Behind The Friendly Grin 1994 Dodge Neon

Designer: Thomas C. Gale of Chrysler and team

The Neon almost didn't get its smiley-face front end. The team of Chrysler Corp. designers, engineers, and marketers that created the friendly looking subcompact initially chose a more conservative appearance, with ho-hum rectangular headlamps. But in a September, 1991, meeting, former Chairman Lee A. Iacocca urged the team to make a switch to the oval lamps that had been such a hit on a Neon prototype that was shown in January of that year at Detroit's annual auto show. Iacocca got his way, which is why a white Neon now grins "Hi" from ads in magazines and newspapers.

The Neon team did a lot more than that, however. It ditched a three-decade Detroit tradition of simply scaling down large sedans when designing small ones. Led by head Chrysler designer Thomas C. Gale, they created a sporty shape with attitude. "It is more whimsical and more fun than the Saturn, which is designed as a smaller sedan," says Tom Matano, a Mazda stylist and design award judge. "Its face, its roomier interior, its basic shape all make it a fun little car."

During the car's 42-month gestation period, members of the Neon team sought a precarious balance between keeping costs in line and building a car with the looks and features buyers want. For instance, they went all-out on safety, making dual air bags standard. But they cut corners by eschewing exterior body moldings and forming most bumpers from colored plastic rather than painting them.

The Neon took a silver IDEA award, beating out the Chevrolet Camaro, which won a bronze. Strangely, Ford didn't enter its wildly successful Mustang into the contest.

Consumers certainly seem smitten with the Neon. So far, Chrysler has 179,000 orders for the little four-door, which is priced from $8,975 to $13,000--well below most of its comparably equipped competitors. That's 30,000 cars more than the company will be able to build this year. And that's before two new versions hit the showrooms this fall: an even lower-priced coupe and a sport model with stiffer suspension and a more powerful engine. No wonder the little car is smiling.

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