News that Chrysler and Dodge models will no longer be available in New Zealand brings to mind the small Neon sedan Chrysler launched here in the late 1990s.
It will forever be remembered as the worst new car to land in this country in the past 25 years. It was awful. Chrysler NZ sold most Neons to itself.
The second worst car in 25 years was the Neon that followed it in 2000. Chrysler was so disturbed by the first Neon’s failure to turn heads that it went to great lengths to talk up the new-look model.
It was no longer a meek and mild vehicle of questionable standard and a nondescript image, Chrysler said. It was all-American down to its cotton-pickin’ socks.
Chrysler prepared for its arrival by painting a Neon red with a double white stripe on the bonnet and roof and a spoiler on the boot lid (a left-hand-drive example is pictured below).
It was a clumsy marketing attempt at passing it off as a relative of Chrysler’s high-profile, red and white and heavily muscled V10 Viper roadster, a car light years ahead of the Neon, at least in performance.
It didn’t work. The second Neon was just as bad as the first. It was a little bigger and had more interior room, but that was about it.
A big plus was ABS anti-lock brakes. Optional, from memory. Just as they were on the first Chrysler Jeep Cherokee.
Cherokee was launched here with much fuss in 1995. Just the four-wheel-drive vehicle Kiwis needed to tow the boat or caravan, Chrysler reckoned. Among the standard equipment was a driver’s side airbag.
The Chrysler people here got cranky when asked why, if Cherokee was such a great tow vehicle, anti-lock brakes weren’t standard. There was much mumbling.
Anyway, the Neon of 2000 ran a revised version of the four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol engine that powered the first Neon.
Chrysler said the updated engine breathed better in delivering its 98kW at 5600rpm and 177Nm at 4600rpm.
Getting it to breathe at all was the problem. Especially when mated to the optional three-speed automatic gearbox.
Three-speed auto? Yep, Neon was the only new passenger car in NZ with a three-speeder. It was the only production car anywhere with a three-speed auto.
No matter what gear the ‘box selected, no matter what throttle opening, the engine howled like a banshee.
Jumping on the throttle to overtake, for instance, was especially disturbing. The engine noise would stop conversation – that’s why, on the rare occasion you spotted a Neon, the driver was often the only occupant.
There’s a Neon for sale on TradeMe. There’s never been more than one on sale at any one time.
The only car that might rival the infamous 20-year reign of Neon is a South Korean-built Daewoo sedan, also from the 1990s.
From memory, it wallowed a lot and needed multiple corrections of the steering wheel to get round corners.