2003 Dodge Neon
MSRP
$17,180
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2003 Dodge Neon Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Practical, affordable and fun to drive.

Introduction

Dodge Neon is practical and fun to drive. Neon features a roomy interior and is available at an affordable price. The new Neon SXT model retails for $15,410 (including destination charge) and comes loaded with the features most buyers want in a compact car. 

All Neons get a fresh look for 2003 with new front and rear fascias, headlamps and taillamps, and a new line of wheels. 

The new Dodge SRT-4 boasts an all-new 2.4-liter turbocharged engine rated 215 horsepower. Dodge claims it's the quickest production vehicle sold in America for less than $20,000. The 2003 Dodge SRT-4 comes with a high-performance suspension, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, a heavy-duty gearbox, and 17-inch performance tires. 

Lineup

The 2003 Dodge Neon lineup consists of the base SE, the sensibly equipped SXT, the sporty R/T, and the new high-performance SRT-4. All are four-door sedans. 

SE ($12,585) is the base Neon for 2003 and it is basic. SE does not come standard with air conditioning ($1000), side-impact airbags ($390), or four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes ($695). It comes with new Millennium cloth seats for 2003, folding back seats that are split 60/40, AM/FM/cassette with four speakers, and vanity mirrors. It has wind-up windows, manual door locks, and 14-inch tires on steel wheels. There's no tachometer, no keyless remote. Floor mats ($50) are optional. Mirrors and bodyside moldings are black. AM/FM/CD ($125) is available. Power features are available as optional equipment. 

SXT ($14,895) adds air conditioning, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, power windows, power door locks (with speed-sensitive automatic locking), keyless remote, power mirrors, power trunk lid release, full instrumentation, map lights, 15-inch aluminum wheels, bodyside molding, body-color door handles. A trunk lid spoiler is a no-cost option. A power sunroof ($695) is optional. A six-disc in-dash CD changer ($300) is optional. An SXT sport appearance group ($150) includes fog lamps, a body-colored center stack, and Euro-style 15-inch aluminum wheels. 

SE and SXT come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated 132 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic transmission ($825) is optional. Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard. Antilock four-wheel disc brakes (ABS) are optional ($695) and come with electronic brake proportioning. We highly recommend opting for ABS as it allows the driver to maintain steering control in a panic-braking situation. Cruise control ($235) is optional. 

R/T ($16,735) is designed to be fun to drive. It comes with a 150-horsepower High-Output Magnum version of the 2.0-liter engine, plus a sport suspension, P195/50R16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels, firm-feel power steering, four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and traction control, performance-tuned exhaust with bright dual tips, unique front and rear fascia, fog lights, rear spoiler, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The six-disc in-dash CD is standard, interior lighting is upgraded and there's a trunk light. A leather interior ($715) is optional and comes with compass and outside temperature readouts on the rearview mirror. The power sunroof is also available. 

SRT-4 ($19,995) features the turbocharged 2.4-liter engine, heavy-duty five-speed manual, 17-inch alloy wheels with 50-series tires, high-performance suspension, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, sport seats, special interior and exterior trim. (The ACR Neon has been discontinued.)

LATCH child safety-seat anchor system, an emergency inside release for the trunk lid, and child-protection door locks are standard on all 2003 Neons. Seat-mounted supplemental side air bags ($390) are optional (a smart option, but they don't provide the head protection of a curtain system). Three-point seat belts are provided for all three rear-seat positions. 

Walkaround

Dodge Neon maintains its cab-forward design and ovoid headlamps, but new front and rear fascia give it a freshened appearance for 2003. 

The new front fascia features a more integrated, more organic design. The upper grille has been enlarged, giving the Neon a cleaner, more aggressive, more contemporary appearance. The lower grille is more subtle, yet sportier. The redesigned front bumper better integrates the available fog lamps. 

A new rear spoiler is attached at the ends, giving it a more integrated appearance than the previous wing. Last year's spoiler looked more like an aftermarket wing that had been tacked on. New exterior door handles, bodyside moldings and other detail work freshen the Neon. All models get new wheel designs. 

SRT-4's grille is an inverted version of the Neon grille. Just behind the lower grille sits a cast-aluminum intercooler; Dodge left it visible in keeping with the car's intent. A functional hood scoop and unique integrated fog lamps give it an aggressive look. The tall rear basket-handle spoiler is designed to look outrageous and it succeeds. Sill-mounted ground effects give it the look of a sport compact car. Big tires fill the wheel well openings. Special wheels are designed to channel air to the brakes to help keep them cool. 

Neon's long wheelbase and wide track contribute to its roomy interior, smooth ride quality and high-speed stability. Full-frame doors reduce wind noise and create a tight seal. The current Neon has a more rigid body structure than first-generation models, which results in a smoother, quieter, more controlled ride. 

Interior

Dodge Neon features a roomy cabin, with generous front hip room. The driver sits high, for good visibility. Neon's front-seat space is comparable for the class. It has a bit more leg room than a Honda Civic sedan, a bit more headroom than a Chevrolet Cavalier. Neon SXT's new rear spoiler restricts rearward vision down low, but not unduly. 

SXT's seats are quite comfortable, cushy and supportive. The side bolsters on the seat seemed a bit soft, but felt fine while driving. The new cloth trim feels good and looks like it will hold up well. Vinyl trim on the front edges of the seats gives them a nicely finished look and feel. 

Dash and door trim are made of a premium material that is soft to the touch, providing an attractive appearance and feel and lacking the plastic look of many compacts. Map lights are mounted on the rear-view mirror, generally not the best location as your co-driver may accidentally adjust your mirror when using the light switch. Switchgear is easy to use and works well, though the turn signal stalk on our 2003 SXT wasn't smooth. The stereo sounded mediocre. Having to press a button to get the key out of the ignition slot seems like an unnecessarily annoying extra step. An appearance package with body-colored center dash added a sporty accent to our yellow SXT. 

Back-seat passengers benefit from the large interior. It's not a bad place to spend short-to-medium-length trips. Rear-seat roominess is about average for the class. 

The trunk is reasonably large, about average for the class. Gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space, but afford a relatively large trunk opening. Liftover height is on the high side. The rear seat splits 60/40 and folds down for carrying additional cargo. 

SRT-4 comes with special interior trim, including a satin-silver center stack, shift knob and door handles. SRT-4 seats are modeled after those in the Dodge Viper with enhanced lumbar and lateral sections for better support when cornering. Agate-colored cloth is designed to grip the driver. Cast aluminum pedals look like those seen in racecars. A turbo boost/vacuum gauge sits to the right of the instrument cluster, underneath the dash brow. 

Driving Impression

Dodge Neon rides well, handles well, and the standard engine delivers good acceleration performance. It doesn't lead the class in refinement, however. It doesn't ride as smoothly nor is it as quiet as, say, a Toyota Corolla. 

Neon's single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter engine delivers decent power. It lacks power down low in the rev range, however. Step on it while cruising at 3000 rpm and it slowly gathers speed. There's a small rush of power that starts somewhere around 4000 rpm, but there isn't great gobs of it. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, which makes it quicker than many more-expensive compacts, including Honda Civic LX, Mazda Protege LX, or Nissan Sentra GXE. New motor mounts for 2003 are designed to reduce noise. Still, the 2.0-liter engine is relatively unrefined and its boomy and raucous behavior is transmitted into the cabin. 

The manual gearbox works well, but shifting is clunky. Manual transmissions have a revised fifth-gear ratio for 2003 designed to improve fuel efficiency on the highway. 

Automatic transmissions on 2003 models have been recalibrated for improved driveability, and a new, more elaborate electronic controller should provide better communication between engine and automatic transmission. 

The suspension does a good job of balancing ride quality and handling agility. The Neon is fun to drive on winding roads, offering good response in transient (left, right, left) maneuvers. The suspension does a good job of preventing the car from bottoming on dips, reducing the need to slow way down. When we hit a sharp dip at a neighborhood intersection, the Neon's suspension was soft enough to absorb the harshness of the dip, yet it was firm enough and had enough travel to avoid bottoming. The front of the Neon did not scrape on this dip, a place where many cars before have scraped. Its fully independent strut-type suspension is designed for high ground clearance and long jounce travel. This improves ride quality while decreasing the chance of bottoming under heavy loads. Soft springs and premium shocks contribute to Neon's ride quality. 

The brakes that come standard on the SE and SXT work well. They stop the car quickly and are stable under hard braking. Neon stops more quickly than many of the other cars in its class. We recommend the optional four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Whether the roads are slippery or dry, the antilock brake system helps drivers maintain steering control in panic braking situations. The disc brakes that come on the R/T model work well and the pedal feels good. Disc brakes are (in theory) less likely to fade out on mountain roads than are the standard rear drum brakes. The ABS option also includes traction control, which helps the driver maintain control when accelerating on slippery surfaces. 

The R/T model is more fun to drive than the SE and SXT. Handling response is much crisper, and the engine is more responsive. Ride quality is acceptable. The steering is quicker with a 16:1 steering box replacing the standard 18:1 ratio. And the R/T's increased horsepower is achieved without sacrificing fuel economy. 

SRT-4's turbocharged engine develops 205 hp. It delivers 220 lbs.-ft. of torque from 2000 to 4800 rpm and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.9 seconds, according to Dodge. The car was developed with input from Dodge engineers who spend their weekends road racing with the Sports Car Club of America. Big brakes stop the SRT-4 in 120 feet, according to Dodge. 

Summary

Dodge Neon offers good value in a compact sedan. It's roomy and comfortable. It's smoother and quieter than pre-2000 Neon models, but is not at the top of the class in terms of refinement. 

The SE model's sticker is temptingly low, but remember that air conditioning, antilock brakes, power door locks, remote keyless entry, power windows and other conveniences we now take for granted are all extra-cost options. SXT is a good value because it comes well equipped. 

The sporty and fun-to-drive R/T offers more fun with heightened levels of performance, while the SRT-4 delivers even higher levels of performance. 

Model Lineup

SE ($12,585); SXT ($14,895); R/T ($16,735); SRT-4 ($19,995). 

Assembled In

Belvedere, Illinois. 

Options As Tested

spoiler (no cost); sport appearance group ($150) includes body-color center stack, fog lamps, special aluminum wheels. 

Model Tested

SXT ($14,895). 

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