Last time we played the RUST or LUST game, we decided that the Scion tC was less than LUST-worthy (to put it politely). This time around, we’re casting our critical glare on another small front-driver with sporting pretensions, but this one sucks air through a snail and furiously claws the tarmac on its way to a low 5-second 0-60 time. Follow along as we determine if the Dodge Neon SRT-4 should live forever in the hallowed halls of LUST, or be consigned to sleep with the tin-worm.
This Week’s Car: The 2003-2005 Dodge Neon SRT-4
Sometimes the character of a car can be its Achilles’s Heel. The Neon was launched in 1994 with a high-profile “Hi.” campaign, which immediately cursed the car with a “cute” tag that followed it even through the butchest variant of the second-generation car, the SRT-4. (Of course, it didn’t help either that the first generation car was an unmitigated piece of crap.) Not the most promising start, but you have to hand it to Chrysler that when they produce a turd, they sure as hell try to polish it. Think about the Dodge Omni Shelby GLH, or the turbocharged Caravans that famously tear up dragstrips.
But I digress. The SRT team (previously known as Performance Vehicle Operations before someone realized that “PVO” sounds really stupid) was determined to stuff enough boost into the Brazilian-built 2.4L motor that it would simply embarrass any meaner looking competitors. They were largely successful – the engine kicked out a solid 230 HP in the last two years of production, and a slightly larger torque number. Some testers noticed that the SRT-4 might have even been slightly underrated. And it certainly didn’t sound underrated, as the intake and exhaust note were hard to miss. Reviewers in a kind mood described it as “authoritative,” and more crotchety ones pegged it as “buzzy” or “booming.” But since most of the folks who would be interested in an SRT-4 would fall all over themselves to increase the volume of their ride, it doesn’t bother us that the Neon was a bit loud anymore than it would them.
The internal-bypass turbo itself was sourced from Chrysler’s erstwhile partner in crime, Mitsubishi, and was coupled to an 8-row Valeo intercooler. Full boost was a healthy 14 psi, which is a fairly robust level for a production car. All pretty good stuff. So if the SRT-4 was full of goodies, what were its drawbacks? Well, the early cars didn’t have a limited-slip differential, so front tire traction? Not so much. The PVO/SRT folks wised up pretty quick and slapped a Quaife unit in. It really transformed the car, previously a torque-steering monster, into a well-behaved hooligan. Of course, the laws of physics are immutable, so when pushed to the edge the Neon would tend to understeer, but its limits were much more extreme than the wallowing regular Neons.
And where the SRT-4 really shined was in the bargain category. Sure, the performance bits were nice, and a 5.3 second 0-60 time is remarkable for a front-driver. It was available when new for right around $20,000 even, undercutting many similarly-performing competitors like the Nissan 350Z and delivering almost no compromise in fun.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a gussied up Neon. And sure, the more pedestrian Neons are terrible, irredeemable cars. But the SRT-4 model transcends its roots to delivered some class-busting performance for a lot less change than pretty much anything that could match its performance credentials. We’re not going to argue that a Neon SRT-4 is going to embarrass any car on the road with its aesthetics or reliability – it’s going to embarrass them by blowing their asses out of the water off the line, and managing the twisties with more aplomb than any front-drivin’ Chrysler has any right to. Just like that turbo Caravan, this is another in a long line of unexpected performance bargains from the Pentastar company. LUST, indeed.