BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Chrysler Neon is a car that offers an unusual proposition. Because it doesn't fit into the pat pigeonholes into which we slot most of our cars, many buyers have been confused as to exactly what they're getting. On the one hand, the car was initially marketed as an economy car, but the 1999 restyle saw it gain some more upmarket aspirations. What is a Neon and, more importantly, does it cut the mustard as a used proposition? Although it still fails to offer the sophistication of cars like the Ford Focus, the Neon does offer a lot of metal for the money and a degree of exclusivity. Used examples aren't too thick on the ground, but the plus side is that most have been well looked after.
Models Covered: Neon - 1999 - to date: 2.0 saloon [SE, LX, R/T]
The Neon was first launched on a wave of publicity back in 1996, Chrysler bringing the car to the UK as an aside to their right-hand drive push for the Japanese market. The early cars were peppy and enthusiastic but rather unrefined and markedly lacking in sophistication. The cheap and cheerful angle didn't cut it with British buyers who were used to genuinely cut throat pricing from Korean rivals. The second-generation car was a different kettle of fish. Better built, smoother, more luxuriously equipped and with a marketing push that was better tailored to the UK market it seemed to have what it took to succeed. It seems few of you agreed and sales slowed to a trickle. Initially available in SE and LX guises, the entry-level SE was deleted in 2001, and a sporty R/T variant was introduced.
What You Get
This BMW 3 Series-sized saloon is good value in plush LX form, no question and it's worth stepping up to the LX from the somewhat sparse SE version. For the same kind of money, all you'd get is a pretty ordinary 1.6-litre Vauxhall Astra or Ford Focus. The Neon, on the other hand, comes with a 136bhp 2.0-litre engine, leather trim, twin front airbags, air conditioning, ABS, power steering, alloy wheels, traction control, woodgrain trim, a six-speaker stereo and the option of automatic transmission. You can even get a sporty R/T version with bodykit, alloys and an uprated 150bhp engine. It helps that all the improvements are shrouded in smart bodywork that sets the Neon firmly apart from apparent Korean rivals like Hyundai's Elantra, Daewoo's Nubira and Kia's Shuma. Where these cars continually remind you of the money you've saved, the Neon feels a class above. The people who tend to buy this car in the UK (the average ownership age is 53) will love all of this. The cabin is a world away from the cheap plastic fittings that characterised the old one. Soft-touch materials are everywhere and most of the switchgear is well placed and easy to find. Criticisms are limited to a steering wheel that adjusts only for rake and not for reach and a rather strangely angled windscreen that can make it slightly awkward to see things like traffic lights when you're directly below them. There's a reasonable amount of space too - enough to make downsizing into Neon ownership a realistic proposition for owners of larger Mondeo and Vectra-sized models. Rear seat passengers get more room for hips, shoulders and heads, plus there's more space for their luggage, thanks to a 13.1cuft boot accessed through 60/40 split-folding rear seats.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
No major areas of concern have surfaced since the Neon has been on sale, so provided the car has been maintained according to the service schedule, all should be well. The interior trim is better than the old cars and there have yet to be any noteworthy issues regarding the reliability of the 2.0-litre engine. Even the R/T model is unlikely to have had its tyres shredded by the largely mature ownership clientele.
(Based on a 1999 Neon SE, excl VAT) A full exhaust system will be about £540. Brake pads front and rear are about £60 and £70, a starter motor is about £200 and an alternator around £285. You'll pay around £265 for a new door mirror, roughly £300 for a radiator and about £110 for a replacement windscreen.
On the Road
In terms of driving dynamics, the Chrysler is still no sports saloon. To be fair, you wouldn't expect that of a car from the land of freeways and 50mph speed limits. Having said that, the on the road experience is much improved, thanks to anti-roll bars on both axles. Rightly however, the engineers spent more of their time trying to improve the ride, stiffening the body by 26% and redesigning the independent suspension set-up using techniques borrowed from larger models. As a result, though low speed ride could still be better, at cruising speeds the Neon is much improved, again giving the feeling of a much larger car. If you feel the standard Neon is a touch soft, the R/T corners a little more faithfully, although still not as well as a standard Ford Focus. The R/T is certainly the Neon to go for if you want to make quick progress. Cast into the rocker cover is the legend '2.0L High Output' which may sound like a serious power unit, but the truth is somewhat more prosaic. It's basically an uprated version of the 2.0-litre engine that powers the standard Neon models, tweaked to produce 150bhp. Whilst not at the forefront of engine technology, this powerplant nevertheless offers a willing level of performance for the money. It's able to hit 60mph in 9.4 seconds and run on to a top speed of 132mph, so you won't be able to accuse the Neon R/T of being a sheep in wolf's clothing. Even the standard 2.0-litre versions are faster than most comparably priced rivals. Rest to sixty takes 10.8s on the way to 124mph. Still, at least you don't have to pay for the bigger capacity at the pumps: in normal driving, around 35mpg should be possible, rising to 45mpg on the open road. Those figures shouldn't be too dramatically affected if, like most customers, you take the no-cost automatic transmission option, though bear in mind that the gearbox has three, rather than the usual four-speeds available from rivals (who all charge extra for the privilege). Braking is much improved over the old model, though curiously, the system you get depends on the trim level you choose. Older Neons had a barely adequate disc/drum system, but the newer models get discs all-round, ABS, traction control and electronic brake proportioning to ensure that maximum stopping power is directed to the wheels that need it most.
If you want an inexpensive family saloon that doesn't brand you a penny-pinching tightwad, the Chrysler Neon makes a smart choice. Quick, good looking and well equipped it's a break from the norm. No, it isn't the last word in sophisticated engineering but for most buyers driving something that offers a little exclusivity will more than make up for that.