- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Don’t look now, but the Next Big Thing in cars may be an old idea with a new wrinkle. The idea is the station wagon and the wrinkle is that some of them look and drive more like sport sedans.

Case in point, the new Dodge Magnum. Magnum is offered in three models (SE, SXT and RT), featuring three different engines (2.7-liter, 190-horsepower V-6, 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6, 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower Hemi V-8), ranging in price from $22,495 to $29,995 (including destination charges). Magnum goes on sale this month, and I recently road-tested a top-line RT model over an array of conditions, ranging from sun-baked desert asphalt to slushy mountain roads.

Magnum is a large sport wagon with a big, beefy look. Rolling on a 120-inch wheelbase, its styling, particularly on RT models, is part wagon, part muscle car. The front end features a distinctive Dodge nose, with a crosshair grille parked between a pair of wedge-cut headlamps. Side on, Magnum RT has a tire-focused look; with 18-inch, five-spoke rims packing the flared wheel wells.

Magnum’s slab sides are interrupted only by a high, belt-line bevel, and the proportion of sheet metal to side windows leads to a custom, chopped look. The roof line tapers down between C- and D-pillars, sliding back over the lift gate to a broad bumper. Dual exhaust tips poke out below. In all, a sporty, aggressively shaped wagon.

Sporty is as sporty does, at least in the case of the Hemi-powered RT. To go along with its 340 horsepower (at 5,000 rpm), the Hemi is rated at 390 foot-pounds of torque (at 4,000 rpm). Coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission, the drivetrain duo is an impressive performer.

Though the first comeback Hemis were for pickups, the version found here has been engineered specifically for passenger cars. The engine’s torque curve has been shifted to fit the road requirements of the Magnum. New intake and exhaust manifolds have been specified and the high-flow, dual-exhaust system has been specially tuned for tone. Chrysler estimates 0-to-60 times at 6.3 seconds. The Hemi offers fine throttle response at all engine speeds — a very satisfying drive.

The engine has one more card up its sleeve. The magnum’s Hemi is the first to use Chrysler’s Multi-Displacement System. To improve fuel economy, MDS selectively deactivates cylinders, trimming back to four while cruising or in city stop-and-go. However, any time you’re accelerating hard or the engine’s under load, the Hemi is (literally) hitting on all cylinders.

In practice, the process is instantaneous (it switches back and forth in just 40 milliseconds), and undetectable to the driver. It offers real world savings, generating between 10 percent and 20 percent better gas mileage, depending on driving conditions. EPA ratings haven’t been established, but Dodge expects mileage for the RT with the 5.7-liter engine to come in at 17 city/24 highway.

Lift the skin off the Magnum RT and you find a surprise: the first rear-wheel-drive chassis driving a Dodge in more than 15 years. The re-emergence of rear-wheel drive here marks a departure for the company that, for the last decade, has championed the front-wheel-drive, “cab-forward” design on its large cars. With its steering-on-one-axle, traction-on-the-other approach, RWD has been the traditional choice for performance platforms.

In many parts of the country, that’s reason enough. However, snow-belters, having been fed a steady diet of reasons why front-wheel drive is superior for foul-weather driving, may be skeptical about going back. To them Chrysler has two answers: tires and technology.

Onboard electronics have gone a long way toward leveling the winter-weather playing field since the old days. Electronic Stability Program, Traction Control and antilock brakes all help the Magnum roll true on a sloppy track. Beyond this, the RT’s standard-issue tires — Continental ContiTouring Contacts — are speed-rated, all-season tread.

On a range of road and weather conditions, I found the Contis to be a really good compromise tire. However, if you live where winters are long and snow is frequent, you should do what most Europeans and few Americans do — switch to snow tires.

Finally, if the above doesn’t convince you, there’s a third option — hang on.

An all-wheel-drive version will become available in the fall. Traction issues aside, the Magnum RT is surprisingly light on its feet. Weight distribution is, at 52 front/48 rear, near balanced, and balanced, too, is handling, which feels decidedly more sport sedan than station wagon.

But a wagon it is, for the important stuff, like hauling gear. The lift gate is L-shaped, which allows it to swing up more than out — an advantage when opening the hatch in close quarters. Inside, there’s room for 27.2 to 71.6 cubic feet of cargo, depending on how many rear seats you fold. The opening is large, lift-over height is low and the load floor is flat. Up front, first and second rows will accommodate adults — even tall adults — without complaint.

The driver faces a quartet of deep binnacles housing the main gauges. Center console controls for HVAC and sound system have a straightforward design. The optional navigation system includes an MP3 player and draws high marks for being among the most easily understood navigation systems we’ve sat in front of in quite some time.

Seats are comfortable if a little lacking in lateral support for spirited driving. Interior dings include a floor-mounted parking release pedal that’s going to bark a lot of shins before its through, and (as with any DaimlerChrysler product) directional and cruise-control stalks placed too close together.

SUVs are still popular these days, but the clock seems to be ticking on their 15 minutes of fame, and waiting in the wings is the station wagon. This time around, they come in several flavors: small, mini-utes, traditional family haulers and sport tourers.

New-wave wagons like Magnum hold a lot of promise for converting the sport ute faithful. A Hemi-equipped Magnum carves roads nicely, carries people comfortably and carts gear efficiently. It can be outfitted to tow up to 3,800 pounds — enough for a bass boat or a couple of snowmobiles — and it looks good doing all of the above.

Once people see that they can “get it done,” and still drive something fun, the Dodge dealers may be the ones reeling them in, with Magnum as the bait and Hemi as the hook.

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