By on August 27, 2021

When it launched in 1994, the original Dodge Neon was a different kind of car – and not just because it looked fun and friendly while the outgoing Shadow it replaced was trying very hard to look sporty by the end.

It was different because of its ads, which were simple and non-threatening. The car was kept simple inside, too. A 2.0-liter engine was standard (available in 132 horsepower with a SOHC head or 150 hp with DOHC), and could be had with a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission. You could get power front windows, but rear windows were crank-only. What’s more, the cars were genuinely fun to drive in almost any trim level, leading our very own Matthew Guy to label it as one of the best, unheralded performance cars of its day.

Which, I mean, that’s great and all. But what if Chrysler had made a different call with the Neon powertrain? What if we could go back in time again, Sam Beckett-style, and fill the space under the Neon’s hood with the 175 hp turbocharged engine from the Dodge Omni GLH-S, would that car have ended up as an “unheralded” performance car, or one of the all-time classic sport compacts?

Let’s talk it through.

WHY WOULD CHRYSLER CHOOSE THE 2.2?

“Turbo” was one of the automotive buzzwords of the 1980s. If you wanted to make the car you were selling seem high-tech or cutting edge, a digital speedometer, plastic spoiler, and “turbo” decal got you half of the way there. The upside was that turbochargers were a relatively easy way to get more power out of an aging design, and the Chrysler 2.2 – which made its debut in 1981 with 84 hp – would eventually make 224 hp in cars as diverse as the Dodge Spirit R/T sedan and 16v “Shelby” versions of Warren Mosler’s Consulier GTP.

By the time the Neon came around in the 1990s, though, turbos were being seen in a different light. Carmakers were pulling back from turbocharging, and cars like the Acura NSX that were approaching 100 hp per liter were making friends and influencing people by being more responsive than the relatively lag-y turbo cars of the day.

Turbo cars were starting to be a tough sell, too. Insuring any car with a turbo on it was prohibitively expensive for young drivers (as an example: the insurance payment on my first “real” car, a 1994 Hyundai Scoupe Turbo, was almost the same the payment on the car), which resulted in a reduced demand in the secondary market for turbo cars, as well.

TL;DR: There were plenty of reasons for Chrysler to not put an aging turbo engine under the hood of a Neon, but there could have been a business case for using the 2.2, and (as ever) that business case was money.

CHRYSLER HAS ALWAYS BEEN BAD WITH MONEY

I’ll say it again, for the people in the back. Chrysler has always been bad with money.

That’s just my opinion, of course – but what other opinion could I have of a company that’s been through something like five bailouts and buyouts in my lifetime?

The first (and, for our purposes, most relevant) time Chrysler was bailed out was in 1980, when Chrysler received a $1.5 billion loan from the government that was, at the time, the largest rescue package ever granted by the U.S. government to an American corporation. Chrysler paid of that loan ahead of schedule, in 1984, and promptly went on to make a record $2.4 billion in profits the following year. The K Car was selling well, and Chrysler built up a $5 billion war chest – which it promptly lost. A few years later, in 1990, the company started spiraling into heavy losses that led it to dump more than 40 million shares of stock in order to stay afloat in 1991. Indeed, many industry observers at the time were questioning whether the company would make it to 1992, let alone 2022.

Chrysler had a major breakthrough in 1992 with the launch of the wildly successful Jeep Grand Cherokee and relatively successful LH sedans, and 1994 would be a big year for the company, too. Not only was the Neon a hot seller compared to the outgoing Shadow/Sundance models, but the redesigned Ram was practically flying off dealer lots, and was massively profitable.

I take special care to mention the original JGC and ’94 Dodge Ram pickup here because, unlike the LH and Neon, both of those vehicles relied heavily on Chrysler’s existing parts bin to cut costs. They were selling because they looked amazing, and because customers didn’t seem to mind paying premium dollars for an aging 4.0L inline-six in the Jeep or a Magnum V8 engine in a truck that looked that good.

That same thinking that led to old engines in new skins could have been applied to the Neon easily enough, as well. After all, the engine definitely fits, and it’s hard to imagine that a 110 hp 2.2L equipped Neon would have sold in significantly fewer numbers than the base SOHC version.

“Let’s give the people four power windows and keep the 2.2L, at least for another year or two,” they might have said, in some imagined boardroom. “Do we still have a few hundred turbo engines sitting around? Let’s toss a few of those into that racecar the skunkworks boys want to build, too, and be rid of all of that old stock before we go to the trouble of launching that expensive new 2.0L.”

Hell, putting the 2.2 into a Neon seems damn-near sensible in that context, and the waves that a 2.2L turbocharged Neon ACR – sorry, Neon GLH-S – could have made in the early Honda/Mitsubishi import drag scene would have been big enough for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to sing an entire Moana song about.

What’s more, there would be none of this “unheralded” stuff. No, sir. A 2.2L limited-edition Neon would have been up there in the pantheon of great, overpowered torque-steering oddballs like the Saab 900 Turbo, the Lancia Thema 8:32, and, well, the Dodge Omni GLH that came before it.

[Image: Dodge]

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43 Comments on “Quantum Leaps: The 2.2L Dodge Neon GLH-S...”


  • avatar
    Urlik

    80s turbos often lacked water jackets making oil coking a problem and shortening their lives. Not to mention the turbo lag issues that made driveability annoying.

    • 0 avatar
      celica0774

      Exactly this killed the turbo in my 84 Starion at 27K miles (in Phoenix), despite idling for a couple of minutes before every shutdown. The warranty replacement had a water jacket and lasted until I got rid of the car at about 50K. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the turbo was covered by the emissions warranty.

    • 0 avatar

      The 2.2 was water jacketed..it was intended for mass market, not the geek crowd. Now, my Callaway VW wasn’t, and we were warned not to coke the bearings….no boost till warm, and allow a 30 second idle down before shutoff. Never had an issue….a friend of my wife, worst case scenario car owner, had a 2.2 turbo-and the turbo lived to the car’s EOL, which was transmission related.

      The Neon was intended to be cheap, Chryco would sell you the parts in a more expensive frame….and you can’t sell a cheaper car than the halo car that is faster…See: 911/Cayman, Corvette/Fiero, etc. etc. etc.

  • avatar
    ajla

    – Supercharged 3800 Lucerne Super
    – 3800 Series IV
    – Supercharged 4.9L instead of Northstar
    – Triton V10 Crown Victoria HD
    – naturally-aspirated LS-powered ATS, CTS, CT5, CT6
    – Subaru H6 if it was more developed
    – The W-body was RWD
    – 2022 MazdaSpeed3
    – Kia Stinger 5.0L
    – Dieselgate never happened
    – Tesla never got out of a garage

    • 0 avatar
      DungBeetle62

      – Ford managed to get the Capri out before the Miata (hey, it had been cooking for practically a decade)
      – what if the Tesla turned out like the Fisker, and what would that have meant for the Volt and ELR?

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      So are you a mythical being granting my every secret desire?

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        One that probably doesn’t warrant an entire article is if the ChryslerCo 2.7L never existed and instead the base LH and LX cars (and others) used the 3.8L V6 instead (it was used in longitudinal form for the Wrangler). It would turn an early Charger SE or 300 from a junkyard decoration into a somewhat reasonable beater.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      Coyote powered Crown Vic and Town Car with a 6R80 transmission.
      Same with the E-Series. Just look at what GM has done to the 25 yr old Express and Savanah. They still stuff modern powertrains in those although the styling is unequivocally from the Clinton era.

      Turbo powered Subaru Crosstrek

      2.0 Turbo Cruze SS

    • 0 avatar

      The V10 Crown Vic is definitely interesting.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      @ajla: off topic but I remember you had a very irrational desire for this…

      https://tinyurl.com/7ay3s37

      :)

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Yes, I am an X-type and S-type apologist, especially with how crummy the XE ended up being.

        Unfortunately the used car pricing situation has put my retro Jag searching on hold.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          “Unfortunately the used car pricing situation has put my retro Jag searching on hold.”

          They type of Jags you’re looking for didn’t suddenly increase in value, if people want all the money for the 01s they are not serious sellers. Also I know I have cautioned before, but you really don’t want an X-type. You really don’t want an S-type either but that could probably work out with enough money and frustration.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            From the wholesale values you showed me around a year ago there is no X-Type worth over $3k but ones that aren’t a heap are generally listing for $6K-$8k. S-Types I’m seeing are $8k-$15k. The issue with the S-Type is that once I’m spending 5 figures I might as well get the XJ.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I wouldn’t pay $300 for an X-Type, let alone $3K. Seriously they are all $1,000 buys, I have had numerous people tell me this when they were newish let alone 20 years on.

            “The issue with the S-Type is that once I’m spending 5 figures I might as well get the XJ.”

            Now you’re getting it! In the kingdom of P.A.G. X-type was a way of getting more money out of the Mondeo and S-type was a way to share costs between Jaguar and Lincoln’s LS. The only “serious” Jaguars of the period were the XJ and XK and aside from some of the ‘vert valuations of the XK none of them is particularly valuable. I have recently seen the X350 XJs punch higher than their weight but I think its in part because they are mid-00s models and those are the new 10yo used cars (supposedly X350 is kind of good after 04 save the air suspension which I imagine also plays into it).

            Try 01-03 for the Jaguar sweet spot, old “90s” styling combined with end of lifespan improved quality control on XJ and XK. I think S-type got a refresh in 04 or 05 so the earlier models carry the more dated styling, skip MY99-00 and I’d shoot for the 4.0 over the 3.0. I think there is still value in this overall period and I know if you keep looking you will find someone just looking to dump one.

            P.S. Don’t buy any ratty S-type models unless they are near free, the recon will bury you. The AJ-V8 powered models (X308) seem to be able to rack up miles and didn’t come with air ride.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    I work colleague had a Neon, motor was replaced under warranty within 3 month due to a bad rod bearing. What the actually Hell? That the kind of quality you were faced with. They scratched the hell out of the engine compartment replacing the motor and it never ran right, because they did t do it right. And because of their complete lack of customer service they lost a customer right then and there, forever.

  • avatar
    Shockrave Flash Has Crashed

    Their issue is, as always, long term reliability and the way they treat you when things break.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Ok, but I had a Le baron 2.2 Turbo, compared to modern day turbos it was like bolting a hair dryer to a 4-banger. I had a lot of trouble with that Le Baron. I now have an Escape with the 2.0 turbo and it’s great, but it took me this long to come back to a turbo-4. The experience was that bad

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, 100% — but almost everything about 90s cars was terrible compared to the state of things 20-30 years later. Allow me to introduce you to my random assortment of 70s FWD Lancias, then, and you’ll understand why I consider the Neon to be something of a paragon of reliability.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      My LeBaron 2.2 was a non-turbo. Not exciting to drive, but none of the downsides of the early turbos, either.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I ran an 85 2.2 to over 200k miles. Mine was durable, but rough.

    The newer 2.0 used in the Neon was a lot smoother and more fuel efficient. In 2000, I walked away from signing papers on a new Neon – no regrets about that decision.

    Engineering a car to accommodate more than one engine is expensive and risky, especially if one of those engines is leaving the fold shortly.

    Dodge made the right call.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Sure nice idea but it wasn’t going to play for several reasons:

    -Chryco execs in the early 90s didn’t care about making some niche variant of their CAFE compliance car POS.
    -Chryco execs were likely under pressure during development since the Chrysler crisis period happened to coincide with it (and LH), the goal would be to finish the project not alter it.
    -Neon GLH would have been the faster automotive equivalent to the 3.1 J-body (or goofy 2.0 Turbo J) of the period. Volume on the top trim Js was never high with GM’s 5000+ dealers so much smaller Chrysler runs the risk of not recouping R&D investment on the GLH let alone profiting.
    -Following up on the above point, Chrysler’s 2.2 Turbo Mark IV was no longer common by 1993 whereas GM’s 3.1 was cheap and ubiquitous. Chrysler would have had to spend quite a bit per unit to produce the XXXX units for their niche GLH.

    “The Turbo IV was a turbocharged SOHC intercooled version with variable nozzle turbo (VNT) technology. This system reduced turbo lag. Used in the 1989 Shelby CSX, then regular production 1990 Dodge Shadows, Daytonas, and Chrysler LeBarons. Production on this engine was limited to around 1250 units.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrysler_2.2_%26_2.5_engine#2.2_Turbo_IV

    -Finally I’m not sure if the chassis dynamics could accept 170-180bhp without significant torque steer, but even if they could improved suspension, brakes, and possibly transaxle would have to be added for just the theoretical GLH. More additional cost per unit which is may be unable to be recouped.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I have always heard how terrible the Neons were, and I have very limited experience in one. My sister bought one brand new after college 94-95, I am not sure of the exact year. Anyway, green 5 speed roll up windows bean can. I am fairly certain she drove that car for 200k miles or close to it and traded it in on a 2004 Passat wagon, MT, roll up windows, 4 mil. She put 200k on that one as well. Weird.

  • avatar
    MKizzy

    132-150hp for the time while its competitors were barely making 110hp would’ve been more than sufficient performance-wise given the right auto transmission. Supposedly, it was Chrysler deciding to go with a 3 speed unit which blunted any performance or fuel economy advantages the Neon would’ve had over it competition.

    • 0 avatar
      STRATOS

      That ancient 3speed automatic was the worst part about the car and it was not even reliable.I was impressed with the plastic intake manifold.The camshaft was the type you slide in from the front of the engine ,not bolted down from the top of cylinder head.Another stupid design for a 1995 car.I believe no owner ever escaped the head gasket failure ,good thing the steel head did not warp.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    The Neon has to be one of the most hated cars, at least by gov’t employees in my county. They made a big purchase of them for pool cars early on in their model run. As late at 2019 a group of them, each with under 60k on the clock, went through the auction. Meanwhile the next batches of compact pool cars, Escorts, Focuses and even early Priuses all mile’ed out (exceeded 100k) ages ago.

    In other words the only time people grabbed keys to a Neon was when they were the only cars available. Note Prius was not that popular either as they took longer to mile out than the Escorts and Focus.

  • avatar
    cardave5150

    Mid-1990’s my kid sister got out of college and was looking for a fun-to-drive car, had to be a manual, and, since she got a teaching job in a small town in rural Illinois, really needed to be ‘Murican. I told her about the Neon R/T. She loved the car. Had one of the few around that was a 4-door (most were 2-door that we saw). Black with the twin wide silver stripes over the top of the car. And that double-overhead cam engine! She ripped around in that car for years until marriage and kids finally got her into an SUV. I borrowed that car a couple of times – it was a great deal of fun to drive (hard).

  • avatar
    KOKing

    Referring back to the Eagle Premier article series (which I enjoyed), was the Neon engine the remaining part of Project Liberty? multiport FI, distributorless ignition, stuff the Saturn engine had. IIRC the Neon itself was launched with the Saturn as a key competitor, so launching it with the 2.2 would’ve been a bad look, plus with export aspirations, a 2.2 would’ve been too big for markets with >2.0 displacement tax.
    The Neon engine wasn’t bad, despite some of its well known problems. Our family had a fleet of Mitsubishis in the 90s and the Eclipse with that lump was the only one with zero engine issues that hung around the longest. It also ultimately did get a turbo in its final 2.4 guise, plus was the basis for the Tritec with its whiny supercharger, so even if it never made it into a Shelby or a Maserati, I think it was the right engine for the times.

  • avatar
    sckid213

    Wow, that “Hi” ad flashes me right back to junior high. That campaign and the cars really were a sensation back then — seeing them proliferate on the streets, along with Saturns, really did feel like “something new.”

    More importantly, Hyundai Scoupe you say? I hope we hear more.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I’d rather have the Neon ACR, or the R/T.

  • avatar

    In a very general sense, isn’t that what they did when they put out the Neon SRT 4 (2003-2005)? Aside from it being the 2.4l, it seems to (partially) fit the point of this article. My brother had one of the GLH-S Chargers – intercooled turbo and the 2.2. Fun car to drive, very easy to go fast. Putting something like that in a Neon would certainly be cool. Thanks for the article, Jo!

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    Only those who want vaccines for polio, diphtheria, smallpox, tetanus, chicken pox, HPV, cholera, typhoid, colds, flus, COVID, hepatis, yellow fever, etc and the rest can one big effing experiment. That’s close to where we are headed.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Turbo lag? We’re too spoiled now. Era V8s weren’t exactly linear. So you had to slip the clutch to build boost and flat shift. Mine was a four-eyed Laser 2.2 turbo that I traded for used SVO, but I had to throw in a Colt Vista wagon.

  • avatar
    Luke42

    The Neon is also notable for being one of the first high volume vehicles I know about which used finite.eleement analysis for the crash engineering.

    Dodge Neon meshes are included as examples in several structural FEA apps.

    See:
    https://youtu.be/zeia-1ttuy4

  • avatar
    here4aSammich

    “By the time the Neon came around in the 1990s, though, turbos were being seen in a different light. Carmakers were pulling back from turbocharging, and cars like the Acura NSX that were approaching 100 hp per liter were making friends and influencing people by being more responsive than the relatively lag-y turbo cars of the day.”

    I’m hoping to see technology replace the need for turbocharging once again. Honda led the way back then with their VTEC motors. They engineered a solution that gave their engines the power, and were still had honda reliability. These days, even Honda is on the “turbos and CVTs” bandwagon. Not a problem if you lease a new car every 36 months. But for thos of us who buy and keep cars for 10 years, I don’t want the potential of expensive repair bills.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Yeah, the old VTEC engines were a blast but you had to rev them mercilessly to get power. It got old quickly I’m everyday driving. Under 4000 rpm they were basically dead. The turbo motors are a lot easier to live with.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    Intriguing possibility but never would have happened. Chrysler dropped the 2.5 Turbo in the Shadow for 1992 in favor of the Mitsubishi 3.0 V-6. The reason for that was smoothness. There is no way they would have then taken a step back to the old motor two years later for their new Neon, which was supposed to be a leap forward.

  • avatar
    bgfred

    I bought a brand new Neon the first month they were out and sold it about two years later when I moved out of the country. They used the correct engine. While this article is an interesting thought exercise, I think the old engine in the Neon would have ruined it ENTIRELY …. and I say that having later bought a second-generation Grand Cherokee… with the 4.0L six. The 4.0L six was.. a great TRUCK engine – gobs of torque way down low, hardly any revvy power up high. Lousy for drag racing or high speed acceleration, but fabulous for off-road user or trailer towing… you know, TRUCK things! I’d buy a new jeep with that 4.0L today if they still sold ’em.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I always like the looks of this car and the concept itself but the quality was not so good. Quality has been an issue for Chrysler and its successors for years.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    NEON with GLH-S engine would have been interesting. High power, small cars have always been risky in North America. Chrysler did more in this area than most.
    What could Stellantis offer today? How about moderately reskinned Panda with 177HP corporate 1.3L turbo? AWD and JEEP on the hood.

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