Despite the market's growing preference for trucks, Dodge car sales were consistent and fairly strong in the late 1990s, totaling at least 360,000 each calendar year from '96 through 2000, after which the tally dipped to about 329,000.
Leading the pack -- though not as much as you might think -- was the subcompact Neon, drawing 110,000-112,000 yearly orders through 2000 as a Dodge. Sales of Plymouth-badged Neons ran 25-30 percent lower, largely because of the Plymouth badge, said some analysts.
However, Dodge also did more than Plymouth to woo the younger buyers most attracted to small, low-priced cars. For example, coupes appeared in both lineups for '96, as did an available 150-bhp twin cam version of Neon's 2.0-liter four, but only Dodge catered to weekend racers with a Competition Package featuring uprated suspension and tires, all-disc brakes, heavy-duty five-speed gearbox, tachometer, and other go-faster stuff.
What's more, it was optional for the workaday sedan (at $1575) as well as the sportier-looking coupe ($1745, including the twin cam mill). Dodge followed up for '98 with an R/T package, also available for both body styles.
This paired the twin cam engine and the Competition group's basic chassis bits with more heavily bolstered front bucket seats, a rear spoiler, fog lights, broad dorsal racing stripes, and large "R/T" decals. It didn't make a fire-breather like the big-block R/Ts of old, but it did make a fun ride even more so -- and quite popular among said weekend racers. But those were the highlights in the otherwise uneventful career of the first-generation Neon, which remained rather rough and rowdy next to newer rivals, especially those from Japan.
A full redesign for 2000 (arriving in early 1999) strove to enhance Neon's market appeal, yet failed to address basic shortcomings. The optional automatic, for example, was still an outmoded three-speed unit, and workmanship, though better, remained below par. Coupes were canned -- their sales had always disappointed -- but so was the twin cam engine. Sedans were restyled around little-changed dimensions but lost their playful look, and the single-cam engine was scarcely quieter. Buyers must have noticed all this, for Dodge Neon sales fell to just over 107,000 for calendar '01.
Pushing on for 2002, Dodge reinstated an R/T package and added an ACR option, both packing a tuned single-cam 2.0-liter with -- you guessed it -- 150 horsepower. Leather upholstery and front side airbags were newly available, too. So was a four-speed automatic transmission, ousting the three-speeder at last.
Neon saw little change after this, falling ever-further behind the best small cars through swan song 2006. In fact, with one exception (detailed below), the only news of note in this period was dropping the ACR option and tagging the midline ES as SXT for '03, then discarding the R/T after '04.
Despite so much sameness, sales held up surprisingly well, but only because fleet orders made up a high percentage. In the retail market, Neon appealed mainly as one of the cheapest cars in the class (around $13,000-$17,000), and it could be had even cheaper with the rebates and other incentives buyers expected.
Other Dodge cars also received only sporadic attention in the first years of the new century. With trucks so dominating division sales, it made sense to keep the product focus on high-margin minivans, pickups, and SUVs. One suspects, however, that Dodge and others only hurt their own car cause with this tactic, even if import brands seemed unstoppable in grabbing ever-larger slices of the nontruck pie.
For more on the all-American Dodge, see:
- Dodge New Car Reviews and Prices
- Dodge Used Car Reviews and Prices