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FIRST DRIVE

Neon gets an injection of adrenaline

Dodge turbocharges the economy sedan, creating the SRT-4 pocket rocket.

August 13, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

In the interest of trying to understand what makes environmentalists happy, we arranged to have a compact car arrive in the driveway: a 2003 Dodge Neon four-door sedan -- economy personified.

It was somewhat modified from run-of-the-mill economy cars, because there's no reason to be bored to tears in trying to understand what makes environmentalists happy to reduce the daily flood of e-mail.

So this Neon came with a whale-tail spoiler and a 2.4- liter, 215-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

All Neons received new front and rear fascia, headlamps and tail lamps and an aluminum Dodge medallion in the steering wheel for '03, a freshening until new sheet metal appears for '05.

But this model adds a functional hood scoop, fog lamps, body-colored door handles and side door sills, plus a name badge that reads SRT-4.

Yup, this was the pocket rocket, the have-a-blast Neon from Chrysler Group's Performance Vehicle Operations team, the folks who created the Dodge Viper SRT-10 and the Dodge Ram SRT-10.

The Dodge Neon SRT-4 was added to the lineup to inject some life into an economy car that has to go two more years before a switch to a new Mitsubishi/Chrysler platform.

It also is meant to attract youth to the Dodge brand by offering them a less-than-$20,000 new-car alternative to what they have been doing -- buying used cars for $10,000 and then adding $20,000 in goodies to dress up the sheet metal and soup up the engine to customize the machine.

The SRT-4 provides a needed injection of adrenaline into an aging body. The heart and soul of the SRT-4 is a new turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 215 horsepower and 245 foot-pounds of torque, a significant boost from the 132 horses and 162 foot-pounds of torque of the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder Neon.

And in the 2004 model, the 2.4 kicks it up a notch, to 230 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque.

The SRT-4, with a reported zero-to 60-mph time of 5.9 seconds, is the second-quickest car in the Dodge lineup. Only the Viper, which boasts a zero-to-60 time of 3.9 seconds, is quicker.

Although that speaks well of the SRT-4, why is the second-quickest Dodge car an aged compact Neon? With more SRTs planned, including six- and eight-cylinder versions in the Dodge lineup, perhaps a long-awaited mid-size Charger will be added to solve that.

But we digress.

Kick the pedal in this front-wheel-drive sedan hard, and after the initial torque steer wiggle subsides and you have the nose aimed straight again, it's time to settle in for some fun. And to think the '04 version promises even more quickness.

The engine is teamed with a five-speed manual transmission, thankfully a smooth-shifting unit because you can't get an automatic. Ditto for '04.

While the SRT-4 can slap you back in your seat, those who preach conservation will be pleased that it's rated at 22 miles per gallon city/30 mpg highway.

So what you have with the SRT-4 is an economy car that delivers excellent mileage but can change character to become a compact performance sedan with lots of spirit and spunk. A rumble-tuned exhaust complements the package.

My only gripe, other than my hope that the '05 Neon successor has a larger and roomier cabin, is that the SRT-4 would be even more fun if the seat bottom cushions were a tad wider to provide better thigh support.

While Dodge is quick to mention SRT-4's performance, it isn't shy about pointing to the price tag, either -- $19,450 fully equipped.

Of course, that doesn't rule out buyers adding a few aftermarket tweaks so that the SRT-4 makes more of a statement. But Dodge would rather that youth tweak a new Neon than a used Honda Civic.

The $19,450 package includes a high-performance suspension, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, performance-tuned steering for more precise response-to-wheel input and 17-inch low-profile performance radials, which all contribute to ride and handling with a sporty bent. That means you'll feel the tar marks.

Amenities include air conditioning; AM-FM stereo with CD player; power windows, locks and mirrors; tinted glass; rear window defroster; tilt steering; keyless entry; floor mats; and power outlet. But no automatic, no power sunroof and no traction control.

*

2003 Dodge

Neon SRT-4

Wheelbase: 105 inches

Length: 175.7 inches

Engine: 2.4-liter, 215-horsepower, turbocharged inline-4

Transmission: five-speed manual

Fuel economy: 29 miles per gallon city, 36 mpg highway.

Price, as tested: $19,450. Add $545 for freight.

Pluses: This is a high-performance rendition of a long-in-tooth compact that needed a hook to grab buyers until the all-new '05 model arrives. Oh, can it scoot -- yet at the same time it delivers the fuel economy you would expect from an ordinary, run-of the-mill economy sedan. A nice package at a decent price.

Minuses: You can enjoy the SRT-4 only if you have mastered the art of manual transmissions, because no automatic offered. You think this is hot -- and it is -- the '04 boasts even higher horsepower and even more torque.

Source: Chicago Tribune

-- Los Angeles Times

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