Car reviews - Chrysler - Neon - range
Offbeat styling, gutsy 2.0 engine
Room for improvement
Quality not up to Japanese standards
25 Jul 2003
CHRYSLER launched the American-made Neon 15 years after the last Chrysler - the legendary Valiant - was sold in Australia in 1981.
In Chrysler's halcyon days of the 1970s, Australians could choose from the Centura, Charger, Valiant or Regal, as well as the Mitsubishi-designed Galant, Lancer, Sigma and Scorpion.
By 1980 the runaway success of the Sigma, dwindling Valiant sales and the Chrysler US financial crisis led to Mitsubishi taking over local operations. Chrysler Australia was dead. Fast forward to 1996. The American Neon's launch on July 4, 1996, was meant to light the way for a dazzling Chrysler comeback.
But sales have been disappointing which is a little perplexing considering the Neon is a very good small car.
For a start, the packaging is excellent. The fresh cab-forward design and long wheelbase mean there is an impressive amount of space inside, rivalling even some medium cars.
Tall back seat passengers can happily sit behind tall front passengers while three can sit abreast in the back in comfort.
Only rear headroom suffers due to the acutely angled rear window.
Boot space is good considering the Neon's pert tail. The load enlarging split/fold rear seat facility is welcome.
Too bad the seats themselves are not. The cushions can seem a little flat and unsupportive after a long stint while the elevated rear bench puts you even closer to that hot glass.
Another gripe is that the rear windows wind down only a third of the way. Claustrophobics beware.
So it is a good thing even the entry level Neon SE comes standard with air-conditioning. There are also twin front airbags, central locking and power steering while the luxury LX adds anti-lock brakes, power windows and a better sound system.
The Neon's slightly off-beat interior has long been criticised for using cheap, shiny, hard plastics.
While not up to Japanese standards of quality, used Neons have hard-wearing fittings with no record of rattles or pieces falling off.
The cabin scores points with comprehensive instrumentation, a headlight beam adjustor, extendable sun visors, retractable exterior mirrors at a touch of a button and deep windows affording panoramic front and side views.
But smaller drivers will rue the stylish high tail that obstructs rear vision. The lack of a seat height-adjuster only exacerbates this problem.
Driving the Neon may eliminate some misconceptions about American cars.
The sporty Neon is a fun, safe handler with direct, well-weighted steering. The independent suspension all-round provides flat, unfussed cornering while the ride is firm but comfortable. And the brakes are fine.
The Neon's lusty 98kW, single overhead camshaft, 16-valve, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine provides excellent performance.
With plenty of torque on tap and only 1100kg to haul, the zippy Neon can really hustle along, although it does become a little noisy when pushed hard.
The sky-high fifth gear ratio means Neon cruises quietly on the highways and returns pleasing fuel economy figures.
The standard five-speed manual has a delightfully light and slick change and is another feather in the Neon's cap.
But an archaic three-speed automatic transmission definitely is not, meeting buyer resistance despite mating well with the engine's broad power and torque bands.
Chrysler says the three-speed auto is used for longevity and ease of maintenance we say it is to save money. Remembering that Neons are still newcomers to our roads, the cheeky little Chrysler has proved robust and reliable.
Nevertheless, Neons may suffer some coolant loss that could lead to head gasket failure. Premature ball-joint wear and cracked engine mounts may afflict abused, high-usage Neons and ignition wires can wear easily.
A sound service record is recommended, along with a thorough mechanical check-up.
The release of an all-new Neon in the second half of 1999 will inevitably soften values of the Series 1 models.
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