Along with quieting road roar, wind hiss and engine clamor, Chrysler has softened and smoothed all basic driving operations. Noticeably. Nothing is quite as tense as it was, further evidence of Chrysler reaching for newer and older buyers. On the other hand, nothing has been improved into pulp.
Brakes come on easily and early, with no hint of grab and no risk of shinsplints. Front wheels stay where they are pointed, which makes for remarkably secure, agile cornering. And whatever lumps or ruts might be pockmarking your passage, the Neon's marginally longer suspension travel does a good job on even bad asphalt.
Sadly, Chrysler remains in denial of its perennial plague: not sweating the little stuff. So many things about the Neon are ill-conceived or rough around the edges. Door and ignition keys require too much fidgeting and jiggling. The on-off-volume control for the radio nudges the station-seek button, so pumping up the sound to better enjoy Miles Davis also gets you a PBS program on surviving cheap vodka.
And why only an outdated, power-sucking, three-speed automatic?
Then there's something called "vehicle speed-sensitive power door locks with lock-out protection." Translation: Doors lock automatically when vehicle speed reaches 18 mph. Unlocking occurs when the car is at rest and in park.
But only the driver's door unlocks. Passengers are left to fumble with their own release catches to exit. If traveling alone--with Wall Street Journal and Evian bottle on the back seat--a driver must exit the car and use the remote or an internal release to unlock the rear door before reclaiming aforementioned stuff.
Bottom line: Too many movements that deny long-standing habits and only create frustration and mumbled blasphemies. Especially when it's raining.
The good news is that "vehicle speed-sensitive blah, blah, blah" is an option on entry-level Neons.
As standard equipment on LX and ES versions, pray that it can be disconnected. If your blasphemies weren't black enough to cancel such small benefits of prayer.
Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2000 Dodge-Plymouth Neon
* Base, $12,890. Includes driver and passenger air bags, six-speaker AM-FM sound system and cassette player, power steering, child door locks. As tested, $14,540. Adds ES trim package, includes air conditioning, cruise control, central locking, electric mirrors, anti-lock brakes, tilt steering, traction control, alarm and anti-theft system and 15-inch alloy wheels.
* 2.0-liter, inline-4 developing 132 horsepower.
* Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-door compact sedan.
* 0-60 mph, as tested, in 9.0 seconds.
* Top speed, estimated: 118 mph.
* Fuel consumption, as measured: 27 miles per gallon in city, 34 mpg on highway, with five-speed manual.
* 2,564 pounds.
The Good: More sophisticated styling and equipment, without subtracting from driving fun and youthful image. Still priced well for car of this pep and personality. Longer and roomier than first generation, with engine and wind noise hushed to a hum.
The Bad: Base version pretty naked. Switches and levers still rough around the edges. Infuriating lockout system.
The Ugly: The tacky plastic wheel covers on cheapo model.