Classic CARmentary: 2000 Dodge Neon ES

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

In last week’s review of the Cirrus, James noted, “I don’t really get all the hate for the second gen Neon.”  I’m not sure I can explain it, either.  I loved the original Neon.  It was cute and fun even if it wasn’t all that refined or reliable.  To me, this generation wasn’t cute or fun (except maybe in SRT-4 guise).  While it was more refined than the original, it wasn’t as refined as the competition.  Given that, what did it really have going for it?  

My wife and I rented a 2004 with the four-speed automatic, available starting in 2002, on a trip to South Florida.  Preferring the beach, we stayed in a hotel in Pompano and spent much of the week driving back and forth between the hotel and my mother’s house, which is about 25 minutes to an hour west depending on traffic.  By the end of the trip I hated that damn Neon.  It was a miserable trip anyway, as we spent virtually no time enjoying our beachfront hotel room or the beach.  But the car didn’t help, and I can’t even explain exactly why it couldn’t endear itself to me.  It’s like Henry Ford’s stated reason for firing Lee Iacocca, “I just don’t like the guy.”

The following review was written on June 27, 1999.

DaimlerChrysler (DC) obviously decided that times had changed enough that the Dodge/Plymouth Neon could go from cute and cheap to slick and refined. Completely redesigned for 2000, the Beetle-esque roundness (Ever notice the resemblance?) has been traded for angles and edges, and the Neon looks very much like a 5/8 scale Intrepid. Up front, ovoid headlamps replace round ones, and slanted half-moon tail lights provide a very distinctive derriere. Dimensions are marginally greater: 2.6 inches longer, 0.2 inches wider, and it rides on a one inch longer wheelbase. Further emphasizing the grown-up theme, the coupe has been canceled.

The interior also has a more expensive, sophisticated feel. Our ES had soft fabric on the seats and doors, and the feel and quality of the materials has definitely improved from last year’s model. DC also has added many nice touches, like multiple cupholders, a console deep enough to hold CDs, and a sunglass-case holder to the right of the instrument pod.

The 132-horsepower, 2.0 liter four cylinder engine has been given a thorough reworking and is now much smoother than before. While there are still some traces of thrashiness and a faint drone at highway speeds, this is nothing compared to the mariachi band that resided under the hood of its predecessor. The five-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly and securely, but the clutch feels heavy and creaks when engaged, which may or may not be limited to our test car. In a bizarre move, a three-speed is the only available automatic transmission.

Newsflash: Four-speed automatics provide quicker acceleration, better mileage, and quieter highway cruising. Its absence WILL prevent some people, such as myself, from buying one. If DC wants the Neon to truly play with the big boys (Civic, Corolla, and Escort), it must match them gear-for-gear. As with its predecessor, handling and acceleration, with the manual, is above average. The R/T trim level and 150-horsepower engine will return next year.

Overall, the new Neon is a dramatic improvement. It is like seeing your favorite niece for the first time in five years and finding she’s turned from an awkward, rebellious teenager into a beautiful, sophisticated young woman.

For more information contact 1-800-4-A-DODGE


Type: Four-Door Sedan
Engine: 132 horsepower, 2.0 liter inline-4
Transmission: 5-Speed Manual
EPA Mileage: 27 city/36 highway
Tested Price: $15,955