Back in high school there was a kid that entered the building on the first day of Freshman year as a likeable guy with a promising future. Over the course of four years this kid changed into a punk with an aversion to authority, the latter of which led to his expulsion a month short of graduation.
The Dodge Neon began production in 1994 and its production ended recently on September 23, 2005. It also entered the automotive scene as a likeable car with a promising future and was expelled last month as a punk with an attitude.
We've saved all of the yearbooks from the Neon's formative years, so let's see how the friendly Freshman we met in 1994 became the wild Senior that was just escorted from the building.
(1990 Dodge Neon Concept)
Before the Neon began its formative years, it spent a lot of time traveling with its parent company around the auto show circuit. The 1990 Dodge Neon Concept was a pleasant little sedan with an arched roofline and an open-top roof, as well as four doors that slid opened parallel to the car creating an appearance of four minivan-like sliding doors. It had two adorable round headlamps and four "bubble" wheels that made everyone go "Aww... that's cute."
(1995 Dodge Neon)
The 1995 Dodge Neon had so much potential when it was introduced in 1994 with a simple "Hi." Many people thought it would quickly rise to the head of the class over its Asian peers who always seemed to have the right answers. In its first year the Neon sold 245,000 units, its popularity due mostly to its agreeable nature and powerful 2.0L SOHC base engine that produced a class leading 132 hp. A DOHC version producing 150 hp was added as an option in the Sport Coupe model in 1995, which led many to believe that the Neon would be good at motorsports.
(1996 Dodge Neon Sport)
Hoping to make friends early on the Neon immediately joined the (race) track team and was offered in Competition or ACR trim. The first year the Neon Competition/ACR was sold only as a race-ready sedan with the SOHC engine (sans roll-cage) to people who held an SCCA membership. After that first batch, the Competition/ACR was also made available as a coupe with the DOHC engine and both models were offered to the general public. The little racer showed up to meets wearing much stiffer adjustable struts along with heavier wheel hubs, though neither an automatic transmission nor ABS were ever options. The Neon Competition/ACR became a national champion almost immediately and amassed a trophy case full of awards in various motorsports during its career.
A well-rounded pupil
(1997 Dodge Neon Highline)
By 1998 the Neon had become a model student with many facets to its small car personality. Institutions of higher driving were surely interested in a small car that had worn so many hats at such a young age. By this time there had been Highline, Expresso, Sport and Competition/ACR models, which ensured everyone could find something to like about the Neon. That year, however, a model was introduced that represented the culmination of the Neon's career thus far: the Neon R/T. Set apart with distinctive skunk stripes, the R/T combined some of the athletic prowess of the Competition/ACR models with the convenience features of the Sport package. The R/T was only available with the larger DOHC engine and had a suspension stiff enough to raise eyebrows but with just enough compliance to make it a pleasure to be around on a daily basis.
(1998 Dodge Neon R/T)
The big change
(World Premiere of 2000 Dodge Neon)
At some point during this tumultuous time of a young car's life a change occurs. For the Neon it happened in 2000, the summer before its Junior year. It was hardly recognizable when it rolled into class on that first day of school. A growth spurt had robbed the Neon of its taut, compact body. Compounding its extra girth, the Neon had become a bit lazy and wandered the halls with only its 132-hp SOHC 2.0L under hood. What had made the Neon so disarming and loveable before was its amiable expression, which had now become unfamiliar, even alien to the car's many friends. Friends and family staged an intervention before Christmas break in an attempt to remind the Neon what had made it so likeable.
(2000 Dodge Neon)
(2001 Dodge Neon ACR)
We all know how the story ends, but before its expulsion the Neon did get some professional help and the endearing personality of the original was revived for a short time. Between 2001-2002 it resumed many of the activities it had abandoned, showing up each day wearing SE, ES, R/T, SXT and ACR (shown) badges. In 2003 it wore a new face that attempted to combine the innocence of its youth with a more macho image. The Neon also began working out again and the strength of 150 hp returned with a new SOHC powerplant that employed a dual runner intake manifold.
As with many young cars today, however, the stress of competition forced the Neon to take on more than it could handle. Those who cared for the Neon saw it heading down a dead-end road.
During its Senior year the Neon began hanging around an unsavory crowd of tuners that spent its time smoking tires on the street. The car developed an identity crisis, refusing at times to be called Neon and adopting the foreboding alphanumeric nomenclature "SRT-4". It had developed an addiction to force-fed air, which allowed its new 2.4L four-cylinder to develop unnatural amounts of power (215 and eventually 230 hp) and a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds. The car was going nowhere fast. The SRT-4, as it demanded to be called, became a bully that routinely beat up on other small cars more refined and mature than it. Perhaps to their child's detriment, the SRT-4's parents, Daimler and Chrysler, turned a blind eye to the car's activities and let it run wild.
(2003 Dodge SRT-4)
The end of the road
(2005 Dodge Neon SXT)
The Neon began its career with so much promise and potential, at times achieving more than what many thought it would ever be capable. Daimler and Chrysler to this day wonder if there was something they could have done to prevent the Neon's demise. Should they have paid it more attention, given its development a larger allowance, or perhaps allowed it to benefit more from the fruit of their marriage? Answering these questions will do nothing to bring the Neon back. The wayward auto hasn't been seen since its expulsion on September 23rd and we fear it may never be seen again. At least it left on high-note, the SRT-4 being the beastliest sport compact sold to date.
Special thanks to www.allpar.com for much of the Neon history that appears in this post.