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Car reviews - Chrysler - Neon - LE sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Distinctive looks, quiet cruiser
Room for improvement
Three-speed automatic

Chrysler logo10 Jan 2001

By TIM BRITTEN

CHRYSLER'S latest version of its Neon small car - the PL2000 series - may look a lot like its predecessor, but the company tells us it is close to being an all-new car.

The new Neon's platform is the basis of other Chrysler models - including the intriguing PT Cruiser - and brings new levels of refinement that should be welcome in the so-far virtually unnoticed small car.

If the previous model was visually interesting with its trademark Chrysler cab-forward stance, the PL2000 is even more so. The styling cues remain pure Neon - rounded, laid-back headlights, short front and rear overhangs and that cab-forward style that is supposed to create lots of cabin space. Although it looks much the same, the shapes are more resolved.

Chrysler says almost 1000 changes were made to the Neon during the creation of PL2000. The structure was subjected to a general tightening-up using techniques such as foam-injecting body cavities, automating the seam-sealing process on the production line, upgrading the door hinges and adopting framed doors for a tighter seal.

The front and rear crumple zones were also worked on to provide better protection in head and rear-end impacts.

Significant work went into refining the all-independent suspension, increasing the travel to give a more comfortable ride, stiffening the front stabiliser bar and replacing the front suspension member to increase body stiffness and reduce road noise.

The Neon has been fiddled dimensionally, too, making it taller and longer than before and adding extra millimetres to the interior.

What has not really changed is the drivetrain - although the engine has been tweaked slightly so it sounds better, as well as pumping out fractionally more torque at lower rpm.

The disappointing carry-over is the three-speed automatic transmission that has been an ongoing shortcoming in the Neon. It simply does not do the car justice, tending to obscure its good points. Much better to go for the five-speed manual.

And that is where we began our acquaintance with Chrysler's new baby.

The test car was a manual transmission LE - the better-equipped version and priced around $2000 above the base SE.

For the money, the LE buyer gets in addition to the SE's dual airbags and air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, traction control, remote central locking with alarm and a leather-rimmed steering wheel.

On the road the manual Neon does indeed feel nicely refined, validating Chrysler's refinement claims with its quiet progress at highway speeds and a general feeling of competence and compliance in the suspension. The car certainly feels comparable with its competition, although it is maybe not as nimble as a Holden Astra.

The 2.0-litre engine works nicely with the five-speed manual, showing plenty of mid-range as well as a willingness to spin out to the red line without feeling breathless. This is another instance where the engineers have done a good job refining the car's basic qualities.

The gearbox itself shifts nicely although to some it is a bit heavy in action.

The ratios are well chosen, if a little wide in the one-two shift, and match with the torque characteristics of the engine to give the manual Neon an almost sporty character.

The steering, once again on the heavy side to some, is quite communicative and points the car accurately without resorting too quickly to front-drive understeer. The four-wheel disc anti-lock braking system adds an extra measure of security.

The Neon's ride is generally very good, although there is some suggestion of choppiness at low speeds.

Wind the Chrysler up a little faster and the ride develops a firm, controlled motion that feels more absorbent than before.

The interior package is pretty good, too, with a general air of quality lacking previously and a good supply of class-competitive legroom.

The redesigned seats are comfortable with more lateral support and plenty of fore-aft travel. Combined with the height-adjustable steering column, this helps drivers find a comfortable seating position.

The boot is relatively large, augmented by a split-fold rear seat, and the spare tyre is now full-size rather than a spacer-saver as in the previous model.

The interior ambience is improved over the previous car with a new instrument panel sporting white-faced dials, better quality plastics and a new steering wheel with a glitzy Chrysler badge. Some found the switchgear to be slightly haphazard in arrangement - for example the location of the headlight aimer (good feature) at the bottom of the centre console - but generally the little Chrysler rates well ergonomically.

The doors offer easier access and extra shoulder and hip room subtly improves the feeling of space. This is enhanced by the deep, deep instrument panel reaching out to the cab-forward screen.

A cruise control would have been nice and it was a surprise to see no CD player makes its way into even the top-level Neon. And power windows are only used on the front doors.

But the PL2000 Neon is unquestionably a very competitive small-car entrant, noticeably more refined than before and not bad value either.

It has good looks on its side as well as effective packaging. The Neon's only problem is that three-speed automatic.

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