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2000 CHRYSLER NEON

CHELSEA, MI: When Neon first elbowed its way onto the automotive scene about five years ago, it came with a face and an attitude that said "Hi," or so Chrysler liked to describe it.

In many ways, the company says now, the first Neon was like an eager young kid freshly graduated from high school. There were lots of skills, charms and enthusiasm to enjoy in Neon, the story now goes, but they were sometimes rough and often rubbed you the wrong way.

Since then, life experience managed to knock some of the edges off the original Neon, but it's still just a high school grad at heart. During the time since Neon debuted, lots has been going on. Chrysler melded with Daimler-Benz to become DaimlerChrysler, and the next generation of Neon has been attending automotive university.

Indeed, as it prepares to launch the Neon as a 2000 model in the first quarter of 1999, DaimlerChrysler is hoping to make the world believe that the slightly larger new model has actually earned an MBA.

Well, after listening to the engineering and marketing types make their case and then pushing a few early prototypes around DaimlerChrysler's test track here west of Detroit, it's impossible to say that the new car hasn't been going to college quite a while.

I cannot, however, say that it has that MBA. I can say that it's very close to getting a regular BA, that it might have its degree by the time production cars come off the line, and that it's going to graduate -- forgive me in advance for this one, but it's rare that an English major gets to make a bad joke in a car story using Latin -- summa cum not so lauda. Reducing noise and other unpleasantries in the 2000 Neon was critical for the folks at DaimlerChrysler, since those are the things that needed to be done to get the result they were after. That result was to be a car that's more refined, more sophisticated, more serious, more substantial, more grown up. All of those things the 2000 Neon certainly is, at least to some degree, but to a major degree it's still quite a lot of the first Neon as well. As explained by John Herlitz, who is senior vice president of product design at DaimlerChrysler, that was exactly the plan.

"We wanted to keep all the great things about the first-generation Neon that customers told us they loved," Herlitz said, adding that in general that meant "an element of fun." Herlitz said, "We also wanted to surprise and delight them with the enhancements we added inside and out that, by design, take Neon's image to a much higher value level."

To suit both those ends, Chrysler used a longer wheelbase and a wider track to move the wheels away from each other and then attached them to an improved chassis and frame.

A better chassis and stiffer frame (37 per cent better bending stiffness) go a long way toward reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), but Chrysler also gave the new Neon full-framed, triple-sealed doors with heavy silencers to reduce road and wind noise, and improved door fit and window function. The result is a noticeably quieter car, with less noise from the wind, the road, the tires and squeaking body parts. It's not near the standards of, say, a Lexus LS400, but it's much better than the first model and competitive with other cars in its segment.

This alone would make the 2000 Neon much more worthy of consideration, but NVH standards aren't the only things that have been improved. Addressing the issue of "fun," Neon has been designed to ride a lot better. Most of the time that means a smoother and quieter ride, but it's also more controlled when pushed. Moving the wheels farther apart went a goodly way toward accomplishing that, but they also increased the ride height slightly to make room for a rehung MacPherson strut suspension system that allows 15 per cent more jounce travel up front and 30 per cent in the back. This improves the ride and reduces the chance Neon will bottom out under a full load or at speed over whoop-de-dos. To this, DaimlerChrysler made rear sway bars and upscale shocks part of every model for the 2000 model year.

Refinements to the brakes included thicker front rotors and larger rear cylinders, which are meant to improve pedal feel and add durability. It's discs up front and drums at the back of this front-drive car, with ABS, electronic brake proportioning and traction control optional. The engine will be familiar by name (the 2-liter, SOHC inline-4) but, DaimlerChrysler hopes, not by noise or performance levels.

"We looked at all aspects of the powertrain to achieve quieter, more efficient operation wherever possible," said Mike Donoughe, director of powertrain engineering for the small car platform team. So new air induction and intake manifold systems were developed to increase torque over broader operating speeds, and a new exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover and timing belt were included for quieter engine operation. The results were noticeable from the get-go, since you weren't instantly aware of that thrashy noise that was the first Neon's signature noise. It also delivers torque more readily and more often, with the official numbers being 132 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 130 pound-feet of torque at 4600 rpm. The 5-speed continues to be adequate, but the big powertrain weakness continues to be the optional 3-speed automatic, which is not up to the slicker shifting of the 4-speeds that are available pretty much on every other car. Look for a more powerful engine and a better optional transmission sometime soon. It's more pleasant to be in the 2000 Neon because it has more hip and shoulder room and is a lot quieter, but that's not enough to satisfy the hipper and more demanding class of buyer DaimlerChrysler wants, so the interior was given a going over as well. So the interior was recovered in better materials (including a soft touch coating) and some of the knickknacks (control switches and buttons and so on) moved around. The result is a noticeably more upscale feel to Neon's interior for 2000.

The 2000 model will be instantly recognizable as a Neon, but it will be different enough that you'll know it's the new one. The front end has a more mature look (somewhere between "Hello" and "Nice to meet you"), the rear lights are new and the wheel arches are more pronounced.

Those arches were in fact too pronounced for my liking, especially the ones at the back, but I'm betting they'll be better filled with the bigger, optional tires that will undoubtedly come along soon.

Though exact details were not available when I drove the 2000 Neon, DaimlerChrysler was talking large about it being a much better value (i.e. more stuff for the money) than other cars in the segment. This, too, would be a good thing in this category, especially with Ford about to launch its uber- hyped Focus model around the same time.

Don't know how Focus will pan out, but there's no arguing with the fact that DaimlerChrysler has greatly improved the Neon for 2000.