When it launched in 1994, the original Dodge Neon was a different kind of car – and not just because it looked fun and friendly while the outgoing Shadow it replaced was trying very hard to look sporty by the end.
It was different because of its ads, which were simple and non-threatening. The car was kept simple inside, too. A 2.0-liter engine was standard (available in 132 horsepower with a SOHC head or 150 hp with DOHC), and could be had with a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission. You could get power front windows, but rear windows were crank-only. What’s more, the cars were genuinely fun to drive in almost any trim level, leading our very own Matthew Guy to label it as one of the best, unheralded performance cars of its day.
Which, I mean, that’s great and all. But what if Chrysler had made a different call with the Neon powertrain? What if we could go back in time again, Sam Beckett-style, and fill the space under the Neon’s hood with the 175 hp turbocharged engine from the Dodge Omni GLH-S, would that car have ended up as an “unheralded” performance car, or one of the all-time classic sport compacts?
Let’s talk it through.
WHY WOULD CHRYSLER CHOOSE THE 2.2?
“Turbo” was one of the automotive buzzwords of the 1980s. If you wanted to make the car you were selling seem high-tech or cutting edge, a digital speedometer, plastic spoiler, and “turbo” decal got you half of the way there. The upside was that turbochargers were a relatively easy way to get more power out of an aging design, and the Chrysler 2.2 – which made its debut in 1981 with 84 hp – would eventually make 224 hp in cars as diverse as the Dodge Spirit R/T sedan and 16v “Shelby” versions of Warren Mosler’s Consulier GTP.
By the time the Neon came around in the 1990s, though, turbos were being seen in a different light. Carmakers were pulling back from turbocharging, and cars like the Acura NSX that were approaching 100 hp per liter were making friends and influencing people by being more responsive than the relatively lag-y turbo cars of the day.
Turbo cars were starting to be a tough sell, too. Insuring any car with a turbo on it was prohibitively expensive for young drivers (as an example: the insurance payment on my first “real” car, a 1994 Hyundai Scoupe Turbo, was almost the same the payment on the car), which resulted in a reduced demand in the secondary market for turbo cars, as well.
TL;DR: There were plenty of reasons for Chrysler to not put an aging turbo engine under the hood of a Neon, but there could have been a business case for using the 2.2, and (as ever) that business case was money.
CHRYSLER HAS ALWAYS BEEN BAD WITH MONEY
I’ll say it again, for the people in the back. Chrysler has always been bad with money.
That’s just my opinion, of course – but what other opinion could I have of a company that’s been through something like five bailouts and buyouts in my lifetime?
The first (and, for our purposes, most relevant) time Chrysler was bailed out was in 1980, when Chrysler received a $1.5 billion loan from the government that was, at the time, the largest rescue package ever granted by the U.S. government to an American corporation. Chrysler paid of that loan ahead of schedule, in 1984, and promptly went on to make a record $2.4 billion in profits the following year. The K Car was selling well, and Chrysler built up a $5 billion war chest – which it promptly lost. A few years later, in 1990, the company started spiraling into heavy losses that led it to dump more than 40 million shares of stock in order to stay afloat in 1991. Indeed, many industry observers at the time were questioning whether the company would make it to 1992, let alone 2022.
Chrysler had a major breakthrough in 1992 with the launch of the wildly successful Jeep Grand Cherokee and relatively successful LH sedans, and 1994 would be a big year for the company, too. Not only was the Neon a hot seller compared to the outgoing Shadow/Sundance models, but the redesigned Ram was practically flying off dealer lots, and was massively profitable.
I take special care to mention the original JGC and ’94 Dodge Ram pickup here because, unlike the LH and Neon, both of those vehicles relied heavily on Chrysler’s existing parts bin to cut costs. They were selling because they looked amazing, and because customers didn’t seem to mind paying premium dollars for an aging 4.0L inline-six in the Jeep or a Magnum V8 engine in a truck that looked that good.
That same thinking that led to old engines in new skins could have been applied to the Neon easily enough, as well. After all, the engine definitely fits, and it’s hard to imagine that a 110 hp 2.2L equipped Neon would have sold in significantly fewer numbers than the base SOHC version.
“Let’s give the people four power windows and keep the 2.2L, at least for another year or two,” they might have said, in some imagined boardroom. “Do we still have a few hundred turbo engines sitting around? Let’s toss a few of those into that racecar the skunkworks boys want to build, too, and be rid of all of that old stock before we go to the trouble of launching that expensive new 2.0L.”
Hell, putting the 2.2 into a Neon seems damn-near sensible in that context, and the waves that a 2.2L turbocharged Neon ACR – sorry, Neon GLH-S – could have made in the early Honda/Mitsubishi import drag scene would have been big enough for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to sing an entire Moana song about.
What’s more, there would be none of this “unheralded” stuff. No, sir. A 2.2L limited-edition Neon would have been up there in the pantheon of great, overpowered torque-steering oddballs like the Saab 900 Turbo, the Lancia Thema 8:32, and, well, the Dodge Omni GLH that came before it.
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.