Finnish Line: Extracting the full potential of the Chrysler Neon

I don’t just want to buy a Neon. I require one. Like with my earlier posts featuring mostly unloved cars, there’s solid reasoning behind this realization.

I’ve done the Baltic Press Rally a few times now, and part of the excitement is arriving in Latvia or Lithuania in a total underdog car and then doing better on the handling tracks and parking lot autocross stages than anyone, including me, expects. That means not being last, by the way. But I also don’t want to repeat myself, so doing the rally in the same car twice or thrice is out of the question. I’ve also sold the 205 I drove in 2018 and the Fiat Panda I used for this year’s rally, so I need to buy something for 2020. A purchase price of way less than a grand is preferred – those two cost just a few hundred each.

This is where the Chrysler Neon enters the picture. Yes, it was called the Chrysler Neon here, not Dodge or Plymouth – Chrysler’s European arm probably figured it was a better bet just to sell everything, including the Viper, as a Chrysler.

The Neon is now worthless and offers more than 130 horsepower in a barely-over-1000kg package. That alone sells the car to me. Add the very-‘90s exterior and interior design that not a lot of people love and I’m already shaking your hand. Remind me that the Neon did very well in autocross in its day and I’m practically signing the title.

Of course, the Neon’s motorsport activities were usually left to the ACR models, which benefitted from a shorter ratio gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes and some other improvements like a quicker steering rack and better suspension. Depending of the model year and number of doors, there was also an available 150-horsepower DOHC engine instead of the SOHC 133-hp unit. The ACR was never shipped to this side of the pond, and the only Euro Neon near it is the CS, which only really adds the quicker gearbox but also includes useless luxury like a leather interior. But the base Neon already has a lot of good stuff, like the aforementioned two-liter 16-valve engine with over 130hp, and rear discs can be added from a junked 2nd generation car.

Speaking of the 2nd gen, I really don’t like it. Most Neons anyone ever sees here are the newer cars, without frameless door windows and without the classic mid-‘90s radness. The Neon was ruined when it was improved: I want it light, simple and raw, like it was the American Samara. And it absolutely has to be manual, as most of them have the awful three-speed automatic gearbox thanks to it being a no-cost option and the sole point of choosing a Neon over anything else on the market, if you were looking for an automatic car. Manuals are rare, as out of the 50 currently-listed used Finnish Neons five are manual.

So far, I’ve looked at two manual Neons around here. The other one is a 170,000 km 1995 with unpainted bumpers and Strawberry Red paint and the bubble-style wheel trims. It looks launch-spec, and the details make it closer to the original concept. While it has been re-welded and it’s far from mint, I’m still thinking it might be a little too nice to race in the Baltics, and it belongs to a little old lady that might want the car go to a good home.

The other Neon, a white 1998 with 228,000 km has sat at a parking lot in my town for four years and while it doesn’t seem to have rotted too badly, it obviously isn’t road legal at this point and a complete assessment of its abilities has to be made before a purchase is considered. Immediately visible problems include a completely rotten fuel tank filler pipe, which will need to be sourced from the U.S, and as the battery wasn’t present I couldn’t verify if the car actually runs. It also has the weaker 1.8-liter engine, meaning there’s a 20-horse deficit: still good, but not optimal. However, the full white exterior makes it visually closer to the ACR cars and adds at least 50% more motorsport cool. But while the white car probably costs just a couple hundred, tops, it’s best to presume it’s very needy.

Perhaps the ideal Neon would be something from between these two: an early car that’s road legal and has the 2.0-liter motor, but one that’s not too nice to drive in a sporting fashion with little mechanical sympathy. I’d ideally add 15-inch, six-spoke wheels from a second gen Prius to be able to have very light 5×100 wheels to further enhance the handling and to be able to use some semi-slick tires I already have, but those particular wheels are not easy to find here and they also need the center hole re-bored to 57,1 instead of 54,1. VAG wheels already match the Neon’s specs including the center hole, but they are usually heavier. I also don’t want to pay very much for wheels I might kerb at the Baltic autocross tracks. Heck, part of the idea of going with a cheap rally beater is that I can just pocket the plates and walk home if the car eats its head gasket somewhere near Kurpalaukis.

I’ll have time until May 2020 to come up with a good, but not too good Neon. Let’s hope the right one comes along at the right price by next spring.

[Images: Chrysler/Antti Kautonen]

18 Comments

  1. It may be a regional thing, but I haven’t seen a first gen Neon around here (Texas) in years. Ultra-cheap used cars typically enter a value death spiral and no one has any inclination to keep them alive.

    1. A potential warrior’s death is a good aka honourable home?

      Could only see 4 Neons for sale in Australia, all 2000-2001, one manual, ranging from pretty trashed to one with just 59,000km. As neight428 observed, I don’t think many first gen cars are still on the road.

      1. If a car can’t take a little tire wadding auto-x, then it probably wasn’t a good enough car anyway.

        I’m sad to hear that you all in OZ were subject to the Neon at all. My local area had lots of them up until about 5 years ago, then they’ve all but vanished from the road, Craigslist, etc.

        1. “I’m sad to hear that you all in OZ were subject to the Neon”

          I am not that sad – buying one was voluntary, after all.

  2. I also have always had a fondness for the original Neon. I don’t have any extended experience with one, but I did put 1200 miles on one over three days so I got lots of concentrated wheel time. I liked it. Like neight428, I’m in Texas where rust isn’t an issue. This – generally- means that old cars live a long and happy life until the sun crumbles the plastic pieces into dust, the engine repairs are more than the value of the car, or the A/C fails.

    However a glance at Craigslist only shows four cars, one SRT-4 “6500obo$$$ clean title it’s set up for big turbo… which has fallen into the clutches of a bad child, and three “granny’s last car” (God, rest her); all second gen and ranging from $1K to $2K, all 90,000 miles or so, and all automatics.

    Because of the way my mind works, I wonder if you could score some nice performance parts cheap, by calling around to see if somebody wants to clear them off the shelf…. there used to be a ton of stuff for them.

  3. I also have always had a fondness for the original Neon. I don’t have any extended experience with one, but I did put 1200 miles on one over three days so I got lots of concentrated wheel time. I liked it. Like neight428, I’m in Texas where rust isn’t an issue. This – generally- means that old cars live a long and happy life until the sun crumbles the plastic pieces into dust, the engine repairs are more than the value of the car, or the A/C fails.

    However a glance at Craigslist only shows four cars, one SRT-4 “6500obo$$$ clean title it’s set up for big turbo… which has fallen into the clutches of a bad child, and three “granny’s last car” (God, rest her); all second gen and ranging from $1K to $2K, all 90,000 miles or so, and all automatics.

    Because of the way my mind works, I wonder if you could score some nice performance parts cheap, by calling around to see if somebody wants to clear them off the shelf…. there used to be a ton of stuff for them.

  4. Neons are all-around decent cars except for their execrable crashworthiness, which makes them risky for anything not involving orange comes and parking lots.
    Probably be able to pick up a nice 4-inch exhaust tip for not much money.

  5. I’ve got a set of second generation Prius wheels I’d sell to you. I used them for snow tires on my 2007 Prius Touring. Of course, shipping from Ohio is likely costly.

  6. Gen1 Neons are great little cars. One of the few old beaters I’d actually want to own.

    I remember working at a rental counter in 1993-94 when our first Neons were delivered. They were so far beyond the crappy Dodge Shadows we also had in our fleet at the time, not to mention the ’92 Mercury Topaz I was driving at the time, I thought seriously of buying a 5-speed Neon. But a killer deal on a leftover ST1100 quickly sucked up whatever money I had or could borrow.

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