Used Chrysler Neon review: 1996-1999
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When the last Valiant left the production line in 1980 few believed they’d ever see another Chrysler take to the local roads. It was something of a surprise when Chrysler returned to these shores with a small passenger car in 1996.
While the last remaining Valiant enthusiasts cheered Chrysler’s return, perhaps hoping for a new Valiant, the Neon was anything but a modern remake of their old favourite.
This American import was a well equipped, keenly priced small front-wheel drive sedan with a mission to take on the heavyweights in the small car class rather than the big two from Holden and Ford.
Chrysler initially launched two Neon models, the entry level SE and the more highly featured LX.
Standard equipment on the SE, which could be identified by its grey plastic bumpers, included air-conditioning, central locking, and dual airbags, while the three-speed auto trans could be had for no extra cost over the standard five-speed manual ’box.
The LX, distinguished by its body coloured bumpers and mirrors, also had ABS, power front windows and a better sound system. There was no choice when it came to the gearbox, the auto was the only ’box on the specifications list.
With its American styling the Neon stood out in a market that was dominated at that time by Japanese and Korean models like the Nissan Pulsar, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 323, and Hyundai Lantra.
Wheels were placed close to the corners, which meant the Neon had a long wheelbase and that created a cab-forward layout that translated into a roomy interior. Front seat occupants had the sort of room you’d normally get in a larger Ford Mondeo or Mazda 626, although tall people sitting in the rear seat found themselves a little cramped when the sloping roof ate into their head room.
The boot was smallish, but there was a 60/40 split-fold rear seat which could be used to increase the available volume and accept larger or odd shaped bits and pieces of luggage or cargo.
Power was from a 2.0-litre single overhead camshaft, 16-valve engine that had fuel-injection and produced 98 kW at a relatively high 5850 rpm. Top torque was 174 Nm.
Reflecting its US parentage the main transmission choice was a three-speed auto, which put the Neon at a disadvantage against the opposition which all boasted more modern four-speed autos, but there was a five-speed manual available on the base SE model.
On the road the manual trans was nicely matched to the engine and drove quite nicely, but the auto was less refined, a little noisy and sluggish when compared to its rivals fitted with a four-speeder.
When pressed the Neon’s 2.0-litre engine became a little breathless and the noise levels increase markedly, but at cruise on the open road it’s quite acceptable.
Fuel consumption figures recorded on road tests of the time showed that the auto Neon was thirstier than its rivals, no doubt because with the three-speed auto it had to be driven harder to keep up with the traffic.
Being American the Neon was designed to be left-hand drive, with the right-hand drive conversion less of a priority for its makers. When it came to be reengineered for right-hand drive markets there were one or two compromises that wouldn’t appear on a car designed from the outset as a right drive model.
Most obvious is the positioning of the radio antenna on the right front guard. The mere presence of an antenna in 1996 was unusual, but its placement within the view of the driver was an annoying distraction.
The Neon was something of a wild card among small cars. It was relatively unknown here, but anyone who cared to check found that it was popular in its home country, and its blend of affordability and a long list of standard features made it a tempting proposition.
IN THE SHOP
Build quality was an issue from the beginning with the Neon. There was no doubt that the American build quality was of a lower standard than that coming from Japanese factories at the time, panel fit and paint was closer to what was coming from Korean companies.
Even so the Neon gave little trouble in the field, no doubt because it was built to withstand the rough and tough conditions cars have to contend with in the US where they have to endure extremes on heat and cold, as well as rough, sometimes salted, roads.
Owners report they have had few problems with the Neon; those they have reported are relatively minor ones that can be attributed to build quality rather than major design flaws.
Check for a service record to ensure a recognised service agent has done all servicing, and give it a thorough look over for bumps and scrapes, and the obvious signs of crash damage.
Judy Hardy has since done 90,000 km travelling to many parts of the country in the 1997 Chrysler Neon she bought new. Apart from regular servicing she has only had to have one set of disc pads fitted in that time. She says she saw the Neon when on a visit to the US when she was taken by the style and the quality, and she says it has lived up to her expectations.
Sharne Scott says her Neon has been a stylish and comfortable medium sized car. Apart from the rear indicator sockets rusting very soon after purchase, and the battery never lasting more than two years, it has given little trouble. She says the engine is smooth and easy to drive, the air-con works very well, and the stereo sound is very good.
• lack of performance with three-speed automatic trans
• poor fuel consumption from 2.0-litre engine
• average build quality
• compromises with right-hand drive conversion
• harsh ride with American suspension settings
• little trouble with mechanics
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