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The once-celebrated, now often-overlooked Dodge Neon is reaching out with a high-performance model to a select group of buyers, hoping to enliven the image of the whole Neonline. All versions of the Neon small sedan get a freshening for 2003 — new grille, rump and lights, mainly.
(note: Check out the video to the right in the middle.)

But the big news is a limited-production, whiz-bang model called SRT-4. It's less than $20,000 and is a fairly basic Neon that gets significant engine, chassis and tire improvements to appeal to the sport-compact crowd. They're the folks who favor small, front-wheel-drive cars, generally Asian brands, as palettes for their customizing brushes.

And because they're the hip, young customers that Detroit wants, the Detroit guys are standing on their heads trying to figure ways to swipe the buyers from Asian automakers.

Never mind whether SRT-4 is right for that. It's raw fun, to be appreciated in its own right. The blazing yellow test model had heads snapping all over the suburbs. It comes with a manual transmission only, so you know it's for driving enthusiasts. The air spoiler sticks so far above the trunk it's either wonderfully brash or abominably ridiculous. On the test car, it almost seemed appropriate.

The real soul of SRT-4 is the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine wearing a power-enhancing turbocharger that bumps output to 215 horsepower and 245 pounds-feet of torque, vs. 132 hp and 130 lbs.-ft. from Neon's standard 2-liter engine.

The best part is that the engine's generous torque is available at a low engine speed of just 2,000 rpm. That makes SRT-4 quite agreeable in slow traffic, not turbo-typically tepid.

Trying to tame SRT-4's considerable urge is a set of 17-inch-diameter tires on wheels that are supposed to look as if you ordered them from a hot-rod catalog. The suspension is tuned stiff, like an iron-rumped young buck or doe would favor. Yet it is surprisingly comfortable on reasonably good roads. Take those potholes and drainage channels slowly, though.

Enormous disc brakes on all wheels, not just up front, are on display through the wheel spokes, alerting others that you can stop as quickly as you can go.

Kick over the engine on a cold morning, and it sputters to life through the lovely twin tailpipes, sounding more like your cousin's 20-year-old Corolla with rusted muffler. The sound mellows as the engine warms and as speed rises. But the exhaust note remains a raspy blaaat, never turning really sweet. Small price for the delights.

The last car that offered so much fun for the dollar was the original, 1990 Mazda Miata.

To love SRT-4, you have to be oblivious to, or enjoy, strangers' stares. If you're of a certain age, you have to endure that "c'mon, grow up" look from guys in the Buick years of life. You have to have passion for a car that flat-out goes and looks the part.

The car's insides are in character. Hanging down from a high lip on the dashboard is a gauge measuring the turbocharger boost — the amount of pressure the turbo's applying to compress the air flowing into the engine. The more air it jams in there, the more fuel the engine computer can add, which means the mixture ignites more forcefully, increasing power to the wheels.

That boost gauge is an Auto Meter brand, big with the high-performance crowd.

The seats are similar to those in the ferocious Dodge Viper V-10 sports car. That means they hold you in place just fine during severe corners and are comfortable long distances, despite the fact they seem too stiff and contoured at first. But it also means you have to maneuver your keister over the exaggerated side bolsters. That's hard enough in big cars and taxes agility in a small one the size of SRT-4.

Once you're in, the door handle's a mighty reach. Short-armed folks will need lassos or grab-hooks to shut the door.

Front windows are power-operated, but rear windows use manual cranks, same as in other low-end Neons. That means the driver and front passenger can't conveniently open the back windows to quiet wind buffeting when the fronts are open.

Like the engine, the gearbox is cranky when cold. Second gear is hard to get without grinding. Even fully warmed, second remains delinquent. But in the Neon's defense: Race cars have pouty transmissions, too.

Steering, braking and cornering are delightful.

Rear-seat legroom is — no surprise — limited. Six-footers have no business back there unless five-footers are in front.

Dodge says it required dealers who wanted the SRT-4 to get training on how to sell to the hot-blooded sport-compact crowd. Let's hope the training was more than a sales guy getting a passing grade on a "how to be hip" quiz.

If nothing else, SRT-4 is a cheap way to go middle-age crazy, and it passes for a useful sedan, to boot.

Mostly, SRT-4 is like those fondly remembered lovers of youth — the ones so passionate and so perfect at the time. Mate with them long term and they'd begin to seem overwrought, annoying. But you'd have a lesser life if not for the time spent with them.

2003 Dodge Neon SRT-4

What is it? Hot-rod version of small, four-door, front-wheel-drive Neon sedan, manufactured at Belvidere, Ill.

How soon? On sale in California and Florida mid-January; on sale the rest of the USA right about now.

How much? $19,995, including $545 destination charge. says true dealer cost is $17,991 after subtracting $584 extra profit called holdback from dealer invoice cost of $18,575. Edmunds expects typical selling price to average $19,772.

What's the safety gear? Usual array of bags and belts, plus anti-lock brakes.

What's the powertrain? Ah, yes: 2.4-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine with 215 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, 245 pounds-feet of torque at 2,000; heavy-duty, five-speed manual transmission.

What's the rest? High-performance suspension and brakes; air conditioning; AM/FM/CD stereo; power steering, brakes, front windows, mirrors, locks; remote-control locks; leather-covered steering wheel; tilt-adjustable steering column; rear-window defroster; fog lights; 205/50R-17 high-performance tires on aluminum alloy wheels.

How fast? Dodge says 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, top speed 148 mph.

Who'll buy? "Tuners," defined as men ages 16-25 who live in cities or suburbs and spend extraordinary time and money on their cars. "Performance enthusiasts," defined as singles, 18-34, opinion leaders, making an average $33,400 a year and upwardly mobile — oh, yeah, and they love fast cars.

How many? Just 3,000 '03 models are planned. Future numbers are undisclosed.

How big? At the big end of small: 175.7 inches long, 67.4 inches wide, 56.5 inches tall, on a 105-inch wheelbase. Weight is listed as 2,970 pounds.

How thirsty? Rated 22 miles per gallon in town, 30 on the highway. Premium fuel is specified.

Overall: Consider a fling, even if you're too old.
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