By: Michael Cooney
Dodge’s Neon SXT is a nicely packaged compact four-door that is small on the outside (same length as a Honda Civic) yet is surprisingly roomy inside. Not only that, when you stoop down in front of the car and look directly into the nose, it looks downright sporty with its smoothly flowing, sensuous curves. Those suggestive lines and clean profile make the Neon more attractive than many of its price competitors.
The Neon pecking order begins with the base SE, followed by the SXT reviewed here. Top Dog is the 230-horsepower SRT-4, a seriously fast, furious and fun turbocharged sports sedan, only available with a manual transmission.
Choose the SXT and you’ll enjoy standard AM/FM/CD, air conditioning, power front windows, tachometer, keyless remote including trunk release, speed-sensitive auto locking, and 15-inch aluminum wheels. You can also choose between a 5-speed stick and optional 4-speed automatic. Among Neons, the SXT is the best bet for those desiring an easy-to-get-around-in small car while still keeping a nice level of amenities and a low sticker price. Inside you’ll find plenty of what counts most. The various control switches, levers and buttons were logical and easy to use. Only the turn signal stalk felt somewhat rough and unrefined when moved up and down. SXT seats are covered in a quality cloth material that felt good to the touch. Worth noting, the front seats provided excellent lower back support and were quite comfortable for the two times I drove 90 minutes straight. Rear seat head and legroom were good for a compact.
Driving the Neon SXT was enjoyable thanks to its well-controlled suspension and nimble road manners. Forty miles on winding mountain roads proved the SXT to be a capable handler blessed with good grip from its 185/60x15 radials, accurate steering response and an excellent compromise between cornering ability and ride comfort. In a practical sense, that boils down to less stressful, more enjoyable driving.
On coarse pavement or rain-grooved cement freeways, moderate tire-generated road noise enters the cabin but it’s not objectionable and certainly within class norms.
Equipped with a 2.0-Liter SOHC engine producing 132 horsepower and 130 lb.-ft. of torque, acceleration is fine for most needs and you’ll find smooth response down low in the rev range. My 5-speed test unit pulled away cleanly from as little as 1,500 rpm in top gear. Even so, don’t expect more rapid acceleration until the tach needle moves north of 4,000 rpm. That said, acceleration still beats most of its price competitors like Honda’s Civic and Nissan’s Sentra, thanks to 0-60 times under nine seconds with the 5-speed stick.
The 2005 Neon SXT carries a base price of $15,530 including destination fee and after deducting the SXT Package Discount. This tester’s sticker totaled $15,930 and included the optional Sport Appearance Group, “Orange Blast” Pearl Coat paint and rear spoiler. A 3/36 overall warranty and 7/70 powertrain warranty are included.
With 5-speed stick, it is EPA-rated at 29-city, 36-highway mpg. My week of driving on freeways, city streets and mountain roads gave me a respectable 30.1 mpg.
Compact cars are by their very nature a carefully balanced compromise of competing attributes. Power versus fuel economy. Handling responsiveness versus ride comfort. Cost versus creature comforts. Often, driving fun gets lost in the calculations. The Neon SXT is not luxurious, but it is comfortable. It handles crisply, and delivers both decent acceleration and good economy.
Above all, the SXT’s designers and engineers found a way to build a compact car that delivers what you want in an economical package, yet still remains pleasing to look at and fun to drive. When shopping economy compacts, it deserves a spot on your “let’s go see” list.