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1996 Dodge Neon - Dark Side

The Hows and Whys Of One of the Fastest, Streetable FWDs Ever

Jeff Koch
May 1, 2001

Dodge Neon and Super Street go all the way back to the beginning. Our first project car was a ’96, last seen somewhere on the East Coast getting a quad throttle body upgrade. (If anyone has seen it lately, kindly let us know of its whereabouts.) We never did manage to get much serious speed out of it, and in light of the Honda crowd making street-driven ten-second quarters a stark reality, it’s nice to know that we at least had the right idea.

Len Ayala, the owner of this Neon, turned to turbo power and the knowledge of Hahn Racecraft in nearby Oswego, Illinois. Bill Hahn, who’s had his hand in some of the hairiest Dodge Vipers known to man, as well as some nutso sportbikes that pump out 450 hp per liter, got to work. Hahn started by using an Eclipse bolt-on turbo system (previous-generation non-turbo Eclipses and Neons shared the 2.0L), but things quickly got out of control from there.

Said Hahn,“The Neon was new to me, but the concepts behind making one go fast were not.” Hahn, one of the top importers of Mitsubishi turbo units in the country, specced out his own turbo, the Super 20G-N, built by Mitsubishi to take the additional abuse of nitrous; Hahn claims that they work fine at 30 to 35 pounds of boost and has yet to see one fail in competition use.

“The only thing we had to learn about was drivetrain approach. The Neon uses a New Process A578 transaxle, and we’re running ours stock save for the Quaife differential. Distributing the power load enhances durability, and since the axles can be considered ‘fuses,’ the diff helps even things out. We also cannot sidestep the clutch off the line. Front drivers can’t take the initial shock loads without axle attrition. The key is to use the drivetrain without abusing it. We don’t do speed shifts either since these also lead to heavy high-momentary shock loads.”

The turbo got Len into the 11.30s; with the 100hp shot of juice Len is going solid 10.50s at nearly 140 mph. The head, incidentally, is stock—no porting, polishing, valve job, nothing. The sole change is a set of adjustable cam gears (Hahn swears they’re set at the factory specs—for now). And it drinks premium pump gas on the street.

And when it’s there, it’s a sight to behold. Len reports: “I lock the e-brake and burn out in Second gear till the car drags itself out of the water box. I pre-stage, manually revving motor up and down so it’s racing. Soon as stage hits, I rev to the limiter (4,500 rpm at idle), and drop the hammer as soon as it turns green. Redline is 7,500 rpm and I shift there. The turbo kicks in at around 3,000-3,200 rpm, and the higher it revs, the harder the power comes on. On a dyno sheet, the power curve almost looks exponential.”

Traction, as you might imagine, is another matter altogether. Switching from 3.94s to 3.55s was a start (and made the trip through the lights more pleasant as well). But. “My biggest traction problems come at the top of First gear,” says Len. “The car has so much power it overpowers the tires even after it’s rolling. To prevent this, I run a pair of 62-inch long wheelie bars to help keep the car from shifting its weight back. Also, the rear coilovers in back are set to full hard.”

So, how does the engine stay together? Len swears it’s all in the tuning. “As long as the air/fuel ratio is happy, the car responds well. I’m constantly monitoring it. Plus, Bill has always tuned it toward the safe side, I think, so there’s probably more left in it. It’s survived 28 pounds of boost and a 100-horse shot of nitrous.”

OK, so it goes. Better still, the Neon doesn’t advertise. Len (who is in his mid-30s) has wisely avoided the typical graphic nightmare and gone with basic black, big rims for the street, with silver and black accents inside to go for a sedate, adult feel. Not even a wing on the back. Sort of an ADM (American Domestic Market) approach, if you will. If you can’t bring yourself to think of it as attractive, we can at least agree that the treatment it’s been dealt has minimized the damage.

One of Len’s more perverse delights in telling the story of his Neon is the pricing: after all the tweaking has been done, this car can be replicated for about the cost of a new Integra Type R, go faster, and have cheaper insurance to boot.

Len claims that he’s at the car’s streetability limit now; there’s more in it, but he’ll have to turn his Neon into a full-on gutted race car. That bums us out a little, that such a fine example of a 10-second street car will be forced to give up its streetability, but we’re encouraged that research and experimentation will continue. Len claims he wants to pilot the first 200 mph FWD quarter-mile run. Sound impossible? He’s come this far. Will anyone bet against him? We sure won’t.

By Jeff Koch
24 Articles

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