Weekend Edition: On the Chrysler Neon

It’s not only the Lumina and Cavalier I’ve had on my mind recently. Unlike the Cavalier, the Chrysler Neon was sold here officially, and as a result the low end of the Finnish used car market is plentiful, if not flooded with cheap Neons. They are worth nothing here, which means you can pick up a road-legal one for 500 euros. If you want a clean one, you can buy one for 500 euros. If you want to spend more money, you can buy one for 1500 euros. You get the picture: there are Neons available, no-one cares about them, and no-one really cares how much money they will make by selling their Neon and no longer having to worry about anything related to Neons.
This is exactly why I want to get in on the game.

For some time now, the Neon has been enjoying some sort of small-scale resurrection. Lately, Regular Car Reviews wrote a favourable piece on them, and some time earlier I’ve read a number of articles that do not completely condemn them. There’s use for the Neon as a track weapon, which probably would horrify any Neon-driving grandma that has given the little, round-eyed car the attention it has deserved over the years.
It seems there are two kinds of Neons: horrible rolling turdboxes that people wish they had never bought, and in turn, perfectly serviceable little cars that haven’t given much trouble during their tenure. That seems to match the perception I have of Fiat Unos: either they started rusting badly and falling apart on the day of delivery, or they provided decades of cheap trundling along to the store. And a Neon isn’t too far removed from what a small Fiat is supposed to be, meaning cheap transport with a friendly image.
The other thing about a Neon is that they are light, small and there’s a 133-horsepower two-litre engine in them. We only really got the SOHC, and none of the sportier DOHC models. Some Dodge and Plymouth Neons have made it here in later years, but predominantly the Neon was a Chrysler for everybody.
Then there was the problem that the automatic cost no extra, and as a result almost everyone went for them despite there being three speeds. The box was derived from the unit in the Omnihorizon, which sort of serves them right. I would go for the manual for obvious reasons, but the automatic cars are sometimes temptingly cheap. Then again, sorting the issue where the trans cooler ingests coolant is probably more expensive than just finding a neat manual car to begin with.
For starters, I don’t hate the Neon’s image. I’m a sucker for a simple, light car, and the Neon manages to look like a not-boring Toyota Corolla, except a little bendier in the middle. That also means the two-door looks a little ungainly, but the four-door is quite fine. Both have frameless windows, remember; it seems like they had to do something to divert attention away from not doing sliding suicide doors like on the 1991 concept.
The earlier the Neon, the better: it simply has to have the two-tone wheel trims, with the darker grey hub part, and unpainted bumpers are a plus. There’s something about the purity of the concept that got diluted year after year, the more finesse Chrysler tried to inject into the Neon. The second generation looks misguided to me, proving that the Neon is one of the rare cars that got worse by being improved.

The Toyota Corolla: like a fat, boring Neon.

What would I do with a clean, manual Neon that hasn’t developed terminal rust or munched the head gasket yet? I would happily try to unearth the driver’s car underneath, the one with the low centre of gravity and no aversion to revving to 6000 rpm. Surely a few suspension improvements would be well placed, and with good tires and pre-emptive maintenance I could squeeze a good time or two out of the car. The interior isn’t much to speak of, but it got worse in the long run. The steering wheel in the second generation car is dreadfully old hat compared to the “eh, it’ll do” perforated tiller on the initial cars.
I don’t think about buying a Neon like one thinks of future classics, thinking they’d appreciate in value. It’s the time to buy one just because they are still available. The scrap heap beckons, and if you want one of the most 1990s cars there are – meaning that in a good way – just break out your piggy bank. For 500 euros, I have belief in this small Chrysler.

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  1. nanoop Avatar

    I didn’t know these were 140+ horses until recently. The one that’s around here is dark green with a black front bumper and very sad frog eyes…
    I hope you all got one stored away already, they will go up in perceived value soon (that’s for the 2-door though): http://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/a26465/regular-car-reviews-dodge-neon/

  2. CraigSu Avatar

    My best friend bought a Neon ACR back in the late 90s that was both his DD and autocross car (after installing a removable rollcage). He gave it to his daughter as her DD when she got her license.

  3. cronn Avatar

    The reason we got Neons (and cloud cars, Cherokees, Voyagers, and later Calibers and 300C:s) is that unlike GM and Ford, Mopar didn’t have any European offerings. For example. it didn’t make sense to market the Cavalier here because we already had the Opel Ascona and Vectra. Chrysler did try to establish a presence in Europe back in the 70s, but we all know what came of that. So Neon and Voyager it was, then. And they actually did a fairly good job, too. Especially with the Voyager.
    Of course, GM did try their luck in the 00’s with cheap Chevy-badged econoboxes from Korea. Reasonably priced cars for normal people, just like Chevrolet of Detroit, really. The problem was that everyone in Europe associated Chevrolet with V8 sedans, wagons and plush conversion vans. Not 1.2 liter shopping carts.
    But I digress. As always.

    1. duurtlang Avatar

      I believe your analysis for the presence of cars like the Neon in Europe is correct. I don’t agree about your analysis of Chevrolet though. People in Europe didn’t think about V8s, they thought about Deawoo. Mostly because that’s what those cars were initially. Then, when GM moved Deawoo-Chevy upmarket from horrible shitbox to slightly below mainstream they moved in the way of Opel(/Vauxhall). Having a dealership offer both a Cruze and an Astra for almost the same amount of money makes very little sense.
      Back to the Neon. I haven’t really kept track properlu, but my perception is that those American cars depreciate horribly here. This is a problem for something where price is a very important sales argument.

      1. cronn Avatar

        Yes, but before we had GM-Daewoo, the word “Chevrolet” pretty much meant caprices and conversion vans to most people.
        For some reason, VAG is doing very well with Skoda evem though it’s a strong VW competitor.

      2. crank_case Avatar

        We might not have gotten Chevrolets officially, but the idea of a “Chevy” has long been part of pop culture. To a European, they meant the car in that awful Don McLean song that goes on for about 3 years or as Cronn said, imported dayvans/caprices/corvettes. When presented with rebadged Daewoos and calling them “Chevrolets”, no-one was buying it…literally. They even used pictures of people playing American Football in their ads with the slogan “born tough”.. *cringe* ..very hard to see how GM thought this would be a good idea.

  4. Batshitbox Avatar

    Would you call those “Sui-Slide Doors”?
    A manual Neon has been serving my family well for the past couple of years in rusty, salty coastal New England. I think there’s a statistical survivor factor for notoriously crappy cars after a decade or so. All of the real shitcans get disposed of in the first ten years, and the ones that have stood the test of time will probably continue to serve for another decade. These are the cars that, for one reason or another, don’t suffer from the chronic problems of their particular model.

  5. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    buy one, paint it up as a pop tart cat, and call it the “Dodge Nyan”

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Or paint on dark sunglasses and streams of green numbers and call it a Dodge Neo.

  6. MattC Avatar

    This was made in the era where Chrysler styling was promising that Chrysler manufacturing could not deliver. I purchased a 1st Generation Neon Sport (SOHC/5 speed) at launch and loved the punchy engine and the styling that did set itself apart from the competition. However, Chrysler quality was not up to par with its world class design department and my car suffered numerous gremlins (including a spectacular clutch destruction at 60K mileage. In fact my mechanic had to show me because he had never seen anything like it in a production car. Apparently Chrysler decided to use a composite clutch in these. I and other 1st gen buyers were the beta testers for this).
    My car did not have the paint issues or the head gasket problems (I believe these were more prevalent with the DOHC engine). In short, the 1st Generation neon was a capable chassis hampered but rigorous cost cutting and sketchy quality control.

  7. Lokki Avatar

    I really wanted to believe in the Neon when it first came on the market. Chrysler was on a roll and making a lot of promising and interesting -if not great- vehicles. The Neon seemed like a great idea: a small cheap good handling commuter with plenty of power. Sort of like an American version of a Honda Civic.
    But, as ever with American cars it seems, after a couple of years the flaws became apparent, and as ever with American cars it seems, the flaws stemmed from corporate penny-pinching in important places.
    I was sad….they’d fooled me into having some hope again.

  8. salguod Avatar

    Oddly, the Neon seems to have held value here, at least in Central Ohio. I looked for a cheap Neon for my daughter about a year and a half ago and found none. The sub-$2500 Neons were almost as bad as sub-$2500 Civics – beat to death with well over 200K miles. She ended up with a Protege.

  9. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Far better than your average, bottom feeding economy car. Rather nice in many ways. They even had a rather competitive race series for them.

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