From the November 1995 issue of Car and Driver.
You should know that many of us at Car and Driver look upon two-door sedans with the same affection we have for one-wing airplanes. Take two doors off a perfectly good four-door and what do you get? Two bigger, heavier doors, diminished rear-seat access, and, uh…oh yes: you never, ever have to suffer the indignity of anyone calling you “sensible.”
In the Dodge Neon’s case, the door-ectomy even spoils the car’s endearing shape. The airy greenhouse has been choked by fat C-pillars, and the body looks somehow less inspired and original.
So we admit to feeling some philosophical bias against the latest Neon Sport coupe even before driving it. Not that we fault Chrysler for building the car: for many Generation Xers, having a two door is as essential to lofty social standing as drinking Zima liquid and bobbing to Snoop Doggy Dogg videos. But for now at least, if you want the latest double-overhead-cam version of the Neon’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder, you can get it only in the two-door Sport coupe.
The notion of a twin-cam Neon certainly has appeal. After all, the single-cam, 132-hp Neon Sport four-door won our last econocar shootout (June 1994) and ranks as one of our favorite all-around small cars. With the twin-cam’s added power, we figured the Neon might become a real scorcher for enthusiasts on a budget—maybe even a successor to the discontinued Nissan Sentra SE-R.
In some ways, the coupe delivers on that potential. This is one muscular little car: the twin-cam four produce 18 hp more than the single-cam version, for a total of 150 horsepower from just 2.0 liters. That’s major-league specific output. Indeed, on that score the Chrysler twin-cam betters even the Quad 4 in the coming Chevy Cavalier Z24/Pontiac Sunfire GT, which itself is no slouch with 150 hp from 2.3 liters.
In the Sport coupe’s 2524-pound package, 150 horsepower produces front-of-the-class performance. Fitted with the standard manual five-speed, the Neon coupe nails the 0-to-60-mph run in a mere 7.6 seconds, compared with 8.9 seconds for the Sunfire GT (currently offered only with an automatic). Indeed, the Neon Sport coupe is just two-tenths shy of our old benchmark, the Sentra SE-R.
Yet the twin-cam Neon is barely a step ahead of its single-cam sibling, which even with its power deficit still reaches 60 mph in just 7.9 seconds. In the quarter-mile, the difference is even smaller: the twin-cam Neon trips the lights in 16.0 seconds at 89 mph, and the single-cammer does it in 16.2 seconds at 86. Frankly, given the DOHC car’s 18-hp advantage over the SOHC edition (with only a 32-pound weight gain) and its shorter (3.94:1) final-drive ratio, we expected a bigger performance boost.
Normally we wouldn’t harp on this—after all, any performance hike is usually an improvement—but the Sport coupe’s minor gains in swiftness come with some not-so-minor penalties.
For instance, because the twin-cam’s power peak is higher than the single cam’s—6800 rpm versus 6000—Sport coupe drivers will spend even more time gunning the engine toward the top of the tach. And more revs mean even more engine noise than the already loud single-cam Neon makes. Full-throttle acceleration in the twin-cammer produces 83 dBA of cockpit din (the Sunfire GT, in contrast, registers a relatively unobtrusive 77 dBA under full boot).
An outspoken engine is not necessarily a flaw in a sporty car—we actually applauded the 83-dBA shriek from the Acura Integra GS-R. But in the Sport coupe’s case, the engine screams not “sexy sports sedan,” but “International Harvester.” It’s a coarse, undistinguished tone that discourages runs to the 7000-rpm redline. On long highway cruises, the twin-cam’s drone can rankle the nerves more than a full two hours of “Good Morning America.”
Around town, the single-cam engine actually has an edge. Its torque peak of 129 pound-feet is just 2 pound-feet shy of the twin-cam’s, but it comes at 5000 rpm—more relaxed than 5600 with the twin-cam engine. With the single-cam engine, you get about the same response for less noise.
There’s probably a fuel penalty with the twin-cam, too. The EPA lists the same mileage figures for both engines, but during our test drive we measured 27 mpg with the twin-cam car, versus 29 mpg with our last Neon four-door.
In other respects, the coupe is the rewarding enthusiast-mobile we had hoped it might be. The stiffer shocks and springs fitted to the Sport coupe firm up the ride to the point that non-enthusiasts might object, but those who place a priority on handling response will like the setup. The Sport coupe whirls around the skidpad at up to 0.82 g, and the chassis has a “can-do” feel that encourages charging into turns. You never worry that you’re beating up a small car that wasn’t intended for brisk driving.
To tame its added energy, the Sport coupe adds rear discs to its ABS (the four door has rear drums). Yet this car’s stopping distance from 70 mph (207 feet) was longer than that of the four-door, probably due to inadequately bedded-in brakes in our low-mileage test car. Neon virtues shared by both cars include a superb smooth-action shifter, steering that is light in effort without being numb, attractive shapes and textures throughout the cabin, and a split rear seat that folds down to give the little Neon substantial cargo capacity.
The absence of the two rear doors forces rear passengers to perform a few acrobatics on the way to their seats, but the room back there is surprisingly sufficient. In fact, the specifications indicate that the two-door has more rear-seat space than the four-door (in practice, the difference is not that noticeable). Chrysler deserves credit for not throwing out usable cabin volume with the rear doors.
At $15,155 well equipped—A/C, cassette stereo, ABS, dual airbags, cruise control, power locks (but no power windows)—the Neon Sport coupe delivers a laudable return on the dollar. But there’s an even better value out there. The Neon Sport four-door is quieter, nearly as quick, and offers a more passenger-friendly package. Plus, its base price undercuts the Neon Sport coupe’s by more than $1000.
Just tell your trendy friends that two-door sedans are as dead as the grunge look anyway.
Two-door buyers know who they are—avoiders of four-doors, which they associate with sensible shoes, squalling brats, and falling hair, in ascending order of dread. So they will choose this Neon with its peculiar roof shaped like a batter’s helmet, its contortionist’s entry to the back seat, and its blocked vision to the rear corners, just so no one will lump them into the category of the terminally uncool. I like the way this car’s pedals let me heel-and-toe, and the way its driver’s bucket hugs my torso on the fun roads. But just two doors? Nah, I’m not one of them. —Patrick Bedard
You’ve got to like this little teddy bear of a car, what with its big eyes and cuddly curves. But I wonder if it isn’t just too, too cute for a middle-aged guy who flunked sensitivity training. I like some edge to my cars, a bit of attitude: less Little Red Riding Hood and more Big Bad Wolf. Perhaps Chrysler would consider a version of this car that says “Don’t tread on me” instead of “Hi.” Something low and nasty with big tires, fender flares, a suspension package, and a snarl instead of a smile. Bye. —Fred M.H. Gregory
Accusing the Sport coupe of noisiness is like calling Roseanne obnoxious: it’s part of the act. This is a hairy little beast, with punchy power, playful and balanced handling, crisp steering, and prominent seat bolsters. It’s not as refined as the recently retired Nissan Sentra SE-R, but it doesn’t suffer the SE-R’s straight-arrow styling, either. For budget-bound speed demons, there’s a lot to like in this Neon. Oh, and about that noise: once in a while, my eardrums seem to detect a hint of Weber-carbureted, throaty Italian four cylinder in its full-throttle bark. I could get used to that. —Don Schroeder
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