Curbside Classic: 2001 Plymouth Neon LX – “Hi” Turns To “Hello”

(first posted 11/21/2017)        Chrysler made quite an entrance in the North American compact market with its original 1995-1999 Neon, a car sold under both the Dodge and Plymouth brands, and one that loudly announced its presence with the simple greeting of “Hi.”.

Boasting expressive cab-forward styling, an expansive cabin, and favorable driving dynamics, Chrysler played upon the Neon’s youthful image with playful marketing, fun exterior colors, and numerous decor packages. The Neon proved popular and sold quite well, making it the first profitable compact American car of the 1990s. Youth and playfulness, however, only last so long. Much like its target clientele, the Neon matured quite a bit for its second generation, released as a 2000 model.

The Neon still shared significant visual lineage to its predecessor, retaining the basic cab-forward shape, hallmarked by short and low hood, arching greenhouse and roofline, high deck, and wheels pushed towards the corners of the body. The new Neon also retained its iconic round headlights.

Gone, however, were the pastel colors, whimsical upholstery patterns with names like “Rumba”, interesting wheel options, the coupe body style, and the fun marketing. Instead, the second generation, while still recognizable as the charming Neon, came in just one base and one deluxe sedan configuration, featuring far more sobering interiors and serious promotion. The greeting was much more “Hello”, than “Hi”.

The Neon grew up physically as well. Riding on an inch longer 105-inch wheelbase, though overall only about three inches longer and one inch taller, visually, it looked like a much larger car. The windshield’s base was moved three inches further than the original Neon, for a slicker appearance and a less confining front cabin. Ground clearance was also raised 0.3 inches, allowing for greater suspension travel for a smoother ride.

Probably the most noticeable visual change was the elimination of the rather odd for the class frame-less windows, in favor of more traditional fully-framed windows with “aircraft style” doors that blended into the roof. This move especially gave the second generation Neon a much quieter cabin, something that was a major negative of its predecessor.

Powertain was mostly a carryover from the first generation with few changes apart from now only offering the base SOHC 2.0L inline-4 making 132 horsepower and 130 lb-ft torque. Dodge Neon R/Ts soon brought back the more powerful 150 horsepower 2.0L, but Plymouth made do with just the standard power plant. Regardless, the base engine was right on par with what competitors were offering for output and perfectly adequate for the Neon’s size and mission in life.

All Neons featured a 5-speed manual as standard equipment. An automatic was optional, though to save costs, it was in form of the archaic 3-speed, non-overdrive TorqueFlite dating back to the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, something worth noting when competitors were using 4-speeds for smoother, quieter operation at higher speeds.

At least Daimler-Chrysler didn’t completely penny-pinch the Neon redesign. Heavy investment was put into the body to make it a more comfortable, better handling, and quieter car. Torsional stiffness of the body was increased by 37 percent, struts and sway bars were redesigned and improved, and brakes were boosted. Engineers also redesigned the exhaust manifold and engine mount system, and increased its cooling ability all around. The 2000 Neon made greater use of single-piece components, high-strength materials, and sound deadening, yielding a greater overall feel of refinement than the first generation Neon could ever provide.

Interior fabrics and surfaces were indeed upgraded over the original Neon, though they still trailed competitors like the Civic in their level of fit and finish. Lots of single-colored hard grainy plastic, a hallmark of the Daimler-Chrysler era, was found in abundance, along with some very wide panel gaps on the dash.

Still, for the money the Neon was a decent value. Offered in a base “highline” and better-equipped “LX” models, standard features included frontal “Next Generation” airbags, 14″ steel wheels, cloth seats, locking glovebox, center console compartment with nifty tissue dispenser, power steering, four cupholders, and six-speaker AM/FM stereo.

LX models added power front windows (though curiously not rear), power door locks, 15″ wheel covers, fog lamps, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and plusher cloth upholstery. Four-wheel disc antilock brakes, traction control, and 15-inch alloy wheels were among the several extra-cost options.

With increased interior volume, higher H-point front seating for better visibility and increased comfort, the second generation Neon was one of the very first “tall compacts”, a favorable quality that would soon redefine the compact sedan class. Tasteful styling, a long list of standard features, and a reasonable price made the Neon a car, that on paper, was more competitive than ever. Then why is it that the second generation Neon failed to achieve the same success as the first?

In the Plymouth Neon’s case, the announcement that Plymouth would be discontinued and the subsequent wind-down of production clearly put the kibosh on sales figures. But even over at Dodge, the number of Neons sold just never matched the annual level of the original. Combined Neon sales for 2000 fell some 12 percent from 1999 and consistently fell each subsequent year after the redesign.

The market was fiercer, that’s for sure. For the first time in over a decade, Ford had a highly competitive North American compact with the Focus, a car that matched the Neon’s more favorable high seating position and roofline, while offering four body styles and somewhat better quality. Then of course there were the Neon’s weak points. While designers and engineers made significant efforts to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness, a major weakness of the previous generation, NVH in second generation cars was still greater than in many of the Neon’s competitors.

Although the Neon was decidedly more refined than its predecessor, it still was not at the top of its class in this respect. Furthermore, despite SUVs gaining more market share than ever, the market for compacts was not on the decline either. Brands such as Ford, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and even Oldsmobile sold more compacts in 2000 and 2001 than they respectively did in 1999. In fact, inclusive of all manufacturers, more new cars (17.41 million) were sold in the U.S. during the year 2000 than ever before — a record not surpassed until 2015.

In spite of this, sales of most Chrysler products — including the Caravan, Grand Cherokee, and RAM pickup — declined significantly in 2000 over their 1999 volume, and continued to fall over the next several years. Could it have been that quality and reliability issues finally caught up with Chrysler, deterring new and repeat customers? My family’s own personal experience with Chrysler products from this era was certainly less than perfect on that level.

Let me present one final theory, and that involves the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Introduced early in 2000 as an ’01 model, the PT Cruiser, a car originally intended for sale as a Plymouth, proved an unlikely competitor to the Neon which sat across from it in Chrysler-Plymouth and the increasingly common Chrysler-Dodge showrooms across the United States.

While it only was offered in a hatchback body style, the PT Cruiser offered a more powerful standard engine, a greater amount of comfort and convenience features, and decidedly more style for marginally more cost. PT Crusier sales actually eclipsed that of the Neon in 2001, the model’s first full year of sales.

Whether it be just one or multiple factors, the second generation Neon simply failed to match the impact and subsequent success of the original. Maybe “Hello” was just the wrong message? Whichever was the case, the Plymouth Neon said a prompt “Goodbye” in June 2001, when the last unit (the very last Plymouth badged vehicle) rolled off the assembly line.

Photographed: Middletown, Rhode Island – November 2017

Related Reading:

1995 Dodge Neon coupe

1997 Plymouth Neon sedan

2000 Chrysler Neon (COAL)

First and Second Generation Plymouth Neons