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Project Dodge Neon: Part 1

Suspension Upgrades

Mike Kojima
Jul 17, 2002

Several moons ago, our engineering editor, Dave Coleman, made a comment in his nerdy "Technobabble" that he had yet to see a fast Neon. This low-down, thinly veiled insult caused Coleman to be burned in effigy by a mob of enraged Mopar lovers in our parking lot. Well, not really, but he did get some hate mail.

In an attempt to spare Dave from further mental anguish, I drew the assignment of building the better Neon. Even though I'm known to be a lover of machines from the land of the rising sun, I pledge to make Project Neon interesting, searching out the best, state-of-the-art performance parts and innovating where necessary. World-class performance in handling, braking and acceleration is the goal; humble beginnings or not.

Instead of starting with the hot Neons from the Pentastar boys, the venerable DOHC ACR or R/T performance models, we started with a common and somewhat homely base 1999 five-speed SOHC model, the last of the first-generation Neons. The DOHC Neons were only produced for four years, from 1996 to 1999, and are fairly rare. We wanted to represent a car that more Neon fans would have access to. Most of what we will do to the SOHC model can be done to the DOHC as well.

A well-established, but often unknown, fact for the average import-loving compact car fan is that the Neon has a proud and successful racing heritage as a dominating champ in SCCA Road Racing and Autocross competition. Chrysler, in a move of incredible marketing savvy built a limited-edition, stripped-out Neon, equipped just for racing. This was the feared ACR model.

The ACR was a lightweight Neon that had no options, and a suspension fitted with stiffer springs, Koni adjustable shocks, front and rear anti-roll bars and an important feature that its competition did not have: adjustable camber. The Neon ACR was a formidable competitor, winning many national autocross championships, and ruling SCCA's D Stock class with an iron fist. The ACR competed fiercely in C Street Prepared as well as winning multiple national titles in SCCA's SSB and SSC road racing classes. Currently, a turbo Neon is one of the country's fastest in SCCA's new Street Mod Class.

This is a far cry from the image many have of Neons. Many sport compact fans think of the Neon as a crappy rental car or a cutesy girl's first car. We'll be out to show that a car does not have to be made overseas to be cool or to perform well. The Neon has the basics to get the job done and its racing heritage proves this.

As most project cars at SCC are well-balanced machines with equal attention being given to suspension, braking and horsepower, this installment of Project Neon will focus on giving this little econobox world-class grip in the twisties. The ultimate goal is to build a suspension that will make the Neon competitive in SCCA's new Street Touring Autocross Class and be fun to drive at hot lapping events such as those run by Open Track, NASA or Speedtrial USA.

With its successful racing heritage, we knew we had to make Project Neon a handler. In this first step, we skipped the basic street spring and shock suspension mod phase and went straight to the build-up of a pretty serious budget suspension; one that will prove competitive in some of our local events.

In this first stage of mods, we're also stressing affordability. While we should be very competitive with these basics, we will be working to do some more esoteric and even better performing stuff later in this project. With no further ado, let's get ready to rumble.

Wheels and Tires
We were not happy with the car's stock, stamped-steel, 14-inch wheels and skinny, all-season tires. In our search for a new set of wheels, light weight was a key issue. A light wheel reduces unsprung weight. Less unsprung weight means the suspension will follow the contour of the ground better and put less load on the dampers. Lighter wheels also aid acceleration and braking by reducing the wheel's rotational inertia. The wheels had to look good.

Unfortunately, the Neon's wheels have an uncommon 5x100 bolt pattern, limiting our wheel selection to a few models. After much fruitless searching, Enkei supplied us with a set of prototype as-yet-unnamed wheels. These wheels are 17x7 inches and have a 35-mm offset. They're cast aluminum and feature a relatively feathery weight, for a 17-inch cast wheel, of 17 lbs each. These were one of the lightest wheels we could find in the proper offset and bolt pattern for Project Neon. Plus, we like the way they look. These wheels will be available shortly in 5x100 as well as other bolt patterns.

When it came to tires, we wanted practicality. There would be no gummy, soft-compound race rubber for this daily driver, but we did want rubber that would be competitive and legal for SCCA's street-tire-only Street Touring Class. Doing a little research, we found the Bridgestone Potenza S-02 is considered by many to be the best tire for the Street Touring Class. We also learned the S-02 has just been superceded by Bridgestone's new performance tire flagship, the Potenza S-03. Our decision was made.

The S-03 features a dual-compound tread. A harder, longer wearing outer layer surrounds a soft rubber inner layer. The harder rubber works to protect the edges of the softer rubber in the tread blocks, providing long wear, but the softer rubber still provides stick to the pavement. It works. The S-03 is one of the stickiest non-race compound street radials we have yet to experience. The grip actually feels better to us than some of the harder compound DOT race tires.

Shocks
For shocks we chose to go the same route Chrysler did when it spec'd out the ACR model: Koni Sport adjustable shocks. The Konis are a twin-tube, nitrogen gas-charged design. The gas pressure helps keep the oil from cavitating when it passes through the shock's metering valves. The gas charging also helps raise the shock fluid's boiling point, making the damping more consistent under hard use.

These Konis feature harder damping than regular Konis and externally adjustable rebound damping. In fact, Koni is one of the few off-the-shelf, reasonably priced, high-performance shocks available for the Neon. We particularly liked the adjustable rebound damping as it gives us more latitude to adjust the shock for a wide range of spring rates and usages. If you do not have the budget for adding negative camber via camber plates, the Neon Konis are also slotted in the lower mounts so the camber can be adjusted there. This is a very useful feature for any MacPherson strut car.

Coil-over Spring Conversion Kit
Like many of our project cars, Project Neon will see serious track use. Therefore, our spring rates had to go beyond your typical street lowering spring, most of which tend to be too low and too soft for serious driving. The ability to adjust ride height and corner weights is also important.

We chose a coil-over spring conversion kit from Ground Control to add to our shocks, foregoing the usual street lowering spring right from the start. Ground Control uses high-quality Eibach ERS 2.5 inch racing springs in its coil-over conversion kits. The good thing about the ERS spring line-up is that they're available in just about any length and spring rate in 50 lb/in. increments--just what we need for dialing in the suspension.

The main reason we chose to go this route is the Neon's very limited wheel travel. In fact, the poor Neon has less suspension travel than any car we have yet to lay our hands on. The Neon also has a wafer-thin bump stop, which bottoms with a harsh bang when bigger bumps are hit. Because of this, the car cannot be lowered much and must use very high rate springs to keep the car from bottoming out under cornering loads.

If a corner of the car bottoms while negotiating a turn, the effective spring rate for that corner becomes infinite, allowing a lot of weight transfer to the affected tire. This causes sudden and violent oversteer or understeer depending on which corner of the car the bump stops touch first.

The Neon only has about 2.5 inches of bump travel stock so Neons lowered more than an inch handle poorly under track or autocross conditions. We obtained Ground Control's coil-over spring conversion kit for our Konis. When we opened the package from Ground Control, and checked the springs we had received, we thought there was some sort of packing mistake. Ground Control had supplied us with 600 lb/in front and 700 lb/in rear ERS springs, which are stiffer than the springs we used in our 3500-pound supertank project 300ZXTT.

Ground Control's suspension guru Jay Morris assured us those rates were needed to get the car to rotate correctly and stay off the bump stops. Jay told us the ride would be firm and edgy, but it would not be totally unreasonable on the street due to the Neon's excellent body stiffness and long wheelbase.

To give the shocks a clean racing coil-over shock look, we cut the Koni's now-unneeded spring seat away with a die grinder. The Ground Control threaded sleeves are machined from 7075 aluminum and are hard anodized to resist corrosion and to prevent galling of the collars and sleeves when they're adjusted with the car's weight on them. The sleeves slipped over the Koni bodies. The collars threaded onto the sleeves so the ERS springs and alloy spring top hat could be installed.

Camber Plates
Since the adjustability of camber is critical for any serious suspension tuning, we obtained a set of Ground Control's front and rear camber plates. The front plates are adjustable for camber and caster while the rear plates are adjustable for camber only. The plates mount the shock in a spherical bearing, so 100 percent of the suspension's movement is controlled by the Koni damper, as opposed to squishing the soft rubber of the stock upper shock mount. Getting rid of the rubber helps maintain negative camber under cornering loads as well. Rubber strut mounts tend to deflect outward under load so the camber goes positive; not the best thing for keeping the tire tread flat on the ground while cornering.

In most camber plates, the heavily loaded spherical bearing that holds the shock shaft wears quickly and needs constant inspection and periodic replacement. Ground Control has a unique cure for this. Most of the car's weight is supported by a roller thrust bearing built into the upper spring seat on the front coil-over kit. This bearing allows the spring seat and strut to rotate in the camber plate when the steering wheel is turned. The thrust bearing takes most of the strain of holding the car up, leaving the spherical bearing to locate the shock shaft. Because of this, Ground Control camber plates require less maintenance than most other camber plates, even in a daily driver.

The Ground Control plates are also much thinner than the stock Neon upper shock mount. This allows us to lower the car another 1/2 inch without giving up any precious wheel travel. The front plate is a direct bolt-on, but because the hole the rear shock shaft travels through in the unibody is very small; we had to enlarge the hole in the rear shock tower to provide a decent range of adjustment. We made quick work of this with an air-powered die grinder, but any appropriate metal working tool could do the job.

We adjusted the front suspension to have 2 degrees negative camber and 3 degrees positive caster with an 1/8 of an inch toe-out. This is not the best setup for long tire life, but it's a good compromise between ultimate grip and reasonable tire wear. We also adjusted the ride height to lower the car about 1 1/2 inches in the rear and 1 inch in the front. To lower the car more means we would have to sacrifice more of the precious little 1 1/2-1 3/4 inches of bump travel we had left. In short, you can't slam a Neon if you expect to do well in cornering.

In the rear, we set the suspension to 1.5 degrees negative camber, with zero rear toe. This is to reduce rear traction slightly compared to the front, which will help the FWD Neon rotate at the limit.

Anti-Roll Bars
We installed a set of Eibach front and rear anti-roll bars on Project Neon. The Eibach bars replaced the wimpy front stock bar and added a bar to the rear. The Eibach front bar is a beefy, solid 1 inch in diameter, replacing the 7/8-inch hollow stock bar. The Eibach bar is also mounted in harder urethane bushings in a stronger bracket.

Since the stock front anti-roll bar mounts featured rock-hard polyurethane end link bushings, we simply re-used them with the stock end link bolt. The rear 3/4-inch bar featured OEM-quality end links that bolted right up to some mounting locations on the Neon's chassis. These mounting locations must have been put in place by the factory for the ACR or R/T models, which have a stock anti-roll bar. The anti-roll bars work to reduce body roll and increase the weight transfer to the outside rear wheel, reducing understeer.

Energy Suspension Bushings
With the tires, springs, shocks and anti-roll bars in place, we were really impressed by the car's handling. Turn-in was exceedingly crisp; perhaps better than any street car we have driven to date. The chassis was well balanced, the grip of the S-03 Potenzas impressive, but all was not right. When cornering hard, the steering felt unresponsive and mushy under side load. More disturbingly, the steering wheel would not return to center after a hard corner.

We figured the mushy stock rubber bushings were deflecting and deforming due to the high side loads of the sticky tires. This kept the suspension geometry from returning to the position they were set.

We also found that the Neon, like many late-model FWD cars, has very weak, damage-prone engine mounts. We've heard reports of people breaking their stock mounts after only one drop of the clutch.

To cure this, Energy Suspension got us a suspension bushing set and motor mount kit made of hard polyurethane. The complete set for the Neon replaces every single soft squishy rubber suspension bushing with much harder polyurethane plastic. The hard urethane prevents the suspension mounting points from moving and flexing, keeping the suspension geometry true under load and, when teamed with the motor mounts, reducing wheel hop.

We pressed the stock rubber bushings out of the Neon's front control arms and rear suspension links using a hydraulic press. If you don't have access to a press, you can use a propane torch (to heat and soften the stock bushings), a vice and some sockets. We reinstalled the Energy Suspension's parts using liberal amounts of the company's special, tenacious silicone grease. It's important to use this grease to prevent the bushing from squeaking. Once it's on your hands though, you'll need some WD40 to get it off.

The Energy engine mounts are easy to install. They're simply inserts that take up the empty space in the stock mount. After spraying the mounts with liberal amounts of silicone lube, the bushings slip into place. Unbelievably, the stock motor mounts were already broken, even though the owner of Project Neon had never--so she says--indulged in clutch-dropping, burnout antics.

The Energy mounts can be used to rebuild failed and sagging stock motor mounts. With the Energy inserts, your mounts will perform better than brand-new stock mounts, even though the Energy mounts are cheaper and more durable. The bushings complemented the other mods we performed on Project Neon. The mushiness is gone, as well as the steering wheel's off-center antics. The steering response and feel is much better. Although more road vibrations are transmitted to the driver's compartment and small bump impact harshness is increased, ride comfort is improved on bigger bumps, because the urethane bushings have less "sticktion" than the stock rubber pieces. The trade-off in road noise and vibration is well worth the increase in suspension control and road feel.

Strut Tower Braces
Although the Neon is blessed with a good, stiff platform, you can never be too stiff. Stiffness aids chassis tuning by making it easier to transfer weight around the chassis under cornering loads. The stiffer the chassis, the more sensitive the car will be to suspension-setting adjustment.

To further stiffen the chassis on Project Neon, we found the stiffest chassis braces on the market. Made by Edlebrock, these beautiful pieces are fabricated from rectangular section steel tubing and beefy braces.

When installing the front brace, we found it hit the underside of the hood and the coil pack on top of the valve cover. The info on Edlebrock's Web site explained the front brace fits only the DOHC variant of the Neon. The DOHC does not have the coil packs in the same position and has a bulged hood that clears the brace. Fortunately, the rear brace bolted in with no hassles.

For a front brace, we were forced to regroup. We found the Chikara brace on the 'Net, which is made of solid aluminum stock with a fairly large cross section. Although not quite as stiff as the Edlebrock steel unit, it appears to be the stiffest brace that will fit an SOHC Neon. Other braces we looked at appeared to be tubular, with a wimpy-thin cross section. Since stiffness is what it's all about, the Chikara unit got the nod.

The braces did not make as big of a difference as they have with many of our other project cars, probably because the Neon is pretty stiff to begin with, but they did make the car feel more solid. This solid feel will also transfer into a greater sensitivity to suspension adjustments and make our life easier when tuning the suspension at the track.

After a twisty-road flog session, we were amazed at the Neon's newfound handling prowess. Though the Neon is a humble econobox, we feel it may out-corner all of our other project cars, many of which are equipped with high-buck suspensions. The car is simply amazing. The grip in turns is phenomenal; so great, in fact, it's impossible to safely reach the car's absolute limit on the street. While bombing freeway on and off ramps, the car sticks, and in our late-night industrial center test runs, we have not been able to find the car's cornering limit.

The bane of the high-performance FWD car--understeer--is nearly eliminated. When the throttle is lifted mid-corner, the car crisply lets its tail out, helping the car rotate while conserving momentum. The tail-out attitude is easily controllable with the throttle pedal or a bit of counter steer. The amount of rotation, however, is pretty aggressive and may be too aggressive for the timid driver. We may experiment with stiffening the front springs and softening the rear to make the car more neutral. Such fine tuneablity is easy with the Ground Control ERS spring system.

Despite our ultra-high spring rate selection, our ride on the street is acceptable, although we do admit it's a bit edgy for a daily driver.

Now that the car handles, its lack of horsepower is painfully apparent. Our next installment will focus on improving the lackluster performance of our humble 2.0-liter SOHC engine. We can hardly wait to finish the first round of bolt-on engine mods so we can enter some local autocrosses.

With luck, we'll be half as successful under the hood as we have been with the suspension.

Sources
KONI North America
(859) 586-4100
www.koni-na.com
Adjustable Gas Shocks

Ground Control Inc.
(530) 677-8600
www.ground-control.com
Coil-over Spring Kit, Camber/Caster Plates

Edelbrock
(310) 781-2222
www.edelbrock.com
Rear Strut Tower Brace

Energy Suspension
(949) 361-3935
www.energysuspension.com
Suspension Bushings and Engine Mounts

Eibach
(949) 752-6700
www.eibach.com
Anti-roll Bars and ERS Springs

Chikara
(562) 921-0404
www.chikaraperformance.com
Front Strut Tower Brace
By Mike Kojima
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