This is the Dodge Neon, the company’s new small, affordable sedan. It’s got something of a complicated history, given it was, in this market, called the Chrysler Neon in a previous life. That model was killed off in 2005, and gave way to the Dodge Dart, which was produced from 2012 to 2016 and did reasonably well in the Middle East. That’s been killed off, too, and now, for the 2017 model year, the Neon is back. Except it’s got a Dodge badge.
It’s meant to be a serious attempt from Dodge to gain a permanent hold on the compact sedan segment. The idea is to offer something for buyers who wouldn’t be able to afford, say, a Charger, but would still like a Dodge. And if they’re given a good experience with the Neon, once they’re able to afford it, they may well ladder up to a more expensive Dodge later on in life.
Let’s state from the off, though, that the new Neon is not a baby Charger. It’s actually a Fiat Tipo in sedan form, rebadged for this market. In Europe, the new Tipo is billed as a good family hatchback for small hatchback money. In this market, though, the Neon wades into battle against the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Mitsubishi Lancer. That’s a seriously competitive segment, but it’s hardly one that’s concerned with speed and sportiness, which is why the Neon is billed as something better-equipped, better-looking and perhaps more comfortable than its Japanese competitors.
So, boring stuff out the way first. To even have a hope of competing in this price-sensitive segment, the Neon comes with the industry-standard five-year, or 100,000 km, warranty, as well as attractive service packages. And, naturally, because it’s from Al Futtaim Trading Enterprises, all manner of finance options will be available.
There are three models on offer at launch – the entry-level SE, the mid-range SXT, and the top-of-the-range SXT Plus. They go for AED 57,400, AED 64,800, and AED 67,700 respectively. Still, even the bottom-of-the-range SE is reasonably well equipped, coming with a Bluetooth system, six airbags, cruise control, a TFT display, and power windows all round. Naturally, safety tech like ABS and traction control comes as standard, too.
The one I’m in, however, is the top-end SXT Plus, and from the off I’d say that, if you can afford it, go for this one. It’s incredibly well equipped for a car in this class, coming with an infotainment system that would shame some cars that are twice as expensive, automatic climate control, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers – the lot. Seriously, I’ve driven Mercedes with fewer gadgets.
Alright, the interior is nothing special – the seats may be made of what Dodge calls “premium velour cloth”, but really they’re standard fabric chairs. That said, it bears mentioning that the front seats are really well shaped – you slot into them beautifully and they stay comfortable over long periods of time.
Otherwise, the materials are plastic almost everywhere, but a good job has been made of making sure that all the surfaces you come into contact with don’t feel horrible. That means a nice, solid-feeling gear-shifter, a smooth, premium-looking dashboard, and solid door sills. There’s a decent arm rest between driver and passenger, along with the obligatory cubby hole hidden underneath, and it feels perfectly comfortable to rest your elbow on it. The steering wheel, meanwhile, features plenty of buttons to play with (including some nice volume/track control toggles on the back), and has a solid, chunky feel to it. All in all, the car doesn’t feel cheap or nasty, which is good, seeing as the SXT Plus model sits at the top of the segment.
Elsewhere on the inside, you get back seats with class-leading rear legroom, as well as a class-leading boot that can swallow 520 litres. If it’s difficult to imagine that, just know that a full-size person, or two, could fit comfortably in there. And with the back seats folded flat (only possible on the SXT and above models), I was able to squeeze in a seven-foot Christmas tree with relative ease.
Still, let’s not pretend that the cabin is a masterclass in small car design – it’s pretty good inside the Neon, and that’s all you really think about it. What impresses most of all is that glorious, seven-inch infotainment system sitting atop the dashboard. It features Fiat-Chrysler Group’s new Uconnect operating system, which is touch-operated and an absolute joy to use.
Connecting your phone is the work of a moment. There are icons running along the bottom, and they’re extremely clear about what each of their functions are – Radio, Phone, Vehicle Settings, etc. And once you go into each of functions, the screens that follow are brilliantly and simply laid out. All the functions you could expect of a modern car are available – including satellite navigation, which is more than the competition can throw at you. What’s more, the touch screen works as well as an iPad’s does. It may sound trivial, but all of these factors put together make for a sense that everything just works as it’s supposed to. This stuff matters when you’re buying a car at this price point.
Practical stuff out the way, let’s get onto how the Neon is to drive. As I said earlier, the car can’t be treated as a baby Charger; the engine is a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder unit chucking out 110 bhp and 152 Nm of torque. Those numbers don’t sound bad, but the Neon is actually bigger than you might think, and therefore it’s reasonably heavy, meaning it’s not a quick car. Dodge hasn’t provided performance figures, but I’m willing to bet the 0-100 km/h time is over 10 seconds.
What’s more, the six-speed automatic gearbox, while extremely smooth, doesn’t help on the performance front. The first gear is incredibly short, meaning you’re hardly doing any speed at all by the time you get into second. As a result, there’s very little grunt until you’re well into second gear, which is a little frustrating if you’re trying to pick up speed when pulling out onto a main road, for instance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it’s impossible to drive the Neon on Dubai’s roads – power is just about adequate – but it can be frustrating if you’re looking to get places quickly.
That said, once you do get going, the Neon handles itself reasonably well when you show it some corners. Dive into a bend, and there’s a faint hint of understeer, but there’s bags of grip, meaning you track round reasonably painlessly. What’s more, there’s a distinct lack of body roll, the suspension doing a great a job of keeping things flat and drama-free.
And ‘drama-free’ is about the size of the drive in general, actually. The Neon is well refined for a car of this class, with plenty of sound deadening making it a quiet and relaxing car in which to swan about. Even cruising at motorway speeds, you won’t notice the engine thrumming along at high revs, and wind and tyre noise is kept to a minimum. The ride, while a little firm, feels reasonably blanketed, making the Neon ideal for areas with bumpy roads. It’s not an engaging drive by any means, but it’s certainly a relaxing one, and when you just want to get places without any hassle, you can see the appeal there.
The big question is, should you buy a Neon when you’ve got the likes of Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi ready to offer you their own seriously competitive small sedans? To my mind, the Dodge wins out against the Toyota and Mitsubishi hands-down; it has a distinctly European feel to it (despite carrying that American badge) that those competitors can’t match. The Honda Civic is more of a tough one to crack, because it was updated so recently and is indeed a very fine car.
Still, the Neon does come with the added cool factor of being a Dodge, and it’s a little more refined than you’d expect of a car in this price range. I’m not sure even the Honda could match it on comfort. Plus, I really can’t get over how well equipped this thing is, particularly if you opt for this SXT Plus model. It won’t be the most exciting investment you’ve ever made, but I’d wager the little joys offered by the Neon would add up to a lot of satisfaction over the course of a three-year ownership cycle. Inspired? No. But good value? Certainly.
DODGE NEON SPECS
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cylinder
Gearbox: 6-speed automatic
Power: 110 bhp
0-100 km/h: N/A
Top speed: N/A
Price (starting): SAR 53,999
Price (as tested): SAR 67,700