FIRST PLACE: DODGE SRT-4
It took another car from Detroit to knock the SVT Focus off its pedestal, and it did it the old-fashioned, Motown way: by applying brute power. The SRT-4 is a Neon on steroids. What it lacks in finesse compared with the Ford, it more than compensates for with tire-smoking, exhaust-snorting acceleration. When technical editor Don Sherman sampled the SRT-4 (Street and Racing Technology, four cylinders) for our December 2002 issue, his unbridled enthusiasm for this hotted-up Neon (a Neon!) made us wonder if he had been drinking the Kool-Aid up in Auburn Hills. But the numbers don't lie, and the story they tell here is 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, 0 to 100 mph in 14.0 seconds, and a 14.2-second quarter-mile at 102 mph. Nothing else in the category, certainly not the SVT Focus, comes close. Heck, the SRT's 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times are nearly identical to those of the $62,000 Jaguar S-type R and the $45,000 BMW Z4 3.0i we also tested in December.
Hard to believe, but the sixteen-valve DOHC 2.4-liter four is the same unit used in base models of the Dodge Stratus and the Caravan minivan. In turbocharged form, it also sees duty in the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT. Its official SRT-4 output is 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque, but those figures might be conservative. Our Primedia corporate cousins at Sport Compact Car measured 223 horsepower and 250 pound-feet on the dyno. Suffice it to say that it's more than sufficient. Unlike the Mini, the Ford, and the Mazda, the Dodge delivers smooth, sustainable, serious power at any speed and in any circumstance. During an impromptu, 100-mph freeway race among the four cars, we downshifted the SRT-4 into fourth gear and rocketed away from the others. "The SRT-4's engine is the best of the group by far," enthused Quiroga. "I think it's better even than the Subaru Impreza WRX's engine, because it's never out of step." Turbo lag? MIA.
The SRT-4's duds include seventeen-inch cast aluminum wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport tires, an aluminum intercooler shining through a new front fascia, an integral hood scoop, red brake calipers, and a surprisingly well-integrated basket-handle rear wing. Leg the throttle in neutral, and the exhaust snaps, crackles, and pops like some sort of miniature Viper to announce your stoplight presence. If you needed any further proof that this is no rental Neon, get on your knees and have a look at the dual-outlet exhaust system's pipes, as thick as pythons, crisscrossing the underside of the car.
Inside, we find an underwhelming Neon cabin laid over with some Performance Vehicle Operations gear, including an AutoMeter boost gauge (shooting the needle to 14 or 15 psi is seriously addictive), silver-colored instruments, and a round silver shift knob. The front seats are wide and extremely well bolstered. There's also an SRT-specific, three-spoke steering wheel, but the rest of the cabin is strictly Neon-grade, which means such indignities as wind-down rear windows.
The SRT-4's braking distance was the shortest, even though it's the heaviest car with the biggest frontal weight bias. Ride quality is almost on par with the Focus, although the steering is "a little light and numb," claimed Quiroga, and effort is not quite as progressive. Both cars have more body roll than the Mini. The Dodge's five-speed New Venture Gear T-850 gearbox is the best here, with satisfying snick-snicks and positive feel.
The SRT-4 is not just a Neon with a hot engine. Like the SVT Focus, it's a properly and thoroughly engineered street car whose suspension, brakes, transmission, and steering have been upgraded to complement--rather than endure--the engine's prodigious performance. It was first seen as the SRT concept at the 2000 Los Angeles auto show, and the production SRT-4 debuted at the 2002 Detroit show. The $19,995 sticker makes it an incredible performance bargain.
All four of these cars are capable of providing maximum grins for minimal dollars, and we'll direct appreciative nods toward drivers we see behind the wheel of any of them. But Dodge has upped the ante with the SRT-4, which wins this comparison because of its raw, unadulterated, and muscular engine, which kicks sand into the intake manifolds of the competition. The Dodge has neither the style and cachet of the Mini, the Mazda's street cred, nor the Ford's balance of packaging, finesse, and performance. What it does have is a very well-tuned chassis, one helluva powertrain, and the ability to blow everything else at its price point into the wild mustard. Whether you're on a road course or a drag strip, that's all that really matters. What we're really waiting for, however, is a car that combines the style of the Cooper S, the audio system of the Mazdaspeed Proteg, the chassis of the Focus, and the engine of the SRT-4.