chrysler’s car and truck operations worldwide. One of the products that emerged from that era was the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth Neon. (Chrysler only outside of the United States.)

No, just “no” on these doors

I never meshed well in the culture of corporations. Most CEOs I’ve been around tend to begin to think they control their reality and have problems accepting information that contradicts their “vision” And me, I can always be counted on for the dissenting opinion. Later in my career as a consultant I had an experience that stood out for its rarity, working with a CEO who had a very well balanced locus of control, essentially viewing his responsibilities as like being the captain of a ship. He had limited control over speed, course and choice of destinations, but none regarding the elements such as weather and the market for the service his company delivered. (Or to use a timely later to be dated reference, whether or not someone else’s error has jammed up a major shipping channel.) Success brings with it a certain amount of insularity, and the higher people go in the management pyramid, the more insular they tend to become. Especially when you’re in a business, like the auto industry, that has extremely high barriers to entry. I should know, because most of my professional life was spent in the airline business, which was nearly impossible to enter, at least until it was deregulated in 1978. And most of us have experienced the changes that has wrought.

There’s a reason why the first successes with smaller cars in the U. S. came from manufacturers that had already scaled those barriers, albeit in different markets. The “big three” just never felt that their customers wanted small cars (nor did the companies welcome the smaller profit margins). The tale of the domestic manufacturer’s multiple failures and occasional success are well documented on this site, and this poor record, especially in the fifties and sixties, has more to do with arrogance than any other factor in my opinion. You may have gleaned from my previous articles that my tastes in music are, to say the least, not quite synchronized with my age. When rock ‘n roll began to dominate the charts, it was dismissed by virtually every popular musician as a fad. When the tidal wave that was The Beatles arrived, the lads from Liverpool were derided by some very established and talented musicians as sophomoric at best. And within a few years, nearly every one of those performers were covering Beatles tunes. For the most part, with the same success that Detroit had designing, building and marketing small cars.

That Neon was a good deal. It had been leased in Columbia, Missouri by a building and development company as a company car. It hadn’t been used much, and I’m not sure why I was able to buy it from a guy who was essentially a broker (used car sales without a lot) but I’m assuming it came into his hands as at that at that time the new car dealers would rather have not had the competition with sales of new cars (and in addition the reminder to new buyers just how much their new car was going to depreciate in a little over a year).

In my opinion, it was the first example of Detroit getting small cars right, really right. Its development was probably about a decade fresher than the second generation Jetta I had been driving. Judging by space utilization, finish quality and general quality of materials it suffered by comparison to the VW, but not by much. However when it came to performance, it was a great improvement. It was named car of the year in 1994 by Automobile Magazine. “The Neon is the car we have been waiting for Detroit to build. It’s the car we thought Saturn would build but didn’t. The Neon is a small car with big room and an even bigger heart.” Beating the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, Honda Accord, and Saab 900.

Mine had a five-speed and 14″ alloy wheels. Even with medium performance all-season tires, it delivered outstanding performance. Apparently they were successful on the autocross or solo circuit as well as in racing.

A long time American tradition, it’s cheap, sturdy and reliable, let’s make it faster!

These kinds of activities were not on my agenda at that time, more importantly it also delivered reliable and inexpensive transportation. It consistently maintained 30 mpg, seemingly not mattering whether you were driving on the highway or around town. (It had a ten gallon tank so I always paid more attention to the odometer and knew when I was approaching 300 miles it was time to fuel up.) It was fairly trouble free, with a couple of exceptions. I did all of my maintenance in those days, but once when it was too cold for me to attempt an oil change I used a coupon at a local dealer to get it done. When I retrieved the car, the service manager casually “suggested” that I have my head gasket replaced, at an estimated cost north of $600. For a car that had fewer than 80,000 miles and had been well maintained. This was at the beginning of my access to the internet, and a little investigation revealed that not only was this a common problem, but it was just under the level of a recall. Chrysler would, if you had this prior knowledge and made it known, replace it for a $100 co-pay!

A very comfortable, well-arranged and clean cockpit

The car was a metallic silver that sometimes appeared to have a purplish undertone in bright sunlight (inspiring a friend to nickname it “Barney” – hopefully no explanation required) and a few years after the head gasket incident I was rinsing the car after washing it and it began to shed paint, revealing several spots covered only with a milky primer coat. This time I went directly online and found that this again was a common issue and again for a nominal co-pay Chrysler would re-paint the car. (My daughter had a similar situation with a 2006 Honda Civic.)

Yes, I’m aware that this is a model, but it pretty closely displays the hue (Perhaps the paint losing adhesion was a feature, not a bug?

I ran the clock up to around 130,000 miles and it was beginning to show its age when a deal came that was too good to pass up, this time, exactly what I needed when I needed it, so karma kind of balanced out. I sold it for two grand to a kid who wanted it as a street racing project car.

Bob Lutz had some remarkable successes in his long career, but also some significant failures, the roots of which were, again in my opinion, often a result of his imperiousness. Near the end of his career he stated that the increasing regulatory climate in Washington would force GM to produce what Federal regulators wanted, rather than what customers wanted. Problem is, in my estimation, and the point of my comment to him so many years ago, GM and the other Detroit giants wasted too much valuable time building what they wanted, ignoring their customers preferences, until it was nearly too late.