When big name brands such as Dodge and Fiat are owned by the same parent company and share production facilities around the world, it’s inevitable that sooner or later they’ll end up offering the same product, under different badges, to the same market. Which is why I found myself staring at the new Dodge Neon in Dubai last week with a little voice inside my head asking “Isn’t that the Fiat Tipo you drove in Turin in May?”.
With two notable exceptions, namely the engine and gearbox, the answer to that question is, “Yes, it’s the same base vehicle,” but Dodge has wisely chosen to offer the Neon to its Gulf customers with a higher base level of standard equipment. It’s a smart move on the part of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group to leverage the strength of the Dodge brand in the region, giving potential customers more reason to buy the car, due to their confidence in Dodge’s established dealer network and aftersales support. Obviously, as a European myself (for the next couple of years anyway!) the Fiat brand is well known to me, but it’s taking time to re-establish Fiat as a player in the Gulf’s entry-level car market, and since Dodge hasn’t had a product offering in that sector for many years over here, selling the Neon makes a great deal of sense.
Put the Neon alongside its competitors and I think you’ll agree that in comparison, it’s a good-looking car. Thankfully those smart marketing types in Detroit have decided to leave the Tipo’s pretty exterior alone, so apart from a few flourishes of chrome or black trim, depending on the choice of three specification levels, and of course some Dodge and Neon badges, the car you see here is as stylish as the one I drove in Italy — think of it as Gucci, not gauche. The only other noticeable exterior difference is with the wheels; the entry-level Neon SE has 15in steels, whilst the SXT and SXT Plus have 16in and 17in alloys respectively. Surprisingly in this day and age those rears hide a set of drum brakes, but there are discs on the front and I never once had any issue with the effect or feel of the brakes, so chalk one up to the engineers who saved some money with that decision.
Speaking of which, base model Neon prices start from Dh57,400 and it’s fair to say, for the money you do get a very respectable package of standard equipment. There’s six front, side and curtain airbags, tyre pressure monitoring, electronic stability control, anti lock braking and emergency brake assist just to name some of the more safety-related items. All models also come with cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel-mounted audio controls; for a vehicle likely to be used by thousands of sales reps up and down the country, those are features that are sure to be appreciated. Throw in a five-year/100,000km warranty and it’s clear that Dodge intends to challenge the established players in the sector with a strong value proposition.
The Neon will also be claiming bragging rights when it comes to interior space; there’s loads of it! The company’s engineers were on hand to explain to us just how big the trunk is, and after slowly explaining to them that the correct word is ‘boot’, I paused to check out their claims. At 520 litres it’s not only 40 per cent bigger than the market-leading cars in the compact sector, but surprisingly, also around 15 per cent bigger than the main players in the mid-sized sector. It did occur to me that perhaps I should be worried why an Italian American car should be equipped with such a large boot — after all, you could hide a lot of unwilling guests in a space that size, after making them an offer they couldn’t refuse — but I’m sure it will be put to use more often lugging around pushchairs, suitcases, and the weekly shopping. It’s worth mentioning again that the boot sill is only just above the floor level, making it easier to load, and that’s despite the Neon having a full sized spare wheel (in the SE).
Now normally, the way to maximise luggage space is to shunt the rear-passenger seats forwards, so there’s always a trade off to be had, but FCA’s engineers seem to have found a wormhole in the time and space continuum, which has allowed them to create a car with an equally large interior. Two of my journalist colleagues, both of whom stand more than 1.90 metres tall, sat in the rear of a display vehicle, with adequate legroom and still with a couple of centimetres of space above their heads — impressive. From outside the Dodge doesn’t look like a tall car, far from it, so top marks for interior space. The air conditioning too does a fine job of keeping all that space cool — I wasn’t able to test that functionality in Italy months ago but during a two-hour drive around Dubai last week, with the temperature approaching 40°C, I was never uncomfortable.
The interior of the car is put together neatly enough and first appearances would suggest that it’s well assembled. Only time will tell of course, but these cars are built in the FCA group’s Turkish plant in Bursa, where they know a thing or two about building a vehicle suitable for use in hot weather and rough roads, so I don’t foresee any problems there. The SXT model features an infotainment System with a 7.0in screen mounted tablet style on the dashboard and which has both voice recognition and, I suspect due to its Italian origins, hand gesture control. The SXT Plus further benefits from a rear-view camera and, from later this year, an integral navigation system.
Unfortunately, the Neon is rather less well-equipped when it comes to the driving experience. It’s not that it doesn’t handle well — it does. It’s a comfortable drive, and the seat, pedal and dashboard layout hold no unpleasant surprises, but that 1.6-litre 16-valve 110bhp engine, coupled to a six-speed automatic gearbox is never exactly brimming over with enthusiasm. You could argue that a vehicle in this sector, sold at this price point, is not going to be bought for its sporty prowess; that the ability to get from A to B safely in style, whilst using very little fuel, is more important, and you’d be right. Still I can’t help thinking that if Fiat/Dodge took the manual ’box from the 1.4-litre Tipo I drove in Italy, and put it into the 1.6-litre Neon sold in Dubai, between them, they’d create a better car.
I found myself using the Autostick function most of the time — that’s manual selection of the gears in the auto ’box to you and me — and that improved the driving experience no end. So the possibility to change gear ‘manually’ is there, albeit through an automatic transmission; when you do so, you’ll find you can push the Neon through the corners with sufficient confidence in the levels of grip that you can maintain plenty of momentum and thus avoid having to appeal to the engine for more power. There’s fun to be had in this car but you’ll have to work to find it.
For the price, the Neon represents great value. The cargo and passenger carrying capacity are very impressive and if you can learn to manage the gearbox to best effect, it will provide you with comfortable, safe, economic driving. I can see plenty of these finding their way on to business and hire car fleets, where little touches like the cruise control and wheel-mounted audio controls will be appreciated by drivers perhaps more used to cars with lower levels of equipment. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a Fiat or Dodge, but since the American manufacturer has claimed it, given its recent model history, I’m now hoping it’ll bring us a Neon SRT, with a Hemi V8 and four-wheel drive in 2017. Hey, you never know your luck, but if it does, the first thing I’d do would be to replace those rear drums. And check in the boot, just in case.