Buyer Guide: Dodge SRT4

Photography Credit: euroimage.us

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the June 2008 issue of Grassroots Motorsports]

Back in 2002, car enthusiasts were finally getting out of the millennial SUV doldrums. Signs of life were just beginning to develop in the sports sedan market after a dry spell that arguably began in 2000, when the last old-school Civic Si and Sentra SE-R models disappeared from showrooms. They were replaced by newer, heavier Eclipses, Civics, Sentras and Neons. 

Subaru fired the first shot of this sport compact revival in 2001 with the launch of their WRX, and the reverberations were felt from Torrance to Detroit. With WRX sales booming, other car makers jumped at the chance to compete—within a year, the Lancer Evolution VIII came to Mitsubishi dealers, while the Sentra SE-R Spec V brought up the budget end of the segment. Honda introduced the somewhat unloved 2002 Civic Si hatch, while Chrysler—then known as DaimlerChrysler—responded with the lackluster Neon SXT

But wait, manufacturers were just warming up. Luckily for fans of the pentastar, a front-drive monster was waiting in the wings. An unsuspecting public was about to get a real American-style thrill: the 2003 Dodge SRT4

On paper the 215-horsepower screamer had far too much muscle to be forced through just two front wheels, but it was just what many people wanted. Ridiculously fast in a straight line, the SRT4 could accelerate to 60 in about 5.3 seconds. Tack on a top speed approaching 150—though Dodge claimed it was lower—and the fortified Neon exuded the vibe of a highly strung tuner car put together in someone’s garage. It was loud, bright and fast.

The car’s garish wing, bright paint options and in-your-face intercooler were polarizing features. Most contemporary reviews complained about the looks more than anything else. Meanwhile, fans of the car found the rough edges endearing since they were reminders of the muscle cars and turbo Dodges of their youths. If the looks were a bit much, that was part of the charm. Still, there was one feature that couldn’t be argued over: a price below $20,000.

The story of how we got the SRT4 is as interesting as the car—it’s one of those tales destined for automotive folklore. A couple of young engineers with a purpose and an attitude pushed through the project despite the objections of senior executives. Marques McCammon is credited as the man behind the SRT4. According to his own recounting to the press, his team built two prototypes of the car during 1999 and 2000. 

Their goal was to build an inexpensive, fast, tunable car, and that’s more or less what arrived at the end of the assembly lines in the fall of 2002. They combined an inexpensive Neon chassis with a few cheap exterior parts, an already-in-production 2.4-liter turbo engine and a few aftermarket goodies to create their dream Neon. It wore the SRT4 badge.

It’s Not a Neon

SRT stands for Street and Racing Technology, a Chrysler brand for performance cars, and the SRT4 was actually one of the first SRT-badged Chrysler products. Just don’t call it a Neon: Dodge insisted from the very beginning on marketing the SRT4 as the SRT4, not as a Neon. 

With the release of the SRT4, Chrysler’s Mopar Performance aftermarket parts division jumped into action, too. They began offering buyers the parts needed to undo the detuning performed on the Mexican-sourced turbo engine. Mopar introduced three “stage” kits to take the SRT4 all the way from smog-legal street car to track-only drag monster. 

Some of those parts (the Stage 1 injectors and PCM) made their way back into later production versions of the car. Having the Mopar parts available at any dealer and a strong contingency program in place helped launch the SRT4’s race career.

It’s Something Special

The SRT4’s body kit was the first thing most people noticed, along with its propensity for bright colors like red, yellow and blue. The SRT4 had a distinctive grille with a strong Dodge identity that matched other Chrysler products from the period. 

The headlights were standard-issue Neon, but the lower fascia and bumper were completely different. A hood scoop, different rear fascia and side skirts rounded out the body add-ons—oh, and then there was the massive rear wing perched atop the trunk lid. Seventeen-inch wheels (16s on the later ACR version) were standard, and sported split spokes that looked like expensive aftermarket wheels.

All SRT4s got the same Viper-inspired interior. Heavily bolstered seats were routinely praised by testers in the under-50 demographic, but less confining versions with side airbags were also available throughout the production run. All interiors were black, with fabric/vinyl seats. (Dodge calls the fabric color “agate” if you must know.)

The dash was unique to the SRT4 and featured aluminum rings around the dials and an aftermarket-inspired Auto Meter boost gauge just off to the side. A meaty round shift knob, textured leather steering wheel, and aluminum pedals completed the interior package. It was clean and functional, but there were complaints about the quality of materials used.

The engine was the old-as-the-hills 2.4-liter variant of the Neon’s DOHC 2.0-liter engine, itself a distant cousin (same head bolt pattern) of the ancient 2.2-liter Dodge SOHC mills used in the ’80s turbo cars. (The big-boy 2.4-liter block received added balance shafts, but it was more or less the same as the 2.0 engine.) Crazy enough, modern automotive DNA-sharing means that the DOHC head looks astonishingly similar to the one found topping the Mitsubishi 4G63, and the SRT4 block is actually related to the MINI Cooper S’s 1.6-liter supercharged engine. 

The SRT4’s interior was similar to a standard Neon, but Dodge didn’t miss the opportunity to install a big ball shifter, flashy gauges, aftermarket-look boost gauge and some very racy seats. A turbocharged 2.4-liter four-banger is a lot of engine for a little car; it helped the SRT4 run in a straight line with many contemporary V8s. Photography Credits: J.G. Pasterjak

Despite the SRT4 engine’s American roots, it’s actually a variant of a made-for-Mexico turbo engine that had been in production for a number of years. In order to meet American driving and emissions requirements, DaimlerChrysler engineers made slight revisions to the cooling and engine controls, which in turn improved reliability. They also eliminated the muffler—the dual exhaust had a catalytic converter but no muffler, since the turbo was deemed adequate enough at silencing the engine.

The tampering didn’t hurt power output any, that’s for sure. While rated at “just” 215 horsepower and 235 lb.-ft. of torque, early variants of the engine regularly pushed 225 or more horsepower on a chassis dyno. Later 230-horsepower engines cranked out as much as 235 horsepower at the wheels. All the action happened early on these engines—redline came at a buzzkill 6500 rpm, which matched well with the stock Mitsubishi Heavy Industries 16G turbo.

According to Chrysler material available at the time, the transmission was a tough five-speed taken from a European turbodiesel minivan. It featured equal-length half-shafts to help reduce torque steer. The first SRT4s weren’t equipped with a limited-slip differential for cost reasons, so they are very adept at one-wheel burnouts. Don’t worry, this was rectified after the first year of production.

The suspension was much modified from pedestrian Neons, featuring stiffer springs, improved Tokico struts, and stronger spindles taken from the PT Cruiser. Bigger brakes and anti-roll bars helped the stopping and turning, though many testers complained about the car’s mediocre handling and rough ride. Apparently some of the Neon roots couldn’t be completely exorcised—the SRT4 had painfully short suspension travel and a high ride height for such a small car.

And It Can Compete, Too

None of these vices stopped the SRT4 from being successful on track—from stage rally to road racing, the SRT4 has done respectably well. Credit the strong engine, huge aftermarket and rabid fans for its success. 

While never an overdog in autocross, the SRT4 is still a popular sight at local events. Even so, Mark Daddio earned a fifth-place trophy in the D Stock class at the 2004 SCCA Tire Rack Solo National Championships in a GRM-prepared entry. The SRT4 had the power but not the chassis to keep up with the dominant Integra Type R’s and BMW 330Cis.

The SRT4 has also made professional road race appearances, with teams giving the car a go in SCCA Speed World Challenge, Grand-Am Koni Challenge and Nitto Tires United States Touring Car Championship. Doug Shepherd and Pete Gladysz showed that despite a lack of traction, the SRT4 could be a rally monster; they won two SCCA ProRally titles with the car, while Shepherd tied for third in last year’s MaxAttack! series for two-wheel drive rally teams.

And like those old Mopars of yesterday, the SRT4 comes into its element on the drag strip. With little more than a few light modifications and good tires, stock-turbo cars can hit low-12s with a skilled driver. Mid- to high-11-second runs have been recorded by still streetable cars. Finally, for those who like to go all out, there’s even an SRT4 that set a Bonneville land speed record at 221 mph. 

Whether your idea of classic Mopar muscle is a ’60s Charger or an ’80s Omni GLH, the SRT4 kept that flame alive—and showed the imports that America could still build a little turbocharged monster.

SRT4s are pretty capable on track and around the cones, from NASA’s US Touring Car Championship to  GRM’s own Project SRT4 Solo National effort. Photography Credit: Head On Photos

Things to Know

The SRT4 started out as a performance bargain, and that’s still an accurate description of the car. At the time of its release, it was the fastest production car selling for less than $20,000—and on a sheer dollar-per-horsepower basis it was very hard to beat. Now that these cars have a few years on them and depreciation has taken its toll, they’re an even better performance deal. 

The 2003 Dodge SRT4 can now be found for as little as $10,000, with 2004 and 2005 models in the $15,000 range. These are cars that can run down the latest Evos and STIs for less than half the cost.

The ACR versions are harder to find and more expensive, as expected. Commemorative Editions command a premium, too, but that’s much harder to justify if you plan to drive or modify the car. Of course, with a car as rare as the SRT4, it might be hard to track one down at all, so don’t be surprised to find asking prices all over the map.

Body and Interior:
The good thing about the SRT4 is that it’s built on a Neon platform. However, that’s also the bad thing: Neons are not known for their durable interior materials. Our advice is to try to find the cleanest one possible. When new, SRT4s also tended to attract buyers who were interested in performance. Cars available these days have probably spent more time under wide-open throttle than the norm.

The hood as well as front and rear bumpers are unique to the SRT4, but they’re still available from Mopar.

Drivetrain:
The transmissions are not known for strength. Make sure that it shifts smoothly, and if it’s an ’03 look for signs of axle replacement. (New bolts are a good clue.) Buy an ’04 or ’05, if you can find one, to get the limited-slip diff, stronger axles, better transmission and larger injectors. 

As with most high-powered front-drive cars, swapping to harder motor mount bushings can pay big dividends in traction. “Windup” of the stock rubber bushings can cause wheel hop, loss of traction coming off of corners, and broken axles as the powertrain rocks back and forth. Just be sure that they’re legal if sanctioned competition is in the future.

Does your first-year SRT4 need a limited-slip? Mopar sells the piece for $1349; add another $68 for the installation kit. On a related note, Mopar also offers a short-shifter for $119.

Engine:
Look for signs of modification—missing clamps on the wastegate actuator line and nonstock wastegate vacuum hoses are clear hints that something’s been messed with. The Mopar-staged kits incorporate quality parts and shouldn’t cause problems directly. Still, they do suggest the car was anything but driven by Grandma on Sunday. 

The Mopar Stage 1 kit brings all SRT4 cars—even the 2003 models—to an even 240 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. Stage 2 bumps the engine to 265 horsepower thanks to an upgraded PCM, 682cc/min. fuel injectors, a wastegate actuator and a three-bar manifold pressure sensor. Stage 3 adds a bigger turbo and fuel pump to the Stage 2 parts. Either Stage 2 or Stage 3 can be combined with a Turbo Toys control unit that adds adjustable boost, an intercooler sprayer and a high-octane fuel switch. The Mopar kits are more expensive than the DIY route—the Stage 1 kits start at $549 while the higher kits cross the $3000 mark—but they’re good stuff and factory developed. They’re also available direct from Mopar or any Mopar dealer.

Like any turbo car, the SRT4 wants as little restriction as possible. The aftermarket has come up with bolt-on turbo kits (the stock SRT4 turbo is integrated with the exhaust manifold) and other goodies. If you want the really big power numbers, the sky’s the limit. 

Until recently it was impossible to tune the factory ECU, but now there’s at least one programming option available from SCT Automotive. Unfortunately for SRT4 owners, the DIY ECU tuning movement has not made many inroads into the SRT4 ECU.

We bumped our 2004 SRT4 project car from 233 horsepower at the front wheels to 243 by simply replacing the stock cat-back exhaust with a custom-bent, side-exit setup.

Chassis:
The SRT4 suspension suffers from very little travel. Adding thicker anti-roll bars and coil-overs will do wonders for handling, but you might find that spring rates require compromise to avoid bottoming. An upgrade with a great bang for the buck is the larger 19mm rear bar from a Neon ACR and the front 26mm piece from a PT Cruiser. Both are available from a junkyard or Chrysler dealer for not much money. 

Mopar has some factory goodies for the suspension, too, offering several Stage kits. Packages start with basic lowering springs and top out at race-valved coil-overs. The Mopar catalog also contains camber plates and a revised rear tension strut kit that is said to “virtually eliminate rear wheel hop under heavy braking.” Retail price is $49.

A Hotchkis suspension package made us happy campers with our old project car. The springs dropped our machine an inch up front and nearly two inches out back while raising the rates from 170 lbs./in. front and 125 lbs./in. rear to 230 lbs./in. and 200 lbs./in., respectively. Their $574.95 Stage 1 TVS System includes the springs plus hollow anti-roll bars—29mm front and 24mm rear.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

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