1998 Dodge Neon

By November 10, 1999
1998 Dodge Neon

The Dodge Neon has always been inexpensive and fun to drive. But this year’s models are much more pleasant to live with on a daily basis. Nearly one-third of the Neon’s components have been changed since its 1994 introduction. This year’s models are quieter and ride nicer than earlier Neons. Interior details are much closer to the Honda benchmark.

Chrysler’s continuing improvements to the Neon are the result of learning a hard lesson. When it was first developing the Neon for its Dodge and Plymouth divisions, Chrysler organized some consumer clinics to poll potential buyers. Consumer input can be a valuable source of information when developing a new product. People who came to the clinics said they were tired of the rising prices of cars. What America needs is a good five-cent cigar, they said, a practical, reliable car that provides the basics without ballooning those monthly payments so much. This seemed to make sense and Chrysler listened.

It was a big mistake.

In an effort to hold down costs, the Neon debuted with few frills. It came with a cheap interior and relatively little engineering and manufacturing effort went into minimizing noise and vibration.

The Neon quickly gained favor among car enthusiasts and others who enjoyed an inexpensive car that was a blast to drive. But a large group of shoppers complained that the car lacked the features of its competition. It’s noisy, they said, and it seems to lack refinement. Many of these people turned their shopping efforts elsewhere.

Now, four model years later, Chrysler has the benefit of spending a lot of quality time on the old drawing board. They’ve been engineering small solutions to address minor deficiencies. As a result, the 1998 Neons are much more refined than the early cars. Noise, vibration and harshness are substantially improved. More convenience features make the Neon attractive to people who want a lot more out of life than a fast economy car. Chrysler’s efforts should satisfy the masses.

But what about that small group of enthusiasts who applauded the Neon’s acceleration performance and appreciated its entertainment value? Will they be left out in the cold?

The answer comes in the form of the new Dodge Neon R/T, an enthusiast’s model that focuses more on performance than frills. For less than $15,000, the R/T comes with Viper stripes and most of the hot rod hardware found on the ACR competition model that helped the Neon win three consecutive National championships in SCCA Showroom Stock racing.


Neons are instantly distinguished by their buggy-looking ovoid headlights and rounded nose. They caught our attention when they said, “Hi.” Now they have become a familiar part of the landscape. But this one is anything but a wallflower.

Broad Viper stripes on Flame Red, Intense Blue or Bright White paint set the Dodge Neon R/T apart from standard Neons. Like its ACR (American Club Racer) competition model, the Neon R/T comes with a sports suspension, quick-ratio steering, and a close-ratio gearbox. Specially tuned springs, front and rear antiroll bars and new rear spring isolaters comprise the sports suspension.

Dodge and Plymouth Neons are essentially identical. Only the badge and a few options packages, such as the R/T package, differentiates them.

Neons are available in three flavors: base, highline and Sport. They come in two body styles: Coupe and Sedan. Two engines are available: a 132-horsepower 2.0-liter single overhead cam (sohc) engine and a 150-horsepower double overhead cam (dohc) engine. They come with a choice of 5-speed manual gearbox or 3-speed automatic transmission.

Other than the number of doors, there are few differences between Coupe and Sedan. Interior room is about the same. Even the weight difference is negligible. All Neons ride on a wide track and a long (104-inch) wheelbase with minimal front and rear overhang.

Base models come with rear drum brakes, while performance variations use rear discs. The front suspension is MacPherson struts with assymmetrical lower control arms, while the rear is Chapman struts with dual lower transverse arms.

Interior Features

Neon’s long wheelbase helps create a roomy interior. Both the sedan and the coupe are among the roomiest cars in this class. A high roofline provides ample headroom, while lots of glass gives the Neon an open, airy feel and makes for good visibility all around.

Four adults can sit comfortably in a Neon, five make it a little tight. Ironically, the Coupe is a bit roomier in back, with more rear shoulder and hip room. Up front, the Sedan offers slightly more room than the Coupe. Large doors make getting in and out easy. Sedans come with wider rear doors than those on most compacts for easier entry.

The dashboard is simple, functional and sporty with controls that are large and easy to reach. Instruments are big and highly legible. Tachometers are optional.

Neon R/T carries the performance theme inside with unique bucket seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

Driving Impressions

We’re impressed with the new Neons after driving them through Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, turning some hot laps around Pocono International Raceway and heading in and out of Newark airport.

A low curb weight and plenty of power add up to spirited acceleration, even when equipped with the single-cam engine and 3-speed automatic. The 132-horsepower single-cam engine offers plenty of performance to satisfy most folks. A 4-speed automatic would likely increase operating efficiency and performance, however.

The best performance comes from the twin-cam engine and 5-speed manual. The advantage the dohc engine has over the sohc engine comes into play in the upper rev range. While the twin-cam engine produces 150 horsepower compared with the sohc’s 132, but it comes at higher revs. And the twin cam’s maximum 133 pound-feet of torque–that force that pulls you away from stop lights–achieved at a lofty 5500 rpm, is only slightly superior to the single cam’s 129 pound-feet at 5000 rpm.

Still, the twin cam engine allows Neon drivers to embarrass the owners of other more expensive sporty cars; it achieves the same EPA fuel economy rating (29/38 mpg, city/highway); and it retails for just $150. Therefore, we vote for the 150-horsepower dohc engine.

R/T models come with firmer suspension settings than the other models, but we found the ride quality in the R/T quite acceptable. We like the way it more precisely controls the tires. Drivers attracted to the R/T are usually more than willing to sacrifice a little suspension damping for improved handling.

The R/T handled a tight autocross course at Pocono like a sports car. Out on the road course, the car felt stable and easy to control in high-speed turns. Jabbing or lifting suddenly off the throttle did not unduly upset its balance in the corners, but it could be easily rotated in turns as needed.

Most people, however, will prefer the softer standard suspension for its ability to better filter out potholes and vibration on imperfect road surfaces. And it still offers agile cornering capability.


Chrysler has done a good job of continuously improving the Neon. It’s a much better car now than it was when it was introduced. Even with all the improvements, the Neon does not match some of the other cars in this class when it comes to ride quality and refinement. However, most of these other cars are not nearly as much fun to drive as a Neon.

The Neon offers great acceleration performance, sporty handling and good brakes. When ordered with the R/T package, it’s a real sports car. Buy one of these, add a roll cage and you’ll be ready to go racing. And as much fun as the R/T is, it still offers plenty of creature comforts to make it an enjoyable car to drive to and from work everyday. For these reasons, the Dodge Neon R/T is one of our top picks in this class.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login