Since the Neon's introduction in 1995, Dodge has struggled to address the chief criticism of its small car offering -- a lack of refinement. A raucous engine and high levels of cabin noise were the car's major weaknesses, while sprightly performance (with a manual gearbox) and a spacious cabin were its strengths. Subsequent years saw the introduction of a high-performance R/T model and a complete redesign in 2000 that updated the car's looks, reduced the engine's noise and vibration levels and improved the ride and handling. Some old-tech hardware, such as a three-speed (instead of four) automatic gearbox remained, however, and powertrain and interior refinement still lagged behind perennial class leaders like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, as well as most other Japanese-brand compacts. Even the domestic-brand Ford Focus far surpassed the Neon in these areas. A four-speed automatic transmission finally arrived for the 2002 model year. Last year, Dodge further updated the Neon with new front and rear fascias, light clusters and interior bits, including a new steering wheel to replace the strange-looking "upside-down" wheel previously used. In the constant fight to smooth out the Neon's 2.0-liter inline four, revised engine mounts were installed as was a taller fifth gear in manual-transmission SE and SXT models. Unfortunately, the R/T model and its 150-hp engine are gone for 2005. In its place is an appearance package designed to mimic the look of the powerful SRT-4. Although the 2005 Dodge Neon still loses out to most rivals when it comes to drivetrain refinement and interior accommodations, the car's sporty handling and good sound system mean that it is not without its charms.
The four-door 2005 Dodge Neon sedan is available in two trim levels, SE and SXT. Base SE models come with a cassette player, a split-folding rear seat and a tilt steering wheel. Air conditioning and a CD player are optional. Moving up to the SXT adds an air conditioner; power front windows, mirrors and locks; CD player instead of the cassette player; and 15-inch alloy wheels. A Kicker audio system with eight speakers, a CD changer, cruise control and ABS are optional. The SXT trim qualifies for the SRT Design appearance package. The package includes new foglights, dual exhaust and a rear spoiler. There's also a Mopar ground effects kit available.
The cabin has a mix of soft-touch and cheap plastic surfaces. If one chooses the option of power windows, they still are only for the benefit of front passengers -- rear windows are still moved up and down by a good old-fashioned crank. An in-dash six-disc CD changer is optional on the SXT. Audiophiles will be pleased to know that the Kicker audio system packs 208 watts and has eight speakers with a separate amp.
A 2.0-liter, 132-horsepower inline four powers all Neons. Transmission choices include a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. Fuel economy is good for this class, as manual-shift Neons are rated to get 29 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. Getting the automatic lowers mileage considerably -- 25 mpg city and 32 highway.
In general, the 2005 Dodge Neon is not as quiet as other economy sedans, exhibiting plenty of wind, road and engine noise. It still lags behind most rivals in refinement, especially the Honda Civic, Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla, and acceleration is nothing to get excited about, either. Handling is solid for a small front-driver, with the Neon demonstrating an eagerness for the twisties through its well-weighted steering. The car provides both a comfortable ride for commuting and a fair amount of agility around corners all for a very reasonable price.
Front disc/rear drum brakes are standard, and ABS is optional on both the SE and SXT. Side airbags for front occupants are also optional. In frontal impact crash testing, the 2005 Dodge Neon scored four out of five stars; in side-impact tests, it got three stars for front and rear passenger protection. In frontal offset crash testing, the Neon earned only a "Marginal" rating, the second lowest possible.
Trim levels are reduced to SE and SXT; the R/T is dropped in favor of an SRT appearance package. SXT models feature a new Kicker audio system.