The last few years has witnessed the re-emergence of the hot compact market. I still recall the first time around. VW created this segment in the early 1980s when it introduced a performance-tuned version of its Rabbit, tagged the GTI. The GTI sold well and generated considerably positive buzz for the VW brand.
In the auto industry as elsewhere, its rarely a bad strategy to copy someone elses successful idea. Soon every compact car manufacturer had its own performance model. Chrysler back then couldnt hope to compete on finesse, so it sought to overwhelm the others with sheer horsepower. First it introduced the Omni GLHthe last bit an acronym for Goes Like Hell. The GLHs 2.2-liter was merely competitive in terms of horsepower, but easily led the segment in low-end grunt. But Dodge didnt stop there. It later introduced a GLH Turbo which was by a significant margin the quickest hot hatch you could buy. Sure, the GLH Turbo was as cheaply outfitted as any Omni, the driving position was godawful, and it rode like a cement truck on the 15-inch low profile tires of the day, but if your top priority was acceleration, this was your car.
The hot compact segment never entirely went away. Most compact car manufacturers continued to offer sport versions. But the buzz certainly died down as attention shifted to hotter areas of the market, most notably SUVs.
Then, owing to no action on the part of manufacturers, compacts became the hot thing again. A tuner subculture emerged out in California. Members used aftermarket-supplied parts to alter the powertrains and styling of their compact cars, most commonly Honda Civics. Noticing this culture, manufacturers decided to get back into the high-performance compact market in a big way. They wanted a slice of the profits heading the aftermarkets way, and they didnt want Honda to latch onto these young buyers for life. Many of these new sport compacts appeared in the 2002 model year.
This time around has been a little different. The 1980s and 1990s hot compacts were usually three-door hatches. Those of the current wave are more often four-door sedans, though a few hatches remain. Even the hatches often have five doors rather than three, though.
Generally these hot compacts are powered by four-cylinder engines producing between 160 and 175 horsepower. The Ford Focus SVT, MazdaSpeed Protégé (and more recently the new Mazda3s), Honda Civic Si, MINI Cooper S, and Nissan Sentra SE-R engines all fall within this range.
To break through the clutter, and make up for appearing a year later than most of the others, Dodge took a leaf from its 1980s playbook. The Neon SRT-4 is not only powered by one of the largest engines in the class, a 2.4-liter rather than the 2.0 in the regular Neon, but this engine is turbocharged. For 2004 it produces 230 horsepower, at a very accessible 5300 RPM, and an even more impressive 250 pounds-feet of torque, at a right there 2200 RPM. In comparison, the Focus SVT engine produces 170 horsepower at 7000 RPM and 145 pounds-feet of torque at 5500 RPM. In terms of straight-line acceleration Dodge clearly has no intention of fighting fair. Only the Subaru WRXs 2.0-liter turbo comes close, with 217 horsepower and 217 pounds-feet of torque. And that engine is hooked up to a significantly heavier car (due to the standard all-wheel-drive).
Sadly, the Dodge did not resuscitate the GLH moniker. Just not classy enough?
I meant to drive the SRT-4 when it first appeared nearly a year ago. But waiting a year didnt hurt. Not only did the engine gain a few extra horses, but a limited-slip differential was fitted to help get all that power to the ground. This car has been winning magazine comparison tests, and as a fan of compact cars I couldnt wait to see whether these wins were based on more than a powerful engine. Well, a few days ago I finally got my hands on one.
Dodge Neon SRT-4 Reliability
Want better reliability information? Want to really know what difference it will make if you buy a Neon SRT-4 rather than something else? It's coming in the form of "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats. With these scores, you'll be able to more precisely compare two vehicles' reliability. You might learn that your first choice, compared to your second choice, is likely to make 2.7 extra trips to the shop in its first five years. You might decide its advantages compensate for this, or you might not. Either way, you'll be able to make a much better informed decision.
To gain access to this information you have a choice: sign up to help provide the data now or
pay $24.95 later. For the details, visit my website, www.truedelta.com.
My standard format has me discussing the worst bits first. The first generation Neon, though saddled with a poorly executed rear end, generally had a sharp look to it when fitted with decent wheels. It was cute, but with a spunky edge. Front fenders that resembled those on a Porsche 911 from some angles didnt hurt.
Well, when the Neon was redesigned for 2000 Chrysler took what little edge the old sheetmetal had out. The new sleeker metal was not even as cute as before. More just anonymous jellybean. Add the SRT-4s substantial spoilers, including a wing on the trunk, and the effect borders on comical. The car just doesnt look right.
Inside the interior is mostly stock Neon, with the notable exception of the seats. Modeled on those of the Viper, the combination cloth/leather seats are very heavily bolstered. As in the regular Neon, this interior is styled much like that on the average compact, with little in the way of character. Materials are on the cheap side. I vastly prefer the interior in my Mazda Protege5, and that in the new Mazda3 looks far better still. A Focus SVT is more stylish inside, though that will soon change with the Focuss 2005 refreshing (which in addition to a more blah interior will also put an end to the SVT).
The Neon SRT-4 doesnt get much better in this section. Unlike many other reviewers I like the heavily bolstered seats. Id like bolsters like these in my car, or at least something in between them and what I have. Youll certainly never have to plant an elbow against the door or hand onto the shifter to keep yourself put in hard turns.
If you really dont like the seats then order the optional side airbags. This replaces the standard seat with a less aggressive one from the Neon R/T (and youll even get a $50 credit to help offset the $390 price of the bags).
My problem lay with the driving position. The seat is not adjustable for height or rake, and its raked pretty far in its fixed position. Id have liked a bit less thigh support up front. Also, the wheel felt to close relative to the pedals. Between these two issues, I could not find a comfortable driving position. In the Neons favor, the instrument panel is fairly low, and the view out fairly expansive.
When the Neon was first introduced in 1995 it set new standards for rear seat room in a compact. Well, in the years since the competition has caught up, and then some. Theres still a decent amount of legroom back there, and adequate headroom for adults my size (5-9) and under. But the cushion is mounted low to the floor to provide decent headroom in combination with the arced roofline. The rear seat in a Ford Focus or Toyota corolla is more comfortable. (The rear seat in the Mazda Protegé was also better, but that in the 3 is a bit short on legroom.)
The Neons trunk at 13 cubic feet is among the largest in the class. The rear seat folds for even more cargo volume.
On the Road
Now for the bit that matters for most people considering the Neon SRT-4. Yep, its very quick. Floor it, shift at the redline, floor it again (yielding a brief chirp from both front tires) and youre at sixty in a couple of blinks. Partly owing to the engines large displacement for a compact, boost lag is minimal. Surprisingly, torque steer is also very moderate, certainly far less than in a Nissan SE-R Spec V. The new differential might have helped. Even powering out of turns was far less eventful than in the typical high-powered front-drive car. Good job here.
Engine noise levels when cruising arent bad, and even close to the redline the turbo 2.4 remains reasonably smooth. (Credit the balance shafts.) But then you let off the gas, and the exhaust drones like you wouldnt believe. If I didnt know better, Id think there was an exhaust leak. I felt like a juvenile whenever I lifted off the gas.
The same basic engine in the PT Cruiser doesnt do this, so it seems the SRT-4 version makes ten more horses via a more open exhaust. Personally, Id give up the ten horses to avoid disturbing the peace every other minute. I drive a Protege5 and though 36 with three kids dont feel out of place doing so. I felt out of place driving the SRT-4. Maybe they could make a quieter exhaust an option?
I was none too enamored with the stick shift, either. Its a long throw, light effort affair. Shorter throws and a more precise feel would be welcome. Id also like a knob that fits the hand better than the small ball used.
Update: A short-throw shifter is available from Chrysler (Mopar) for about $100 plus labor. Assuming it's good, this kit should be standard on the car. But at least it's not too difficult or expensive to fix this flaw. Now for the exhaust...
This powertrain is reasonably economical: the EPA ratings of 22/30 are good for a 230-horsepower car. The ratings for the 170-horsepower Focus are actually a bit lower.
The SRT-4s handling is good, but not great. The car doesnt lean much in turns, and generally feels well planted. But the moderately heavy steering could provide more feedback, and responses could be quicker. The car doesnt feel as agile or tossable as I expect a sport compact to. A Focus, Mazda3, or MINI easily does better in this regard. Probably the Honda Civic Si as well, though I havent driven that car. A Subaru WRX handles similarly, so part of the problem is likely weight. At 2880 pounds, its a far cry from the 2340-pound 1995 Neon. However, a Focus SVT is nearly as heavy at 2750 pounds. So suspension and geometry and tuning is as much to blame. Also, too often manufacturers upgrade the suspension for a performance model but do much less with the steering.
Ride quality is better than I expected. In this respect the SRT-4 is no GLH. The ride is moderately busy, but at least up to the average for this sort of car. Definitely much less of an issue than that exhaust note. Noise levels aside from that exhaust are moderate.
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com
. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta
algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass
The following is from when the review was originally written:
A $695 sunroof brought the list of the car I drove to $21,690. (Other options include a $795 sound system and the aforementioned airbags.) Edmunds claims these cars sell at sticker. However, the dealer I visited had three SRT-4s in stock, and they seemed open to dealing. Its possible that demand has cooled a bit just recently and Edmunds has yet to catch up. I figure you should be able to get at least a few hundred off. An even $21,000 doesnt seem far-fetched.
So, how much are the SRT bits costing you? With leather and sunroofand a standard CD changera 150-horsepower Neon R/T lists for $19,400. By this metric the SRT-4 costs a very reasonable $2,290 extra. However, the discount on the R/T is likely larger, and a $3,000 rebate is available. Add it up, and Edmunds suggests you could have this car for about $15,300. At six grand the SRT-4 stuff seems a bit pricey.
The Ford Focus SVT is not nearly as quick as the Dodge but is a more well-rounded package. With sunroof it lists for $20,470, but a $2,500 rebate drops this to $17,970. And despite what Edmunds suggests, I think you should be able to get a hundred off from the dealer. At about $3,700 under the Neon, I think its the better buy for all but the most torque hungry.
Those who care about torque above all else might also like the Sentra SE-R, though I avoid recommending it because of very high levels of torque steer. With the sunroof and airbags/ABS package, the Nissan lists for $19,260. The typical discount and a $2,000 rebate drop this to about $16,200. Among hot compacts, the Nissan tends to be the cheapest. (Unless you count the 140-horsepower Hyundai Elantra GT. I dont.)
I was recently impressed by the seats, steering, and shifter in the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. And its engine wasnt bad, either. The styling of the Lancer doesnt do much for me, but if youre interested in the Neon youre already overlooking this area anyway. With the sunroof, which pulls an upgraded sound system with it in a $1,400 package (so to be absolutely fair add about $500 to the others here), the Ralliart sedan lists for $19,972. After the typical discount and a $1,500 rebate the price is about $17,200. Id readily pay a grand more for the Mitsubishi vs. the Nissan. Against the others here its more of a judgement call. The Lancer excels in the above-mentioned areas, but the Focus has better styling inside and out and feels like a more complete package.
Also good for torque, but in a more luxurious, more refined package, is the 200-horsepower Jetta GLI. The Jetta does not corner as flatly as the others here, but is fun to drive nonetheless. Its main weakness: a very poor reliability record. With sunroof and Monsoon stereo, the GLI lists for $25,025. (Add another $650 for leather.) The typical discount reduces the price to about $23,500. A more powerful Jetta is on the horizon, but the price will no doubt be higher. The current one is already pricey, but those who prioritize refinement--and who feel lucky with regard to reliabilitywill be happiest either here or in the Mazda3.
The Mazda3 has an unexpectedly upscale feel to it, but until a MazdaSpeed version arrives isnt as highly tuned as the others here. With the moonroof and ABS packages the 3 hatch lists for $19,105. Leather adds another $590. Edmunds suggests only minor discounting so far, though I find this hard to believe.
Finally, the closest turbocharged competitor is the Subaru WRX. Even a base WRX lists for $25,170. The typical discount and a $750 rebate take this down to about $22,700. If you want a sunroof, pony up another two grand for the "premium package that also includes heated seats and a spoilier. Want 17-inch wheels to match the Neon? You cant get them straight from the factory, so theyll cost you dearly. Against the WRX the SRT-4 seems very reasonably priced, even allowing the usual $1,750 for the Subarus all-wheel-drive. The main difference: an adult isnt too far out of place in the Subaru. And I could find a comfortable driving position in one.
Overall, the SRT-4s price occupies a place all its own between the 170-horse competition on the low end and the WRX and GLI on the high end. In my opinion this price is only justified for those whose top priority is horsepower. Others will be better off in a less extreme, more well-rounded machine.
The magazine reviews had led me to expect a well-rounded machine out of the SRT-4. Maybe its because they expected even less refinement than it offers. Sure, its better in this regard than the GLH of yore. But compared to a Focus SVT or Imprezza WRX it seems a very juvenile effort. The Nissan comes closest in character, though the Neon thankfully lacks the Spec V's massive torque steer despite its far greater torque.
As it stands, the Neon SRT-4 is only suitable for a narrow audience. For broader appeal, or at least to appeal to me, it needs better styling, a more adjustable driving position, and a less boomy exhaust. A more precise, shorter throw shifter would also be nice.
To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, visit www.truedelta.com.
My reviews of related vehicles:
Ford Focus SVT
Hyundai Elantra GT
MINI Cooper S
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Nissan Sentra SE-R
Subaru WRX STi
VW Jetta GLI
Amount Paid (US$):
Model and Options: