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Friday, September 23, 2005

Say Good-Bye To The Hi! Car

I admit it, I have a soft spot in my heart for Neons. When they came out in early 1994 with their goofy SuperBowl ad I was intrigued. 2.0 liter, 132 HP 4 cylinder engine with 104 inch wheelbase and a continuation of Chrysler's cab forward design theme where the wheels are pushed out to maximize interior room. It also came in British Racing Green, though Chrysler didn't call it that. On paper it looked like the perfect first car. More powerful and sporty than the Japanese equivalents, inexpensive, and expressive. The Japanese feared the Neon before it came out when they heard a Right Hand Drive version was engineered for export to Japan. Do you remember the ads: "$8,900 to start, $12,500 nicely equipped." Of course I wanted the nicely equipped version.

The rear seats actually could fit me. I couldn't say that about the Chevy Cavalier at all, while the Ford Escort was a bit tight as well. They styling and instrument panel were vastly superior to the Saturn sedan. The 5 speed stick was nice and slick, while the single overhead cam 4 banger was a rev happy motor. The antilock brakes did a good job of slowing while the suspension allowed me to play in the curves. After the test drive, my dad looked at me and said, "This is a very good small car." The Neon was my first choice for a vehicle. Instead of having Tales of the Mighty Green Ranger it almost was Tales of the Mighty Green Neon. The main reason it wasn't is due to being an under-25, single, male driver. The insurance for a truck was 40% less than for a car.

Was the Neon the small car that finally got Detroit back into the small car game? It seemed like it at the time. The first 2 years had 410,000 of them sold. Yet Chrysler, and Detroit, were putting most of their resources into the ever expanding truck and SUV market. Their car lines, especially the small car lines, got table scrapes from the engineering budgets. An infamous head gasket recall, sticking with a 3 speed automatic transmission FOREVER, and failing paint spoiled the poor Neon by giving it a bad reputation.

Still the little car became feared competition at SCCA meets. In the end it had the most wins ever. A second generation Neon came out moving away from cute to a more sophisticated demeanor. Eventually a high octane SRT-4 version came out for the Fast And The Furious crowd. When introduced both times it was good competition for your entry level dollar. Sadly the Neon was never updated to keep up with the competition. Chrysler became Daimler-Chrysler and trucks/SUVs/large cars were the order of the day. The humble little Neon didn't get much attention. Toward the end you could get them for as little as $11,000 with employee financing and rebates.

The last one rolls off the Belvedere, IL assembly line this Friday. The Neon's replacement is an exciting small wagon called Caliber due out very early next year. Much like it's predecessor the Caliber looks like a winner on paper. If the reality matchs the potential I'll want one despite the apparent lack of British Racing Green. Yet somehow the bold, bad, bitchin' Caliber won't have that friendly bug-eyed humble demeanor of "Hi!" the Neon did.

Neons will never have the classic panache of Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, and Thunderbirds. The greatest failing of the Neon was the expectations being set too high for it. But damned if it didn't at least try to meet them. Good bye old friend.

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