Dodge Neon rides well, handles well, and the standard engine delivers good acceleration performance. It doesn't lead the class in refinement, however. It doesn't ride as smoothly nor is it as quiet as, say, a Toyota Corolla.
Neon's single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine delivers decent power. It lacks power down low in the rev range, however. Step on it while cruising at 3000 rpm and it slowly gathers speed. There's a small rush of power that starts somewhere around 4000 rpm, but there isn't great gobs of it. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, which makes it quicker than many more-expensive compacts, including Honda Civic LX, Mazda Protege LX, or Nissan Sentra GXE. New motor mounts for 2003 are designed to reduce noise. Still, the 2.0-liter engine is relatively unrefined and its boomy and raucous behavior is transmitted into the cabin.
The manual gearbox works well, but shifting is clunky. Manual transmissions have a revised fifth-gear ratio for 2003 designed to improve fuel efficiency on the highway.
Automatic transmissions on 2003 models have been recalibrated for improved driveability, and a new, more elaborate electronic controller should provide better communication between engine and automatic transmission.
The suspension does a good job of balancing ride quality and handling agility. The Neon is fun to drive on winding roads, offering good response in transient (left, right, left) maneuvers. The suspension does a good job of preventing the car from bottoming on dips, reducing the need to slow way down. When we hit a sharp dip at a neighborhood intersection, the Neon's suspension was soft enough to absorb the harshness of the dip, yet it was firm enough and had enough travel to avoid bottoming. The front of the Neon did not scrape on this dip, a place where many cars before have scraped. Its fully independent strut-type suspension is designed for high ground clearance and long jounce travel. This improves ride quality while decreasing the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Soft springs and premium shocks contribute to Neon's ride quality.
The brakes that come standard on the SE and SXT work well. They stop the car quickly and are stable under hard braking. Neon stops more quickly than many of the other cars in its class. We recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Whether the roads are slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers maintain steering control in panic braking situations. The disc brakes that come on the R/T model work well and the pedal feels good. Disc brakes are (in theory) less likely to fade out on mountain roads than are the standard rear drum brakes. The ABS option also includes traction control, which helps the driver maintain control when accelerating on slippery surfaces.
The R/T model is more fun to drive than the SE and SXT. Handling response is much crisper, and the engine is more responsive. Ride quality is acceptable. The steering is quicker with a 16:1 steering box replacing the standard 18:1 ratio. And the R/T's increased horsepower is achieved without sacrificing fuel economy.
SRT-4's turbocharged engine develops 205 hp. It delivers 220 lbs.-ft. of torque from 2000 to 4800 rpm and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.9 seconds, according to Dodge. The car was developed with input from Dodge engineers who spend their weekends road racing with the Sports Car Club of America. Big brakes stop the SRT-4 in 120 feet, according to Dodge.