Props to The Dodge Boys for their steadfast refusal to give up on the Neon. Its original incarnation was a googly-eyed flexible flyer, with sharp handling and a willing (if coarse) drivetrain. The sports sedan earned plenty of praise for its sensibly-priced enthusiasts' appeal and cheeky looks– at least until its predilection for rattling to bits revealed itself. Predictably, over the last couple of years, the Neon's glow has been eventually eclipsed by newer, sharper, faster, better-built competitors.
And yet, here it is, in full SRT-4 regalia, slathered in Orange Pearl Blast paint.
Endangered it is; subtle it ain't. From its Hannibal Lecter mug to the St. Louis Arch spanning its trunk, the SRT-4 packs more wingtips and spats than Fred Astaire's closet. Unfortunately, the car's tallish stance and four-door format belie its boy-racer posturing. Still, if the sports sedan cognoscenti can see beyond the Subaru WRX's sober roofline, perhaps we should do the same.
Inside, the SRT-4's chairs immediately signal the car's sporting intent. The heavily-bolstered seats pinch more ass than a frat boy brimming with Red Bull and vodka. Once you've removed all items from you pockets (lest they impale places you don't want to be impaled), a quick scan of your surroundings reveals predictable acreages of discount resins. Fortunately, unlike its airport-rental brethren, the SRT-4 houses a battery of expensive-looking white-faced gauges and a surfeit of passable carbon-with-a-'k' trim.
Turn the key and the Neon's 2.4L four-pot barks to life. Blip the throttle and the twin exhausts unleash a suitably bold statement of accelerative purpose. The Neon owes its new voice to modifications provided by Dodge's PVO (Performance Vehicle Operations) division. The SRT-4's muffler-free exhausts are more than aggressive enough to leave Meineke's pipemonkeys slack-jawed with mandrel-bent mouths.
Depress the leftmost pedal, slot the recalcitrant gearbox into first, dial-up the revs and gird your loins. When the SRT-4's Autometer boost gauge swings skywards, dump the clutch. The turbocharged "Don't-Call-Me-Neon" launches with astounding conviction– especially for a front-driver. Needles blur in an amphetamine rush, gear changes arrive earlier than expected and the car just GOES. A bit of torque steer presents itself, but reasonable technique and decent tarmac will keep the 17" tires in contact with the pavement long enough to rocket you forward with serious authority.
The SRT-4 proved sufficiently rapid that I felt obliged to crack the beast's faux-vented hood, just to verify that PVO didn't secret away a couple of extra cylinders or a flask of laughing gas. That, and to make sure the engine hadn't reduced itself to a pile of metallic shavings, as you might expect of a Neon brandishing 230 (conservatively-rated) horses and 250 ft. lbs. of twist. Nope. Some ticking, a little hissing… but no expensive entrails.
Throw the SRT-4 into some kinks and its humble front-drive origins make themselves immediately apparent. Too much foot time on the Neon's accelerator through a corner and its nose will quickly wash-out (as front-drivers are wont to do), propelling serious players straight into out-of-bounds territory. Pitch the SRT-4 into a bend with care and skill, and the little sports sedan remains game more than long enough to justify the kung-fu grip seats. Credit the addition of a Quaife limited-slip differential; the improved setup creates a remarkable degree of handling fluency that first-year examples sorely lacked.
That said, the SRT-4's steering remains a passion buzzkill. With all that gumption processed through the front wheels, it's hard to criticize the helm for lack of feel… but not impossible. A bit more starch would inspire drier palms AND a lot more adrenalin. On the positive side, Dodge uprates the anchors to compensate for the steroid injection. Strong and fade-free, they've got the goods.
Beyond sheer accelerative power, the SRT-4's solidity is its biggest accomplishment. Despite the fast Neon's graying, prosaic roots, PVO's quarter(mile) pounder rarely feels like a drivetrain in search of a chassis. In fact, the baby Viper may remind the seasoned enthusiast of Dodge's Shelby-massaged efforts of the Eighties (Omni GLH and Shadow CSX, etc.), only with a dollop more refinement and a thumpin' stereo.
As expected, when pottering about town, the SRT-4's exhaust drone and octopus-suction chairs can wear. The giant wing makes rear visibility a not-so-funny joke, easily concealing an overstuffed mommymobile late for Cub Scouts. Clearly, the Dodge SRT-4 is a sharp piece bound and gagged by commuting chores, far happier tilting at drag strip Christmas trees or charging round one's favorite twisties, calipers aglow.
At just $21k, the SRT-4 is stupidly quick with a veneer of civility and practicality just thick enough to convince spouses that it's family-friendly. Perhaps DCX' plan to replace the Neon with an upright demi-wagon is more of a shame than originally thought.