By on April 22, 2009

Mike writes:

I just thought I’d pass on an ongoing good/bad incident. First the bad: my wife’s 2003 Neon went into the dealer with a mysterious problem that they have determined requires replacement of the cylinder head. In a dramatic departure from my usual luck, the car is still under the 7/70 warranty so the expense will be small.

However the factory has informed them that they do not have a replacement. They are now checking with other dealers. Given that the Neon sold in numbers that Chrysler can only dream about attaining now, I cannot imagine this bodes well for anyone who bought a current Chrysler product.

Now the good news: the dealer loaned us a 2008 Versa to drive while we wait. This happens to be one of the vehicles on my list to replace my 1997 Escort mule when the time comes, so I welcomed the chance for a thorough test drive. So far, I’m favorably impressed. I would like to buy locally, so my options are limited to the domestics, Nissan and Toyota. This combined with my preference for a hatchback or small station wagon limits me to a Versa or a Vibe/Matrix (yes, I’m aware of the Caliber; see above). If the part search continues I may try to wrangle a Vibe for a test.

Sajeev answers:

The implied question here: WTF is up with Chrysler’s supply chain?  Neon head gasket failures are common; our very own Jack Baruth (a Neon ACR geek) confirmed the interweb’s numerous incidents. Considering the collateral damage from a poorly designed gasket, it’s no surprise that the cylinder head can crack or warp. But the Neon wasn’t a niche product with unique parts that’ll collect dust on the shelf.

To be fair, Mike’s query was written in mid-March. So I contacted a local Chrysler dealer yesterday. They did not stock the head nor did anyone else in Houston, but they could get it from the factory in three to four business days. So at least the cylinder head does exist outside of the salvage yard, at least on someone’s computer terminal. But is this a case of Chrysler’s supply chain strategically reducing inventory to minimize financial burdens?

And will Mike’s old Escort be superseded by a Versa or Vibe in the not too distant future?

Bonus! A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom

Maybe the Neon should leave before the Escort. If inventory is this irregular for the massively-popular Neon, I shudder to think of the post bankruptcy backfires when the (proposed) federally-backed warranties come into play. Not to mention the entirely-theoretical warehousing nightmare of keeping FIAT parts in this system. Epic, epic fail.

[Send your technical queries to sajeev.mehta@thetruthaboutcars.com]

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32 Comments on “Piston Slap: Neon Nightmare Foreshadows Future Fiatsco...”


  • avatar
    Billy Bobb 2

    Parts routinely go on “backorder”.

    No big whoop.

    Get an ETA on the part and see if they’ll contribute towards a cheap rental since it’s a warranty powertrain repair.

  • avatar
    97escort

    Keep the ’97 Escort. Sell the Neon. Mine has 141K on it and runs fine.

  • avatar
    tced2

    The 800 pound gorilla in the room is the financial situation at Chrysler. This bad situation doesn’t exactly promote good inventories of parts. Relax, the Obama warranty will save you.

  • avatar
    ttacfan

    If you are particularly tall or big, you might want to compare the current Vibe/Matrix with the previous generation (’03-’08, I think) one.

    Last year I’ve traded ’97 Tracer for a ’04 Vibe and I like it a lot. I also looked at Versa, but couldn’t get comfortable behind the sterring wheel without the telescoping steering column.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    2 issues: Keep or dump the Neon and what do you buy next to replace whichever car that needs to go.
    First, the Neon. You only have another year on the warranty. This is no longer a nearly-new car. You need to start thinking in terms of cheap heap. I’m guessing that the Neon is nearly valueless at this stage. You have already sucked up all the depreciation. Another head in your future? First one lasted 6 yrs. Parts are out there, somewhere. Link into a Forum (support group?) and you can keep the Neon going for awhile since the factory warranty issue is a soon-to-be non-factor. To conclude, you can pay moderate repair and maintenance expenses of 1500-2000/yr and be ahead of the expense of a new car. Of course, maybe you just want it to be over between yourself and Chrysler. Then, disregard all of the above.
    What next? What about a 2wd Ford Escape? If not, I would vote for the Matrix. If you are having trouble with a failing automaker’s support,why would you want to get tangled up with Pontiac?

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    Mike, I’d get out from under the Neon while you can. That’s if you haven’t already. You could be facing a parts nightmare if Chrysler goes belly up. Even worse, your Neon may be worth something now, but in the event of a Chrysler meltdown —which seems like the only possibility at this point— its value would plummet to Daewoo levels at which point you’re stuck. Really stuck. In a car that may prove nearly impossible to find parts for, outside your local Pick -n- Pull. If the Escort’s decent, I’d roll with it and find a suc… uh, buyer for the Neon. That’s obviously if the choice were mine. Good luck.

    As for the Versa vs. Vibe, I’ve checked out both and feel like the Versa is 10x the bang for the buck that the Vibe is. Even the “sporty” Vibe isn’t much fun to drive, and the Versa has a much nicer, more useful interior.

  • avatar
    Ronman

    I own a 2000 Neon, and i always thought that the engines the Neons pack are world engines shared with Mitsubishi, Huyndai and a few others in different applications. wouldn’t an item as a head gasket be very available???

    My Neon played nice for up to 5 years, when my shitty driving and its shitty gearbox stopped cooperating. the only problem i had (rather major) was with the timming belt tensioner bearing. it started making a weird noise. my mechanic changed it and the belt at about the same mileage it should have been changed anyway. 30,000Km later, halfway through its life, the replacement bearing failed without giving precautionary noises, the belt snapped, vlaves crashed into the pistons and i had to change the valves, and belt and the freaking tension bearing. all those happened after my guarantee was already out… total cost just shy of $600. the replacement gearbox cost be the same. these are the only two major problems i’ve had with my neon. everything else works well, oh well except the breaks, which makes me think of a question for Piston Slap…. keep in tune

  • avatar
    wobblypete

    I extensively cross-shopped the Vibe/Matrix with the Versa last year and ended up with an 08 Versa SL HB. Love it, and so does my wife. Problem free for 40,000km so far, which is a good start.

    Neither car is really sporty or anything, but the Versa at least doesn’t beep at you every 10 seconds. Seriously, the nanny lights on the Matrix drove me insane.

    Some complaints I’ve heard about the Versa are that the drivers seating position isn’t right for everyone. I can say that the back seat is exceptionally spacious (does cut into trunk room, obviously) and I almost prefer sitting there than in shotgun! I thought the lack of flat folding rear seats was going to be a big problem, but in reality it has been fine – the ledge that they form helps to keep little things from sliding around.

    Anyways, just thought I would pipe in as a happy Versa owner who really wanted to buy a Matrix (I know dozens of people who are very happy with theirs). I just couldn’t stomach the extra money for something that to me had no obvious extra benefit, other than the flat folding rear seats.

    Cheers, and good luck with your decision.

  • avatar
    LastResort

    Valve tap? My neighbor, a reasonably good mechanic, has a 04 or 05 neon that exhibited valve tap but was under warranty. He took it in to the local dealer, Diagnosis: Needs a new bottom end. All arguments were fruitless, a new short block was sourced, and 3 weeks later (similar story on supply), the car didn’t even make it out of the parking lot when he went to pick it up. Diagnosis 2: Needs a new new set of heads. Two weeks later, they pickup the car, and while driving it away from dealership, he notices something wrong. I don’t recall the exact details, but I believe it was leaking transmission fluid, grinding, or whatever. Diagnosis 3: While pulling the motor, they bumped in the input shaft, and damaged the transmission. New transmission.

    So now my neighbor has a Neon with a new everything, and 5 dollar oil changes for life.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    You know, Sajeev raises an excellent point.

    Government program “creep” is always a problem. No program EVER costs less than planned; there’s always a cost overrun, often due to people figuring out how to scam exploit the system; a system that arguably is a scam exploit on We The People.

    So when the government is one day doing warranty work, is it possible that more people will try to line up for “freebies”, thereby putting more pressure on the supply chain?

  • avatar
    qfrog

    Hmm… maybe they were just going to replace the head casting to get more billable hours on the repair order. Swap over all of the valvetrain bits and maybe throw in some valve stem seals etc.

  • avatar

    FWIW, a very recent Motor Trend panned the Matrix. I find the Matrix/Vibe twins offensive, and if you live anywhere in New England, I’d prefer you didn’t put another one of these on the road.

    Did someone mention the Caliber? I hated the Neon until the Caliber came along. The Caliber made the Neon look sort of cute. I mean, the Matrix/Vibe is a styling disaster, but the Caliber looks like a couple of second graders were drawing cars and Dodge tried to build what they drew.

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    David Holzman: “the Caliber looks like a couple of second graders were drawing cars and Dodge tried to build what they drew.”

    That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve ever read regarding the styling disaster known as Caliber. Awesome!

  • avatar
    tedward

    I’m sorry, but the Vibe/Matrix and the Versa are both sub-standard cars. The Toyota twins are overpriced when speced decently and completely blah as a base car, while the Versa has the worst auto transmission I’ve sampled and a pretty awful interior. Almost everything else with a hatchback is better, and if you aren’t ordering a total stripper (not much beats 12k for a Versa), offers better value. The Toyota twins accomplish nothing particularly well while making sure you pay top dollar for it (housemate’s sister owns one, it’s truly embarassing when held up next to my buddies Mazda3).

    The Mazda 3’s are so much better than these two it’s not even close, the Golf likewise, and the Honda Fit is a bit smaller but basically just as big where it counts. I would literally take a stripped out Golf, 3, or Fit over a loaded Matrix or Versa (especially the Mazda3).

  • avatar
    Morea

    FYI, cylinder heads are readily available for all 4 cylinder Fiats sold in America. You could have one on your door step by tomorrow.

  • avatar
    Orian

    own a 2000 Neon, and i always thought that the engines the Neons pack are world engines shared with Mitsubishi, Huyndai and a few others in different applications. wouldn’t an item as a head gasket be very available???

    That engine program is a recent development and the engines from it started going into cars over the last year or two. The Genesis coupe with the Turbo 4 uses a modified version of this engine.

    As long as Hyundai upgraded the catalytic converters they should be long lasting engines – my 2000 Tiburon’s cat died around 70k and so did our Kia Sedona’s (it has the 3.5l Hyundai V6 in it) around 70k.

  • avatar
    NickR

    I guess you could always try Moparchat. There are a lot of people there in the repair/parts business that might be able to help. They’ve been very helpful to me in the past.

  • avatar
    IC Turbo

    @Lastresort: Valves are in the top end, and neons only have 1 head. To me it just sounds like that particular dealer service dept was extremely subpar.

    I’ve never really heard of neon head problems other than those caused by the bad headgaskets (warped) or from timing belts snapping. Neons also had long life timing belts 105k miles, and I haven’ heard of them failing before then unless something else caused it like a bearing or bad water pump. Neon headgasket problems were fixed by mid 98 model year.

    Also, heads are not a common replacement item on any car I’ve heard of, so it comes as no shock that a dealer did not stock one.

  • avatar
    Alex Dykes

    Depending on your time frame, you might want to add the new Kia Forte to your short list.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    The poster does however owe it to himself to check out the Fit and Insight first.

    Of all the small cars (Matrix/Vibe, Versa, etc), I like the Fit the best.

  • avatar
    windswords

    Questions and observations:

    1.) What exactly is this “mysterious problem” that requires a new head? If that’s all the info a dealer would give me I would go somewhere else.

    2.) Many assume the head gasket (thank you ex-GM’er Bob Eaton) is bad, but as someone else says that was fixed a while ago. an excerpt from Allpar:

    “The Neon head gasket seems to typically last about 60,000 miles, at least for 1995-97 models. Calling Chrysler will usually yield a new head gasket for $100 at most, assuming you have less than 100,000 miles on your car (call 800 992 1997)… Dealers are also empowered to do this for free but most will not, because they can charge you much more than they can charge Chrysler.

    Chrysler did introduce a revised head gasket, a metal-layered-sandwhich design. It seems far superior.”
    http://www.allpar.com/fix/headgasket-2.html

    3.) Why not re-build the heads? Maybe the dealer can’t do it, but they can contract out to another shop for it and charge a mark up. So maybe something else is wrong with the heads that are non-repairable and thus require a replacement
    -Or – (puts on conspriacy hat)
    The dealer wants to bill for an entire head because that’s worth more $ to them than sending it out to be rebuilt.

    4.) RE: The Versa – it has the same basic transmission as the Dodge Caliber – a CVT built by Jatco, a subsidiary of Nissan.

    5.) Neons were hated by Daimler. Just hated. They hated the PT Cruiser which was based off the Neon. That’s why the PT never got an update and why the Neon was cast off for the somewhat Mitsu based Caliber. It may be why there are not a lot of extra parts floating around. The Dumbler boys may have ordered Chrysler to not make the normal allotment of replacement parts.

  • avatar
    BobJava

    I drove a 2008 Versa rental for three weeks and put a lot of miles on it. It had about 15k on the clock when I received it.

    I hated the front seats. My back hurt after about 20 minutes in the car. Long trips were painful to a point that I had to stuff a small pillow behind the small of my back. For the record, I’m mid 20s and in good shape.

    The transmission made a weird clicking/tapping noise when it in Drive but at very low speeds or stopped. The transmission once shrieked like a banshee during very normal acceleration (it also searched for gears constantly). The front brakes squeaked (perhaps due to the hard life of a rental, but still). One of the window motors made a weird sound when rolling it up.

    On the other hand it had a very nice ride for a “small” car, but with midsize gas mileage. It was very confident in the rain though and handled pretty well. It felt solid. The rear seat, while spacious, was hard as a rock.

    I had to factor in rental use, but my overall experience and other reliability data on the Versa would lead me straight to the Vibe/Matrix.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Manufacturers rarely do their own cylinder head rebuilding in house anymore, and they rarely stock brand new cylinder heads for discontinued products once any left-over inventory is depleted. It is entirely possible that Chrysler fell far enough behind on payments to the third party re-builder such that the supplier stopped shipping to Chrysler.

    I suspect that aftermarket rebuilt Neon heads are easy to find, but warranty repairs usually require the dealer to source “factory” parts.

  • avatar

    That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve ever read regarding the styling disaster known as Caliber.

    Another styling disaster signed off on by Trevor Creed.

    While Chrysler design had some hits during his tenure (300C, Challenger), and some otherwise solid designs (Charger and the Charger mini-me Avenger) they had some monumental flops. Creed rarely gets mentioned in Chrysler’s decline but the guy signed off on the Caliber, Compass, Sebring, Crossfire, Aspen, Nitro, and Liberty.

  • avatar
    Redbarchetta

    Creed rarely gets mentioned in Chrysler’s decline but the guy signed off on the Caliber, Compass, Sebring, Crossfire, Aspen, Nitro, and Liberty.

    Ouch those are not good things to have plastered on your resume.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    OK, so if Chrysler knows the gaskets are bad, why not recall them and replace them?

    After all, what’s more expensive – a gasket or a new head?

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Alex Dykes :
    April 22nd, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Depending on your time frame, you might want to add the new Kia Forte to your short list.

    I’m sorry, I just can’t think of buying ANY car whose name stands for “Killed In Action”.

  • avatar
    davey49

    “While Chrysler design had some hits during his tenure (300C, Challenger), and some otherwise solid designs (Charger and the Charger mini-me Avenger) they had some monumental flops. Creed rarely gets mentioned in Chrysler’s decline but the guy signed off on the Caliber, Compass, Sebring, Crossfire, Aspen, Nitro, and Liberty.”

    All those cars are at least “designed”
    unlike the blobs from the mass market.

  • avatar
    LastResort

    IC Turbo:

    I realize the valves are in the heads, hence the argument and subsequent return to the Dealer.

  • avatar
    gusplus

    Made Of Plastic And Rust.

    MOPAR!

  • avatar
    TRL

    “While Chrysler design had some hits during his tenure (300C, Challenger), and some otherwise solid designs (Charger and the Charger mini-me Avenger) they had some monumental flops. Creed rarely gets mentioned in Chrysler’s decline but the guy signed off on the Caliber, Compass, Sebring, Crossfire, Aspen, Nitro, and Liberty.”

    Mostly agree but have always liked the look of the Crossfire. It certainly isn’t in real turd looks territory like the Caliber IMO. So last weekend I took a Crossfire Convertible out for a test drive. Right now a low mileage 05/06 is around 15k. That’s right in second car toy pricing for me. I actually thought it was a nice drive for the price but the dashboard is so horrible it could only be driven with a blindfold on. I can’t believe a supposed mid-high end toy like this had a dash center stack covered in nothing but Testor’s finest Silver. I had to check and make sure it wasn’t some AMT edition or something but have discovered it looked this way for the entire model run. What the hell was anyone thinking? I have not paid much attention to Chrysler in years but that dash completely explains why they deserve to go. Daimler was sure an evil step-father.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I have been giving the Chrysler vehicles I see in traffic a really close look lately and have decided that their products aren’t THAT bad…

    The Caliber. Basic shape I really like. It is the chunky details that they added to it that really kills it for me. Looks like a tall Audi wagon plus alot of chunky Lego bits added on. The plain jane hubcaps version really kills the looks. With the aluminum wheels things are much better. Of course that has been a personal problem with most plain jane vehicles – those typically blah hubcaps. Mission accomplished. Make the customer want the better wheels. I would be happier with steel wheels and some decent beauty rings and center caps.

    The Sebring sedan. Again not bad. It’s the details again. The basic shape is not that different from a Maxima or an Accord. It’s the details. Saw one a month ago with aftermarket wheels (~16″ black spokes, polished lip), tinted windows, and the rest was OEM stock. Looked really nice. Was white which says something good. I have a white car and I swear never again do I want a white car. Blah, blah, blah color…

    Spent 5 hours doing a road trip in a base model Dodge RAM pickup. Had rubber floor mats and a/c and the Magnum Hemi engine. Towed a 20 ft trailer. Didn’t spend much time looking at it but the interior wasn’t bad. Seats were fine. Dash was nice enough. Lots of plastic though compared to the Ford F-350 extended van I drove 5 hours down. The engine in the Dodge was really good. The tranny did exactly what it was supposed to. By comparison the Ford had a limited pace b/c if the cruise was set at much over 70 mph with 7 people, luggage, and a 1200 trailer on board it would shift down for every hill. The Dodge was towing a 6K lb trailer and did not shift as much on the same route (return). The Ford sounded winded at anything above 3500 rpm. The Dodge sang up past 4500 rpm.

    Now if I just had confidence that these vehicles would stay together 200K miles I wouldn’t worry so much about owning them…

    Really – either my taste in vehicles is way different from the rest of America or this hatred for all things Chrysler is just piling on…

    Seriously.

    I want them to succeed but it is apparent that they and GM both have put far too many eggs into one basket. Large vehicles. Had they kept refining their small car offerings over the past 20 years they would have products to truly brag about (not just market to the people whose standards are low or just gullible).

    I rode in a friend’s brand new first year Neon 2.0L four door sport (dunno what year) and it really impressed me for a small car. Don’t know how well it aged though as I changed employers before he had 25K miles on it.

    Imagine if GM and Chrysler had put their heart into updating the Saturns and Neons better back in the early 90s instead of letting them whither or at least making it clear that they were letting the design age (see South Africa’s Citi-Golf where a person can buy a brand new 80s style VW Golf/Rabbit) with appropriate discounts. South Africa also offered the 80s style Vanagon until a few years ago.

    So GM and Chrysler used up their customer’s good will and now the customers are reluctant to go back to try updated products like the Astra and ??? No Chrysler small vehicle offerings…


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