- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but a new generation of hot rodder is taking the automotive performance aftermarket by storm. However, instead of tricking out Chevys and Fords as their dads and grandfathers did (and do), they are dumping thousands of dollars into Honda Civics, Mitsubishi Eclipses, Acura Integras and Subaru WRXs.

The cost of the performance exhaust, lowered suspension and turbocharger bolted on to that Civic with the huge wing rear deck-lid spoiler that just raced by you usually exceeds its price when bought used. And we haven’t even begun discussing racing seats, perforated pedals or enough audio gear to equip a TV news van. Yep, it’s big business all right — in the billions.

Ford, GM and Chrysler are basically on the sidelines in this major automotive movement. Take a turn around a Hot Import Nights event (the tuner scene’s equivalent of a new car show) where these kids pay $45 to put their cars on the show floor for other youths to pay $20 a head to come in and admire them, and you will see an occasional Cavalier, Neon or Focus, but not in any number.

Many manufacturers are just waking up to the fact that today’s tuners who are putting modifications on used Hondas will some day be buying new Hondas. The reality is: To have them as customers later, you’ve got to get them into your vehicles today. This has several automotive manufacturers scrambling.

Dodge is attempting to get ahead of the curve by offering a specialized Neon with a number of typical tuner enhancements built in. They call it the SRT-4, and don’t make the mistake of calling it a Neon in front of Dodge execs. It is not a Neon, they insist. This despite the fact that, well, it is, too, a Neon. If SRT sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also part of the Viper’s nomenclature (SRT-10).

Dodge isn’t alone in this give-them-what-they-want approach. Subaru does it with the WRX, Nissan with the Sentra SE-R Spec V, Mazda with the MazdaSpeed Protege and Ford — to a point — with the Focus SVT. These are all attempts to incorporate some level of extra performance right out of the box — all protected by the factory warranty — while providing a suitable platform for making additional modifications if so desired.

Before the SRT-4, the Neon R/T was the big dog in the Neon lineup. Its version of Neon’s 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine punched out 150 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of peak torque. Hang a turbocharger off that same engine and horsepower is boosted to 215, while peak torque jumps to a whopping 245 foot-pounds.

That’s what’s percolating under the hood of the SRT-4. A five-speed manual transmission connects the engine to the front wheels. To say the SRT-4 is quick is like saying Pavarotti has a good voice. Reaching 60 mph from a standstill takes something in the neighborhood of six seconds.

Torque steer (the tendency to pull hard to the right or left under heavy throttle) is a common problem among high-performance, front-wheel-drive cars.

Not so with the SRT-4. The Dodge engineers have managed to tame the steering to a point where torque steer is merely an annoyance rather than a major event.

Putting all that power into the Neon required beefing up the suspension. While this has rendered the ride a bit more harsh, it insures less drama in cornering. Sticky 17-inch rubber also contributes to the SRT-4’s stability in the turns. Four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock do a fine job of moderating forward motion.

The highlight inside is the Viperlike sport seats. Firm side bolsters keep the driver upright in the curves. The leather-wrapped steering wheel fills the hand like it was specially fitted.

The best part about the SRT-4 is its everyman price. With the delivery charge included, it goes out the door for less than $20,000. If you want to appeal to the heart of the tuner market — males between the ages of 18 and 25 — give them a sport compact with horsepower and an affordable price tag.

The SRT-4 does both.

Base price of the Dodge SRT-4 is $19,480. Standard features not yet listed include tilt steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers, air conditioning, CD player, remote keyless entry system, power windows, power trunk lid release, dual power outboard mirrors and bright dual exhaust tips. Adding the delivery charge brings the total price to $19,995.

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