- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

CHELSEA — In Europe, the Neon, which is sold there as a Chrysler, was no sales success. That was the reason for DaimlerChrysler to withdraw the model from the European markets. Not many Europeans are familiar with the looks of a Neon, but should they rent a compact car in North America there is a good chance to get acquainted with Chrysler’s compact car.

About two years ago, Chrysler realized that it did not offer a model in the segment of fast compact cars that are especially popular with the young generation.

So the Neon was sent to the garage of Chrysler’s Performance Vehicle Operations that was also responsible for the Viper SRT-10.

In January 2002, at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Dodge introduced the Neon SRT-4 concept car and made it clear that, if the reactions of the public were positive, this version was going to be built.

Now it is ready and I recently had the opportunity to climb behind the steering wheel.

I was especially curious as I had had a rare experience with the Neon years ago. In 1994 Chrysler started the Neon Challenge, a race series for celebrities with a race license to promote the new car and I had the honor of being invited to drive in the race in Detroit. It was fun, especially because everything was done to make the race memorable, not only for the public, but also for the drivers.

Although the front-wheel-drive, 138-horsepower Neon could not be called a dream of a race car, we had a nice event. The series lasted more than seven years.

The new Neon SRT-4 is equipped with the 2.4-liter engine from the PT Cruiser GT. It has 230 horsepower and 460 foot-pounds of torque at 2200-to-4400 rpm and cooperates with a new heavy-duty five-speed stick shift. A limited slip differential is standard.

As soon as it is started, the SRT-4 reveals its potential with the sound of its exhaust. Under normal driving conditions the suspension of the SRT-4 feels very tight, but that has its advantages when you have to handle a series of fast, tight corners. A really sporty character, practically no body roll (how different from my first Neon drive) and a willing engine make the SRT-4 a fun and fast car.

Its looks do not deny its character. The front bumper air dam, the hood scoop, the large rear spoiler, the 17-inch wheels with low 205/50 rubber and the red Brembo brakes indicate that the SRT-4 wants to run with the fast pack.

Although Chrysler may prefer the Neon be known as Dodge SRT-4, you cannot deny a Neon feeling when you settle behind the steering wheel. The interior is completely standard, with the exception of the gauges connected to the left A-pillar and on the right side of the instrument panel.

No wonder, as the price had to be affordable to be able to match the competitors in its class — Ford Focus SVT and Honda Civic Si. With a price of just below $20,000 this Neon SRT-4 should be able to do just that.

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