Home » Zippy Little Manual Sedans: 2002 Dodge Neon vs 2007 Ford Focus

Zippy Little Manual Sedans: 2002 Dodge Neon vs 2007 Ford Focus

Sbsd 8 17 2023
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Good morning! Today we’re looking at two examples of a category of car that used to be everywhere, but is all but extinct from the market: basic, fun-to-drive manual economy cars —not necessarily sporty, but good-handling, practical, fun, and most of all, cheap. But first, let’s finish up with yesterday’s bargain-basement longroofs:

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Indeed. Not that there is anything wrong with the Camry; it’s a good car, and I’m sure it will serve someone well for some time to come. But compared to that Datsun, it’s like going to Taco Bell rather than the family-run burrito food cart across the street. One is nourishment; the other is an experience.

Now, as I’m sure you all read the other day, Mitsubishi has lost its damn mind and will no longer offer its Mirage subcompact in America after next year, thereby driving yet another nail into the coffin for cheap and cheerful cars on our shores. What happened? Everyone used to offer a basic, no-nonsense economy car, and by default they all came with a clutch pedal unless you specified an automatic. (Editor’s Note: Greed. The answer is greed. —PG)

Of course, even 20 years ago when I was shopping for such a car, manuals weren’t the default on dealer lots by any means; you had to seek them out, and usually it meant some other compromise. When I bought my 2002 Mazda Protegé, there were exactly two manuals on the lot: white, and white. I chose white.

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But even if the manufacturers insist on dropping the manual option and only offer automatics – or worse, CVTs – there is something honest and noble about a good entry-level car. Thriftiness is still a virtue, or at least it ought to be. The good news is that honest-but-enjoyable cars lasted long enough to reach the modern era of engine management systems and corrosion resistance, so if you can find one without too many miles on it, you can still get some life out of it. They’re not completely used up at 100,000 miles like they used to be. I’ve found two good options in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs; let’s see which one you prefer.

2002 Dodge Neon SXT – $2,995

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0-liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Cambridge, MN

Odometer reading: 139,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep

Not since New Coke has a product replacement been so ill-advised and disappointing as Dodge replacing the Neon with the Caliber. To know the Neon is to love it and to know the Caliber is to remember being happy to leave the keys on the dash at the Enterprise drop-off point. The Neon deserved a better successor. This zippy, rough-around-the-edges little sedan was a hoot to drive, proved doggedly reliable in that inexpensive Mopar sort of way, and looked cheerful and inviting. Unfortunately, most Neons got loved to death, especially the manuals, and finding a good one is getting tougher all the time.

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It’s hard to tell from a few crummy dealer photos, but this appears to be a good one. It’s an SXT model, a package that combined sporty stuff like alloy wheels and a rear spoiler with convenience stuff like power windows (only in the front; Neons weirdly all had manual rear windows) and locks. The second-generation Neon isn’t quite as beloved as the first; it lost both the two-door and twin-cam options, but it gained a whole lot of refinement. Kind of like that college friend you had who used to be wild and crazy, but grew up over the course of a summer and doesn’t party as much, but is a lot easier to live with.

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Because it is for sale at a dealer, there’s more text in the ad about the deals they’re willing to offer than about the car itself. They don’t even include any underhood photos. A test drive and a careful once-over should tell you what you need to know. It does look nice and clean for being a Minnesota car old enough to drink, and it doesn’t have many miles on it at all, so it’s definitely worth a look.

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Personally, I could do without the big basket-handle spoiler on the back, but it’s probably better than removing it and having screw holes in the trunk lid.

2007 Ford Focus SES- $2,100

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0-liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

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Location: Vadnais Heights, MN

Odometer reading: 173,000 miles

Runs/drives? Indeed it does

Ford’s Focus replaced the Escort as the small car in America in 2000, and for once, the “world car” thing wasn’t just talk; we got almost the same car as Europe did. European Focuses got a range of engines from 1.4 to 2.0 liters in both gasoline and diesel flavors. We only got the “big” two-liter Zetec engine, or the old Escort CVH four, until 2005, when Europe got a new Focus, and we got a facelift and a new Duratec/Mazda MZR engine. The facelift toned down the weirdness of the styling, especially inside, and the Duratec engine gained a little bit of power and a lot of refinement.

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I owned a Duratec-powered Focus for a couple of years, and I really liked it. Mine was an automatic, which was okay, but I’ve driven a Focus with a manual, and it’s a whole different animal. Forget the fact that it’s a beige four-door sedan – this should be a fun car to drive. Economical, too; I regularly topped 30 mpg in LA traffic in mine, and a manual should be able to do even better, if you take it easy.

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This is the SES model, complete with power goodies, cruise control, alloy wheels, and more. It has more miles on it than the Neon—173,000—but it seems to be holding up well. There is a tiny bit of rust creeping in around the edges, and a few dings and scrapes, but it’s clean inside, and the seller says it runs and drives well. They also have a whole stack of maintenance records for you to peruse.

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I always thought, when I had my Focus, that it wasn’t a great deal for what I paid for it, but it was going to make a great inexpensive beater someday. And 17 years later, here we are. Some cars come into their own with age, and the Focus seems to be one of them.

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Cheap and cheerful cars in the US are on the way out, unless some new player like China steps up and starts selling them here. The supply of used ones is going to dry up eventually, but for now, we’re spoiled for choice, and if you are willing and able to drive a manual, you have even more options, and often cheaper, too. As a bonus, some of them are legitimately fun to drive, like these two. Which is more your speed?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
1 month ago

I fucking hate dealer-lot beat to shit Fords. Ive had 2 of them and they both fucked me over by falling apart in a matter of months,these focuses,(focies,fecies i guess..) were not made to last. The Neon is probably not a lot better,but I always thought they were cute,and they seem to hold up ok.

David Reynolds
David Reynolds
1 month ago

My daughter had a Focus of around that vintage, and it wasn’t bad for what it was. But since I’m currently driving the ’04 SRT-4 Neon I bought new and is now at 243K miles, I gotta go with the Dodge.

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
1 month ago

I’ll take the neon and for the record that spoiler looks damn good on those cars.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
1 month ago

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do a deep analysis of which is the better choice, because I think I’d rather die than own a beige-onbeige car. YUCK.

TDI_FTW
TDI_FTW
1 month ago

The Focus of this generation was a surprisingly durable car. I’ve got one with almost 200k on the clock with very minimal repairs, including still on the first clutch. Gimme the Focus for my Focus Fleet.

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
1 month ago

Tough call today (edit: well, yesterday), since the Neon’s lower-mileage and might be less crusty underneath, but it’s older and the price difference would pay for, say, new rear brake lines… so I’ll go for sold-by-owner-with-maintenance-records over sold-by-dealer-with-question-marks. I’d rather drive the Focus, anyway, given my limited experience with each.

Last edited 1 month ago by FuzzyPlushroom
Bruno Hache
Bruno Hache
1 month ago

I’ve owned both in my younger days. Still miss my Focus SES wagon at times. That was a rare beast. Managed to get 303,000 kms before the rusties got it.

The Dodge Neon (we called them SX 2.0 here in Canada, after 2013), well, I had one for about 8 months, went thru a few fuel pumps under warranty. Then went Corolla.

Marc Fuhrman
Marc Fuhrman
1 month ago

I bought a 2005 Neon SXT manual about a decade ago. I was looking for a affordable, reliable car to replace the ’79 Volvo I had been driving. It turned out to be a major lemon, having it’s first major breakdown within two weeks of ownership.
So that’s not a path I’m willing to walk down again. Ford for me please.

Marc-Olivier Cabot
Marc-Olivier Cabot
1 month ago

I voted Neon just for the fact that i had 4 of them and i never quite understood all the hate. They never gave me trouble at all.. really! They were a hoot to drive and mod and if you ever were in the need for parts, you kicked a bin and neon parts fell to the floor just like honda parts. But cheaper.. Can’t talk shit of the Focus however as a friend had one and he only disliked the fact that it was too plasticky for his taste (like 99.9% of cars now anyway so..)

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
1 month ago

Neon! Ford sucks, especially the Focus plastic junk

Last edited 1 month ago by Freelivin1327
Bryan McIntosh
Bryan McIntosh
1 month ago

That Focus has remarkably little rust considering where it’s from; here in Manitoba we have a similar climate to Minnesota (and similar love of road salt) and most Focuses have far more rust than this example. My spouse had a 2008 Focus (last-gasp facelift before we got the Mk. III Focus in 2011), and while it looked like an appliance it was still fun to drive even with an automatic. The car only needed regular maintenance, was dead-nuts reliable, and sipped very little fuel. I’d grab this example in a heartbeat if I needed a cheap beater or a perfect first car for someone!

Iwannadrive637
Iwannadrive637
1 month ago

Congratulations on making this a hard choice. I’ll go Neon. I had one for a rental. It was fun to drive and the interior room impressed me. At that time I thought they had the potential to be an American Beetle. I’ve seen worse spoilers, it stays.

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