US model Dodge NEON SE
US model Dodge Neon shown, Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Last redesigned in 2000, the 2002 Chrysler Neon continues to offer lively handling, decent performance, and a roomy interior. For 2002, the Neon includes a new optional 4-speed automatic transmission (replacing the 3-speed automatic), a new standard AM/FM/CD player, new optional leather interior, and new optional polished aluminium wheels, rear spoiler, and black gauges with chrome rings.

Still fun-to-drive, and a new 4-speed automatic transmission

When the compact Dodge/Plymouth Neon was introduced in 1994 as a 1995 model, it was hailed as a big leap forwards for domestic automakers in the small car arena. Among the many awards it won that year was the annual Car of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. The Neon was, and is a well-designed compact car, but the first generation Neon proved noisier and less refined than some of its competitors, and suffered some quality problems over the years which tarnished its image. (see Jeremy Cato’s 1995-1998 Neon Used Car Review).

In 1999, Chrysler made substantial changes to the 2000 Chrysler Neon (Plymouth was history, and Dodge was concentrating on trucks) to improve its noise and vibration levels, body rigidity, braking, driveability, interior room, and trunk space. The new Neon also had a redesigned interior, more standard equipment, and a higher base price.

Compared to the first Neon, the 2000 model’s overall length was increased 66 mm (2.6 in.), the wheelbase was stretched by 25 mm (1 inch), and the track was widened slightly. To create more interior room, the base of the windshield was moved forwards by 76 mm (3 inches), and to improve visibility and ingress/egress, the passenger seats were raised by 13 mm (0.5 inches). The trunk was also enlarged by about 10%. New framed doors replaced the frameless doors of the original Neon, which reduced wind noise and vibration at higher speeds. Under the hood, new engine mounts, more sound insulation, a new air induction system reduced engine noise.

The Neon LE and LX were re-joined in September, 2000, by the sporty R/T model, now a four-door sedan instead of a two-door coupe. Also worth noting, is that 2001 Neons began offering a new standard 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty.

For 2002, changes to the Neon are relatively minor, the biggest change being a new optional four-speed automatic transmission replacing the old three-speed automatic. As well, the 2002 Neon has a new grille with Chrysler’s winged badge, new optional leather interior, a new standard AM/FM/CD player, and optional polished aluminium wheels, rear spoiler, and black gauges with chrome rings.

There have also been some safety improvements. The 2002 Neon includes next-generation air bags with less forceful inflators, seat belts with constant force retractor and adjustable turning loops, head impact protection on the roof pillars, and new optional seat-mounted side air bags in the front seats.

Classy interior is roomy

While the first generation Neon was very low to the ground, the second generation model has a higher seat ‘hip point’, making it easier to get in and out of the car. The Neon’s doors, including the rear doors, have a wide opening for easy entry. The interior of the LE has soft cloth seats with different coloured inserts in the seats and doors. I found the front seats comfortable, but the rear seat a little hard on the posterior.

The instrument cluster features round gauges with chrome rings and upscale numerals ‘similar to the gauges in the Chrysler 300M, while the four-spoke steering wheel features Chrysler’s classic ‘flying wing’ logo. I liked the easy-to-operate headlight switch on the left stalk and the variable intermittent wipers on the right stalk, and cruise control buttons are located conveniently near the steering wheel hub.

The centre instrument panel is well laid-out, and includes Chrysler’s unusual air conditioning controls which have a separate fan speed control for a/c and another one for heating. The Neon’s standard AM/FM/CD stereo includes Seek, Scan and Tune functions, adjustments for Treble, Bass, Balance and Fader, and a built-in digital clock – I liked the shape of the radio pre-set buttons which have ‘finger impressions’. If you order the optional AM/FM/cassette/4-disc in-dash CD player, the CD player moves underneath the powerpoint, separate from the AM/FM/cassette. It’s a bit too low for my liking.

Just below the radio is a small open storage compartment, 12 volt powerpoint, optional Traction Control ‘Off’ button, and a rear defroster button. Lower on the console is an open storage bin, but it’s hard to see and difficult to reach. The centre console also includes handy compartments for sunglasses, coins, letters, and two cupholders – and there’s another cupholder designed for mugs with handles behind the handbrake. The armrest/storage bin between the front seats contains slots for CD’s and a coin bin, and if you flip the lid back, it contains a cupholder and tissue box holder than can be used by rear occupants.

My Neon LE was equipped with the optional Driver Convenience Group which includes power door locks with a keyless entry remote transmitter with a power trunk release button; power folding mirrors, and power FRONT windows — the rear windows have manual wind-down levers. The whole package is only $300, and well worth it.

Rear passengers have adequate headroom and generous legroom, but they sit lower than front passengers, the seat cushion is harder, and there’s not much footroom under the front seats. For rear passengers, there are mesh pockets on the back of the front seats and a grocery bag hook on the back of the centre console. The rear seat features three three-point seatbelts and two fixed head restraints.

60/40 split folding seatbacks are standard, but I had two concerns about them: they aren’t lockable, and they consist of folding seat inserts rather than folding seatbacks which results in a smaller opening to the trunk. Still, I’d rather have them than not have them.

The Neon’s trunk is about average in size, and features floor and wall covering and a lightweight, easy-to-lift trunklid.

Driving Impressions

When idling, the 132 horsepower 2.0 litre SOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine is rather noisy, a disappointment considering all the noise reduction efforts that have gone into the Neon. However, around town and on the freeway it’s acceptably quiet and more refined than the previous-generation Neon engine. The Neon has excellent outward visibility over the low hood and to the sides, but the high rear trunklid obstructs vision when backing into a parking space. Even so, I found the Neon easy and convenient to drive around town because of its compact size, quick power rack and pinion steering, and tight turning circle. The Neon has a comfortable highway ride, and tracks well in a straight line. At a steady 100 km/h, the engine makes a dull rumbling sound but there’s very little tire or wind noise, and the body is much tighter than the first-generation Neon. The engine does about 2,400 rpm at 100 km/h in top gear.

Though it doesn’t have the most horsepower or torque in its class, the Neon is comparatively quick in a straight line, zipping from 0 to 100 km/h in about 8.9 seconds. That’s faster than the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cavalier, its two main domestic competitors. It’s also responsive at low speeds, getting away quickly from a stoplight if necessary, and zipping ahead of other cars when changing lanes.

A new 4-speed automatic transmission replaces the previous 3-speed automatic, and though it does provide quicker, smoother shifts and less engine noise (because the engine doesn’t rev as high between shifts), I never objected to the performance of the previous three-speed automatic — remember, a three-speed shifts one less time going up and down.

Handling has always been a Neon strong point: the Neon has a fully independent suspension (front MacPherson struts/rear multilink), a wide track and standard 185/65R-14 inch tires — providing well-balanced cornering, minimal dive under braking, and above-average stability. LX models have even wider 15 inch tires which provide better handling, while R/T models offer a tuned suspension and 15 inch performance tires for a stiffer, but sportier ride.

Front disc/rear drum brakes without ABS are standard on both LE and LX Neons. I would recommend upgrading to the optional four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock brakes, electronic variable brake proportioning, and traction control which is offered for $1,020. I tried the traction control during a snowstorm, and found that it was slow to activate. I’m not sure I would bother with this option if it wasn’t part of the disc brake package.

Competitor overview

The Neon LE’s direct competitors include the Chevrolet Cavalier LS ($21,275), Ford Focus LX sedan ($15,970), Honda Civic LX ($20,100), Mazda Protégé ES ($16,695), and the 2003 Toyota Corolla CE ($15,290). The lower prices of some of these models are due to the absence of air conditioning as standard equipment, while other models like the Cavalier include a standard automatic transmission. Still, the Neon LE’s base price of $18,505 seems high when compared with the Focus and Corolla.

Having driven all of these cars except the new Corolla, I would say the Neon offers comparable interior room, performance and handling to its competitors, but is not quite as refined as its import competitors. But it’s still a fun-to-drive, comfortable runabout with good fuel economy and a good warranty. Its 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty is now competitive with import makes.

Three trim levels

The 2002 Neon LE has an MSRP of $18,505 plus $730 freight and $100 for federal a/c tax for a total base price of $19,335. Standard features include air conditioning, 60/40 split folding rear seat backs, floor console with storage armrest, cup holders, AM/FM stereo radio with CD player, CD changer controls, and six speakers, 12 volt power outlet, tilt steering column, cloth seats, power steering, child door locks and tether anchors.

The MSRP of the Neon LX is $20,530 (plus $730 freight/$100 a/c tax) for a total of $21,360. Standard features include everything on the LE plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, tachometer, fog lamps, 15-inch tires and steel wheels, “diamond weave” trim for the instrument panel and automatic transmission shifter, power front windows and power door locks, dual power foldaway mirrors, remote keyless entry, alarm, cruise control, reading lamps, premium cloth seats and power trunklid release.

The Neon R/T MSRP is $23,140 (plus $730 freight/$100 a/c tax) for a total of $23,970. In addition to the feature on the LX, the R/T adds a 150 horsepower 2.0 litre SOHC 16 valve high output 4 cylinder engine, dual bright exhaust tips, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 16-inch aluminum wheels and tires, rear spoiler, sport suspension, performance tuned steering, side sill extensions, and 4-disc in-dash CD changer

My 2002 Neon LE test car was equipped with the optional 4-speed automatic transmission ($1,030), anti-lock brake package ($1,020), 15 inch tires and alloy wheels ($645), Driver Convenience Group ($300), side airbags ($390), and cruise control ($310) for a total of $23,030.

The Dodge Neon is built at the Belvidere Assembly Plant in Belvidere, Illinois.

Technical Data:

2002 Chrysler Neon LE
Base price $18,505
Options $3,695
Freight $730
A/C excise tax $100
Price as tested $23,030
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, SOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 132 @ 5600 rpm
Torque 130 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual (4 speed automatic)
Tires Goodyear Eagle 185/60R-15
Curb weight 1164 kg (2567 lb.)
Wheelbase 2667 mm (105.0 in.)
Length 4430 mm (174.4 in.)
Width 1712 mm (67.4 in.)
Height 1422 mm (56.0 in.)
Trunk space 371 litres (13.1 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 8.3 L/100 km (34 mpg)
  Highway: 6.4 L/100 km (44 mpg)
Fuel Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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