- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

Looking more like a one-off from a California custom shop than a production vehicle, the Dodge Magnum has changed the way we think of station wagons.

While wagons have been enjoying a rebirth of sorts, it took the Magnum to make curb standers stop and stare. From the front it looks beefy and powerful; while its profile is tapered and sleek. It’s a little bit hearse and a little bit sports sedan. It can serve as a family hauler for those wishing to avoid the stigma of a minivan or the lackluster fuel economy of an SUV, but it can also be nearly as satisfying to pilot as a European performance sedan.

If blending in is your goal, look elsewhere. The Magnum will be noticed and so will you.

Lead foots beware. It looks like it’s going fast when parked, and that’s not a good thing when Officer Friendly is trying to pick the speeder out of a swarm of oncoming cars. Although its styling hints that it can fly under the radar, that’s simply an illusion.

Magnum comes in four flavors: SE, SXT, R/T and SRT-8. Comparatively the entry-level SE is more about appearance than substance. Each model is defined by its engine and the $23,620 SE gets a 200-horsepower 2.7-liter V-6. In Magnum’s world, this is known as making due. The $29,960 SXT also sports a V-6, but it’s a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter engine.

What has put Magnum high on the list of aspirational vehicles for many a boy racer are its Hemi V-8s. The $31,715 R/T gets a 340-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 that also delivers 390 foot-pounds of torque; while the $38,345 SRT-8 packs a 6.1-liter V-8 capable of generating 425 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of peak torque. Reaching 60 mph from a standstill takes the SRT-8 about five seconds; meaning the ice cream probably won’t be melted by the time you get it home from the grocery store.

I drove an R/T for this evaluation. Although its performance numbers are somewhat dwarfed by the tire-melting SRT-8, the R/T packs all the wallop most mortals will ever need or want. The only transmission available is an automatic. While the SE uses a four-speed to transfer the giddy-up to its rear wheels, the SXT, R/T and SRT-8 get a driver-shiftable five-speed. For an extra $2,000 the SXT and R/T can be fitted with all-wheel drive.

In an effort to improve fuel economy, the V-8s feature Chrysler’s Multi Displacement System. This shuts down half of the cylinders while cruising. When answering the call of the accelerator, all eight cylinders kick in.

Not surprising, the SE leads the pack in fuel economy. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway. These numbers progressively decrease through the model lineup to 14 mpg and 20 mpg respectively for the SRT-8.

For its four-wheel independent suspension architecture, Magnum has borrowed liberally from the Mercedes E-Class. The ride is pleasant, yet it negotiates the curves with a minimum of body roll. Seventeen-inch wheels and rubber are standard on the SE and SXT. The R/T rides on 18-inch wheels, while the SRT-8 has 20-inch wheels filling the wheel openings.

Adding an antilock system to the SE’s four-wheel disc brakes requires buying a $543 options package that also includes electronic stability control, traction control and an eight-way power driver’s seat.

All of these features, along with Brake Assist, are standard on the other Magnum trim levels. The SRT-8 is blessed with a stiffer suspension and Brembo brakes, increasing its performance credentials.

A long wheelbase provides lots of passenger space. Both front and rear occupants enjoy plenty of elbow, hip, leg and head room. With the second seat in place, cargo space is a moderate 27.8 cubic feet. You can thank the sloping roofline for the stingy cargo room; however, fold down the second seat and cargo space balloons to 72 cubic feet. Wide door openings make for easy access.

All Magnums are loaded with standard features including air conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, remote keyless entry, audio system with CD player and a telescoping steering wheel.

As you move up the trim level ladder, other equipment such as a Boston Acoustics-enhanced audio system, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather seating and trip computer swell the standard feature list. Generally the cabin is neatly styled and arranged for maximum utility. The large, white-faced gauges are easy to read and all the controls sensibly placed. Nicely contoured, the seats provide lots of support. While it doesn’t live up to the dynamic exterior lines, the interior is sporty and contemporary. Side curtain air bags are a $590 option on all Magnums.

Although falling short of the cargo-hauling capability of a minivan, the Magnum is certainly more fun to be seen in and to drive. True, the SE is more bark than bite, but the other versions — particularly the V-8s — provide all the car most of us will ever want. Sufficiently stylish to make a personal statement, capable of blowing the doors off most of the surrounding traffic and remarkably user friendly, Dodge Magnum fulfills a wide range of owner needs, wants and aspirations — high praise for a station wagon.

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