Nice Sensible Commuter Cars That Aren’t Corollas Or Civics: 2002 Hyundai Accent vs 2001 Plymouth Neon

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Welcome to the Tuesday edition of Shitbox Showdown! We’re continuing with our nice sensible choices today, and looking at a couple of bare-bones commuter-mobiles that might make a good substitute for the ubiquitous but often overpriced offerings from Toyota and Honda. First let’s see the final tally on our seven-seaters:

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Yep. That’s where I’m at with these, too. Nothing wrong with a good minivan, but a Chevy Suburban is just such a big friendly beast, it’s hard to resist. It’s like Ludo in Labyrinth, only less hairy.

But what about the fuel economy? I hear you. Fifteen miles to the gallon on a good day is hard to stomach, especially at today’s gas prices. What’s the solution? Do what I did; save the gas-guzzler truck for when you need it, and get yourself a cheap sacrificial econobox. The two obvious choices are the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic, but since they’re both so well-known, they tend to be over-valued (unless you get lucky and find a screaming deal on one like I did). If you look a little farther afield, you can find great cheap runabouts with other badges on them, like the two we’re going to check out.

Before I show them to you, let me just get it out of the way: Yes, they’re both automatics. Yes, I’d prefer a manual too. But with cars this cheap, sometimes you have to just take what comes along [Editor’s Note: Screw that. -DT], and even twenty years ago when these two were built, the vast majority were automatics. You’ll have to get your manual gearbox jollies some other day; this is what’s on offer today.

So let’s take a look:

2002 Hyundai Accent – $2,499

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 161,000 miles

Runs/drives? Indeed it does

There was a time when no one would have considered a used Hyundai. When I worked at a garage in the ’90s, the remaining first-generation Excels were gasping their last breaths, despite being less than a decade old. Build quality, reliability, and longevity were all pretty much nonexistent. But it was interesting to watch them go from appalling to not-half-bad in the course of only a few years. And now, a twenty-year-old Hyundai isn’t a completely idiotic choice.

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Granted, it’s not the most exciting thing on four wheels, but these second-generation Accents are reasonably well screwed together, and certainly economical. And really, how much performance and handling do you need in the middle of a traffic jam?

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This particular Accent looks like it’s holding up well, at 161,000 miles. There’s not much wear on the interior, and it’s a decent twenty-footer outside, too. Yeah, it’s refrigerator-white. But look at it this way: it’s the perfect starting point for a Martini or Alitalia livery. (Come on, you know you want to see an Hyundai Accent in Alitalia livery.) And the lack of power features is just less stuff to break.

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Okay, fine. Not convinced? Want something with a little more pep?

2001 Plymouth Neon – $1,995

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Hammond, IN

Odometer reading: 100,000 miles (or is that just what they listed because they had to list something? It’s hard to tell sometimes)

Runs/drives? Yeppers

I admit: I am a big fan of the Neon. I had a first-generation two-door that I loved, until it was rear-ended by a carelessly-driven WRX. I still miss it. It was noisy, harsh, and rough around the edges, but it was a hoot to drive, even with an automatic. This second generation Neon is a kinder, gentler machine, not as zippy maybe, but more comfortable.

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It still has the same single-overhead-cam 2.0 liter four that my Neon had, backed by the same 3-speed Torqueflite automatic. This slushbox was 20 years old by this time, and hopelessly outdated compared to the competition, but smooth and reliable. And the original Neon’s sharp handling is still present in this second-generation, so there’s still some fun to be had, even if you can’t shift for yourself.

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This Neon has held up well, give or take a little Midwestern rust. It’s presentable outside, still looks tidy inside, and according to the seller, runs well. It’s not as polished as some other cars in its class, but it’ll haul ass around an on-ramp, and like our Suburban yesterday, it’s a good color. You won’t lose this one in a parking lot.

And again, manual crank windows! Even if the rest of the car completely falls apart, at least you can roll down the window while you’re waiting for a tow.

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Neither one of these will set the world on fire, and neither one is likely to be worth a damn much past 200,000 miles, but until then, they’re both decent cheap transportation that’ll save you some fuel and insurance costs. Which one is more your speed?

[Editor’s Note: I became so bored while reading about two automatic compact cars that, by the time I had to make the poll below, I’d completely lost track of which cars we were talking about. So I just guessed, and, well, I was close]:

QuizMaker

 

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53 Responses

  1. I test-drove an Accent of that generation (which was at least a manual hatchback) when it was ~ 5 years old. It had the sketchiest brakes I’ve ever experienced. That put me to the Neon.

  2. I’d go with the Accent because it has no rust. The Neon might be more fun to drive, but at this end of the market you need to look for best condition over most fun. You can drive that Accent for a year or 2 and sell it for $2,000. That Neon won’t even last 2 years if the underside has as much rust as I suspect it does.

  3. I would opt for the Hyundai simply because I’ve owned four starting with a 2000 Tiburon and ending with a lovely XG-300. All were well built useful cars and the XG was actually pretty luxurious for the time.

    1. I had a 2000 Grandeur (what the X-300 was sold as here in Aus) bought unseen off an auction site after my 2005 C180 lunched itself. I miss that car so much. My vote is for the Accent as in my experience Hyundais are bulletproof. Our family has had a 1999 Excel, a (still going from new) 2002 Getz, a 2008 i30 and my 2000 Grandeur

  4. I had a neighbor with a Neon, who bought it new back in the day. Every so often, her brakes would just go to the floor, zero stopping, then suddenly come back a few seconds later. Dodge never was able to find the problem, and indeed refused to investigate and repair it over the dangerous years of her ownership. As soon as her warranty was up, she ditched it. Because of that, I would never get a Neon. Everyone has to base their decisions on experience, and that’s my story.

    Not that the Hyundai is a peach or anything, but if I needed a car, I could easily proactively put a timing belt and water pump in that thing and trust it more. (Should be as easy as the timing belt I put on a Kia Rio5).

    1. Wife’s step-father used to work at the Chrysler plant. He bought a Neon for the commute and still has it. Less than 100K on it, yet it’s had 4 valve jobs. 4! Had to vote for the other car (what was it?) because of this.

    2. Your neighbor’s dealership and their warranty admin should have been absolutely fucking sued into the ground for negligence and incompetence.

      Your description told me exactly what the problem was in the first two sentences. Someone performed recall 01V154 incorrectly or not at all. I did more than half of those that came into the shop, usually in the lot. The hard part was routing correctly – do it wrong? Brakes go to the floor without warning.
      Correctly testing under varied driving conditions without deviating from warranty rules would have immediately identified it as the brake booster hose sucking atmosphere or collapsing. (We had certain special rules for ‘failed brakes’ testing.)

      Replace brake booster line with superseded part, replace booster check valve, verify booster hose routing, NO HOSE CLAMPS. If symptoms persist, the booster diaphragm’s gone bad and the booster needs replaced. That’s all it needed. Hydraulics were fine, it was a vacuum problem.
      Gods, incompetent and lazy mechanics are just… so infuriating.

      1. That sounds so strange! Even with zero vacuum boost, how would the brake pedal go to the floor without a hydraulic leak? I am a mere shadetree fella who’s never worked on a Neon, but I’m trying to picture how the system could operate as you describe, and my imagination is failing me.

      2. “That’s all it needed. Hydraulics were fine, it was a vacuum problem.”

        I dunno, that doesn’t sound like a vacuum problem to me. A vacuum problem should make the brakes a lot harder to push which is very different from no resistance at all.

        OTOH this sounds like exactly what happened to my old Triumph with a hydraulic clutch – the rubber seal on the master cylinder was old and failing (and the cylinder possibly scored) such that every once in a while it would fail so the hydraulic fluid would just go around the piston. Press it again the seal would hold and the clutch would work. A rebuilt master cylinder fixed it.

        On a more modern car thsi failure may be a bad ABS module:

        Unresponsive brake pedal

        In certain cases, depending on the model of vehicle, when the ABS module fails, the brake pedal may become unresponsive. This is an obvious problem, as an unresponsive brake pedal will not stop a vehicle, or will not be able to do so in an adequately safe manner. In most cases, this will happen slowly, over time. Usually the brake pedal will become increasingly hard to press until it is no longer responsive.

        https://www.yourmechanic.com/article/symptoms-of-a-bad-or-failing-abs-control-module

        Whatever, the problem master cylinder, booster, vacuum lines or ABS module all that is going to be a lot cheaper to replace than a lawsuit and the bad press.

      1. I’ve put a lot of seat time into a Neon just like this. The driving dynamics are kinda shit if you don’t start modifying it and at that point you’re not going to want an automatic anyway.

    1. Funny, I was thinking who the fuck would choose an old Accent when the other choice wasn’t “hitch a ride with a guy who resembles Beetlejuice in an old windowless van”. 😀

    1. I started to say something, but I think they did it on purpose. The “Dodge” Neon is actually a Plymouth, and that one happens a lot (as per the ad I linked below).

    1. Yeah, the Neon is literally a thousand times too nice to not have had a respray. Especially the orange. That was a known problematic color. (What, you thought that was just an 80’s and maybe 1G thing? Ha. No.)
      There’s literally no way even the most pampered, always garaged, never driven in snow Neon in Salsa Red doesn’t have significant clearcoat failure and primer separation on the trunk, roof, or hood.

      Not saying a respray’s a bad thing necessarily. But 10 foot photos and Maaco paint make me the body man I ain’t(TM).

  5. I voted for the Plymouth. I believe they both have timing belts and are interference engines, so normally I’d avoid them for that reason. But I’m quite sure it’ll be far more fun to drive, as well as roomier and more comfortable.

    I almost chose the “I don’t drive automatic small cars” option, because I’d choose a manual if I could. Optimal phrase being “if I could.” Sometimes there isn’t anything available and you have to settle, especially when you live in an area that has very slim pickings for cars before the prices went crazy.

    And don’t think they don’t affect cheap cars. You give some asshole a reason to charge $2800 for an old Hyundai with a blown engine that would normally go for a grand or less, and he’ll take it. “I know what it’s worth.” Yeah, fuckin scrap price! Lol

    1. Yes, but the timing belt is about a 45 minute job on the A588 Neon.
      And that’s including draining the coolant. (Just disconnect the lower radiator hose, the petcock’s always fucked.) Very long intervals, which is why you always do the tensioner, water pump, and cam seals at the same time. (Timing has to come off to do the driven side seal, so it’s just easier.)
      Yes, the 45 minutes includes all of that. You’ll be slower of course, but it’s really not that bad on the A588s. The annoying part is the engine mount.
      Factory interval is like 90k IIRC, but as an expert on the matter? Visual inspection and quick tension check annually, not every 30k. (It’s a 10 minute job.) SOHC and DOHC. Check with engine running to watch for flashes indicating frays or slap. Belt looks good, you let it ride regardless of mileage. Most got killed by water pump or oil leaks before interval anyway and that’s what you’re really looking for. Any cracks in teeth or slop, do it on the spot.

      The Accent is also a timing belt, but is a much more involved job. Same exact job functionally – belt, tensioner, water pump, accessories, and optionally cam seals. But it’s a DOHC interference. So you need the special tool to lock things down. You also need to pull a lot more hardware to get at the timing belt and access is not as nice. (The Neon’s just like a K/G/P/etc – go through the wheel well.) And the specified interval for non-California cars is 60,000 miles. That’s it. Yeesh.

  6. Neon. Assuming the miles listed are *somewhat* accurate and the undercarriage isn’t more oxide than iron, it’s the better deal. If nothing else, it brings back nostalgia for me, since my wife had one of similar vintage when we were in college.

  7. I had a first year, 1995 Dodge Neon Base. It was a 5-speed manual and I don’t recall if it had any options. It was black with gray plastic bumpers. It was a zippy little car that I drove hard for 8 years until I bought a 2003 Ram 1500 HEMI. I sold the car to a college kid who drove it for another 6 years before crashing it.

  8. Fourth option: buy both. $4,500 for the pair is a great value.

    These are generic, boring cars that are neither interesting nor fun to drive. I describe vehicles like these as Fungible Transportation Appliances. They are interchangeable vehicles you buy for transportation. No one truly wants a Neon or early 2000s Hyundai. You buy cars like these because you need to get places but can’t or don’t want to spend a lot of money.

    In 2022, It is hard to find a reliable used car for $4,500. Vehicles in this price range usually have obvious defects (rust, leaks, sketchy noises, are on fire, etc.), and aren’t going to be reliable. You are likely to spend $4,500 on a vehicle that works 90% of the time, and therefore you will have a working transportation appliance available 329 days of the year. If you buy these two vehicles for $4,500 and both work 80% of the time, with a little luck you could have a transportation appliance available every day of the year.

    So go with the fourth option and buy both. It is the most efficient way to turn $4,500 into reliable transportation.

  9. I have to go with the Neon as I’m alive because the one I hit a Moose with stood up. The moose got its legs cut out from under it causing the moose to land on the hood. From there she slid up and took the windshield into her guts opening her up like a pinata. This deposited the moose’s internals on to me. Blood, guys and bowel contents slapped me in the face and landed everywhere inside my little neon. The car however took the hit and tossed the moose over the passenger compartment to land on the trunk and removing the fin and bumper.

    Tough little car.

  10. I can’t wrap my head around paying more than two grand for an old Accent with those miles, but I agree with others that the likelihood of undercarriage rust on the Neon is concerning, and the old 31TH saps power *and* fuel. With a gun to my head, I suppose I’d take the Hyundai.

    Option three is off the table because I recently bought an automatic econobox – higher-mileage but newer and for less money than today’s candidates as it was a friend’s relative’s car.

  11. Neon for me. They were sold here (with Chrysler badges rather than Dodge or Plymouth), but were still a bit of a rarity on Irish roads.

    For the same reason I decided not to vote for the minivan yesterday, on the basis of my experience with a Hyundai just a couple of years older than the one above, I’m saying no to this Accent. Though the interior looks much nicer than the oceans of grey that tend to be the go-to option for cars of a similar vintage here.

  12. I went Hyundai mostly because it has 4 gears instead of 3. Those small, relatively low power 4 cylinders need all the help they can get when paired to old tech auto transmissions like those ones.

  13. My driver’s ed teacher had a Neon just like that. It was awful and the heater was pretty much just a mouse fart. Worse, half of every class was just her complaining about it.

    So, due to PTSD, Accent.

  14. I would pick the Neon if it was from the west coast like the Accent, but I wouldn’t travel all that way for an automatic one so I guess option 3?

    I would consider travelling wherever for the right neon with no rust and a manual trans.

    I daily drove a 95 Sport Coupe, SOHC 5spd for many years and it was one of my favorite cars to drive. I retired it when I found a nice 01 Neon R/T. The second gen was more refined and a nicer commuter car, but not quite as much fun as the 95.

    I got the 01 with around 100k miles in 2011 on and had it for 10 years. At around 200k it was getting tired, rockers had rusted out, was due for a clutch, A/C was no longer holding a charge, but still ran great and drove nice. I sold it because my job became work from home and on the weekends I was driving my truck or turbo Caravan.

  15. I’ve had two of those Accents, and there’s about as much chance of me ever having a third as there is I’ll get tapped for a seat in F1 next season. Absolutely miserable little things, and not actually that good on gas (I averaged 26mpg or so). The only high points are that this one apparently has working A/C (the one I spent more time in didn’t, and had terrible ventilation), and that the factory radio has already been replaced (I theoretically owe a friend a copy of Luke Doucet’s Steel City Trawler since my radio ate it). 2nd gen Neon isn’t great, but the thought of driving it doesn’t give me the jibblies.

    That said, if you wanted to put a race livery on the Hyundai, they’ve already got you covered;
    https://cdn.crash.net/styles/amp_1200/s3/original/12354.jpg?itok=rHg7Pnen

  16. Not having a bunch of experience with either car, I was going to pick the Neon just because it’s not white, but then I saw the third option and honestly thought about it and realized that no, out of all the cars I’ve owned, none of the smallish ones have been automatics.

    Anyway what is up with the recent explosion of white cars? I just noticed at some point last year in a Chipotle parking lot that of the twelve newish cars in the parking lot, fully eleven were white. Not black, not various shades of gray, but rental-fleet white. Granted, this was in La Cañada/Flintridge, an extremely White suburb of L.A. next to Pasadena, but is there a connection? Does owning a white car mean something it didn’t use to? All my life it was the cheapest paintjob which is why you saw it on so many fleet vehicles, but here it was on Teslas and BMWs and MBZs and Audis.

    It was genuinely creepy. Like if Stepford had an official car color. I’m as guilty as anyone of the grayscale car phenomenon; other than my blue Cougar, the other three cars in my driveway are all charcoal gray. But if I obtained a white car, first thing I’d do is paint it any other color.

  17. Neon for me, at least if the paint isn’t peeling off in great sheets like so many I’ve seen. Fun little cars when compared to many of the cheapies that were prevalent back then.

    I paid a buck more for a five-year newer (and a few miles less-used, and certainly less-dented) Corolla, so wouldn’t consider the Hyundai.

  18. Neons were giant turds direct from the factory. Disposable cars at best. I can’t say I’ve seen one in rustless Arizona in quite some time. Older Hyundais are everywhere though. I picked the Hyundai because if I’m picking a small commuter car, I’d like to actually make it to work and home again.

  19. Although I picked the Neon, I would still like to note that it’s a damn shame what they did to that car. First gen neons were the friendliest little buggers to encounter. 2nd gen was redesigned to a rolling “meh”.

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