It’s not a new formula. Thirty years ago, the folks at Chrysler took a lightweight, plain-Jane, taxicab of a car and shoehorned the latest in big V-8 racing technology under the hood. The result was the Hemi Road Runner, and a legend was born. But can the same formula, of a yoeman platform mated to high performance power, produce another speed legend in today’s front-drive, 4-cylinder world? That front-wheel drive platform comes from the Dodge Neon, while the power comes from a 2.4 Liter turbo. The result is the 2003 Dodge Neon SRT-4.
The SRT-4 certainly doesn’t look like any other Neon on the street. With an aggressive, Viper-inspired front end, it’s one tough looking Neon. And, in keeping with its customized sport compact theme, the functioning hood scoop can be mated to an aftermarket forced air intake kit. Continuing down the side, you’ll find sculpted sill extensions, and out back of course no sport-compact hotrod would be complete without a huge rear wing. The entire rear fascia’s been redesigned, looking very special, with the dual 3 ½ inch tips attached to an exhaust system without mufflers, making a sweet final statement.
Inside it’s more stock Neon, which is to say roomy, practical, if on a budget, with a few extra goodies thrown in. Those extras include the leather wrapped “carbon fiber look” steering wheel and shifter boot, aluminum shift knob, and well integrated Auto Meter Boost gauge for monitoring real time turbo activities. Other gauges are resurfaced with a smart metallic finish. They look great and are easy to see both day and night. But the highlight of the interior are the high-bolstered, Viper-inspired bucket seats. They are by far the best seats we’ve ever experienced in a bargain car. Once you crawl over the thigh bolsters, they hold you tighter during fast cornering than anything short of a 5-point harness.
Out on the road, the ride is firm, but not nearly as unyielding as most factory performance and tuner cars we’ve driven lately. The SRT-4 is light, nimble, and ready to be pushed hard. But, it’s January, and the roads near our Maryland studios are not exactly ideal for sporty driving. So we decided to head south to Roebling Road Raceway near Savannah, Georgia, to give the SRT-4 a proper wringing out.
On the trip down, the Neon surprised us with an excellent long distance ride. The only thing we would ask for is some height adjustment for the seats. Other than that, 10 hours flew by quicker than in any other small car we can think of.
After slapping on fresh, sticky 17-inch, 50-Series Michelin Pilot Sport rubber, it was track time. Out on the track in the Dodge Neon SRT-4, we found even more surprises. With fully upgraded suspension and brakes, the SRT-4 behaves like no other Neon we’ve ever driven, which is saying a lot considering the very competent Neon ACR we tested a few years back. Compared to the ACR, this SRT-4 is a lot tighter, and of course has got some more hoofs under the hood. That’s where you’ll find the PT Turbo’s intercooled 2.4 liter turbocharged-4, with 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. It provides just the right amount of oomph for our track work.
And we worked the SRT-4 pretty hard. Throw it clumsily into a corner and it will understeer just like most other front wheel drive compacts. Take the approach a little easier, allow the turbo to wind up midway, and you can rocket off the corners oh so nicely. Steering response could be a little quicker, but the chassis is quite responsive and provides good feedback to the driver. There’s a lot less body roll than we expected, too. This Neon stays pretty flat for a street biased car.
On straight line runs, the car launched with little hesitation, although even in Savannah the tarmac was damp and cold. The 2.4 revs freely, and there is minimal turbo lag. Power builds in a linear manner, with a big hit right before the rev limiter kicks in at about 6,000 RPM’s. When tires hooked up properly, 0-60 times were impressive, averaging 6.0 seconds flat, with a 1/4 mile average of 14.9 seconds at 99 miles per hour. That makes the Neon the second fastest Dodge available. Second, that is, only to the Viper, which has got a few more cylinders under the hood, and takes a few more zeroes in the bank account to afford.
So, what does it take to afford the SRT-4? Well, it comes pretty much as you see it, without any options, and base price is $19,995. That’s a lot of bang for the buck, and easily the most performance car you can get for under 20 grand.
But will all this power and performance turn the 2003 Dodge Neon SRT-4 into a legend? Well, we doubt it. But it will turn heads, and turn some sport-compact tuners back to their computer screens. And it shows competition in the sport-compact segment is getting hot and serious, and that makes the SRT-4 a clear winner.
Engine: 2.4 Liter Intercooled Turbocharged-4
Torque: 245 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.0 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.9 Seconds @ 99 MPH