The changes in the 2000 DaimlerChrysler Corp. Neon are not so dramatic that a passerby immediately recognizes the differences.

But even with the subtle smoothing and refining of the exterior, it's clear something has changed - mostly for the better.

It's after climbing behind the wheel that one realizes there's something different about the little car that emerged on the scene in 1994 with a chirpy, yet concise exclamation of "Hi."

The new Neon repertoire is expected to be more verbose, more along the lines of "Hello, how can I make you more comfortable and influence your next vehicle purchase?"

But like the evolution of DC's Jeep Grand Cherokee for '99, the new Neon also is more like learning from past experience than reinventing the wheel.

With the market research from 1.5 million Neons under its belt, the Dodge and Plymouth folks decided they had to take their small car a little more upscale, says Joe Caddell, DC general product manager for small car operations.

"We've become spoiled. A Yugo just won't do anymore," he says of small car buyers.

And putting a 5-speed manual version of the Neon through its paces on a winding desert road, one has to agree that the new car is much more refined than its predecessor.

Handling is more solid; noise, vibration and harshness are more bearable; and it's altogether a fun drive.

Subtle features such as a spot for a pen or air gauge in the glove box and a hinged console between the seats are subtle touches that take Neon a little more upscale than some of its peers.

The windshield moves forward 3 ins. (7.5 cm) and the next-generation model gains full-framed doors to eliminate a big source of wind noise. The 2000 Neon is designed to be stiffer, with a more supple suspension and an improved brake system with thicker front rotors and larger rear cylinders.

The interior, from the much-improved dashboard texture to the additional volume - 103.4 cu. ft. versus 101.7 cu. ft. (31.5 cu. m/31 cu. m) - also suggests that DCC is serious about making the Neon seem a larger, more substantial car.

That's as it should be, since its own market research shows that 70% of Neon owners have two or more vehicles and that many of those vehicles are the higher-earning DC minivans. Although the company may not be making much (if anything) from selling Neons, it certainly needs the vehicle to attract young buyers to its brands, says Mr. Caddell.

If the vehicle has an Achilles' heel, it's in the automatic transmission. Although DC claims market research suggests Neon buyers don't demand a 4-speed automatic, it's hard to believe. Blame market research; the antediluvian 3-speed stays.

If the only exposure to the new model is under the restrictions of the 3-speed tranny, you're likely to come away less than impressed.

And considering that automatics outnumber manuals in Neons, that may not be the best powertrain impression to make. Hey, maybe Neon owners really don't care, but it does suffer by comparison to other automatics among small-car competitors, even though it claims the highest horsepower in its class.

The U.S. model gets a slightly beefed-up version of the 2L 4-cyl. engine. Power remains at 132 hp but gains a slightly higher peak torque.

Also, a new exhaust manifold, cylinder head cover and timing belt cover translate to a quieter engine.

The new model will be strictly a sedan, after current coupe models are built-out in the Toluca, Mexico, assembly plant, later in 1999. The '99 coupe production in Toluca is expected to help fill Neon R/T and ACR demand while new models ramp up.

After that, Toluca will switch over to production of the Neon's new offshoot, the PT Cruiser.

And the PT Cruiser clearly is part of the Neon story. The company designed both the Neon and the Cruiser for about what it costs to design the old Neon by sharing some of the development costs, even though the two models share few parts. It's possible, if necessary, that DC could build Cruisers at the Neon plant in Belvidere, IL. And maybe it eventually won't even need a Neon if the Cruiser is popular enough.

The '00 Neon models hit showrooms in late February, with an advertising push expected in March. European models will be rolled out later, likely in the fall.

Development costs were about $703 million, versus $1.3 billion for the outgoing Neon, and the re-do took about 28 months, compared with 31 months for the first vehicle.

Production is expected to hit 250,000 to 350,000 a year, with 220,000 to 230,000 sold in the U.S.