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With the new Dodge Magnum, you don't have to call your car a truck any more. The term "crossover vehicle" has been thrown around a lot the last couple years, meant to apply to those SUVs that are leaning in the direction of cars and/or minivans. But the tag is too vague to mean much. Suddenly, with the new Dodge Magnum, it fits. This is the car that has the capability to wean the country off of SUVs. Its bold hot-rod lines might scare people away, but its utility can't be denied. It's a full-size American car with spacious cargo capacity and available all-wheel drive. And it's engineered for safety. It's got image and utility. If that isn't what people want when they buy an SUV, what do they want?
Plus, it gets better gas mileage than full-size SUVs. The Magnum comes standard with a 190-horsepower double-overhead-cam V6 that gets 21-28 miles per gallon, at a stunning base price of $22,495 including destination. But the powerful new V8, the 5.7-liter Hemi, boasts a new engine technology that shuts down four of the eight cylinders when the car is just cruising, delivering up to 30 miles per gallon during those moments. Even if you got the 340-horsepower Hemi engine with the Magnum, if you used it to commute on the freeway at a steady 60 mph, you could average 25 miles per gallon, on 87 octane although 89 is recommended.
With these stellar points, it might almost be expected that the Magnum would fall short in the areas of interior room and layout, cabin comfort and quietness, ride or handling. But it does not. In fact, it excels in all those areas.
Three Dodge Magnum models are available. The SE ($21,870) is nicely equipped for its price. It uses Chrysler's proven 2.7-liter aluminum V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, rated to tow 1000 pounds. Standard equipment includes premium cloth interior, air conditioning, power windows and locks with remote entry, a 60/40 split rear seat with center armrest, AM/FM/CD sound system, tilt-telescoping steering column, solar control window glass, rack-and-pinion steering, 17-inch wheels and disc brakes. The SE doesn't have ABS with brake assist, traction control or electronic stability, but these three features together are available for $1000, which is a bargain a buyer can't afford to pass up.
The SXT ($25,370) comes with a 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam V6 that makes 250 horsepower and gets 19/27 miles per gallon on 89 octane recommended, 87 acceptable. In these days of high V8 horsepower, that 250 number might have lost its meaning, but 250 horsepower is a lot, especially effective with 250 pound-feet of torque as this engine offers. The SXT uses the same four-speed automatic with a tall overdrive for good gas mileage. 2005 SXT models will also offer all-wheel drive, which comes with a five-speed automatic. Equipment-wise, the SXT most notably adds the magic combination of ABS with brake assist, all-speed traction control and electronic stability. It also offers aluminum wheels, tinted glass, cargo cover, and an eight-way power driver's seat.
The R/T ($29,370) gets the 5.7-liter V8 Hemi, delivering 340 horsepower and a humongous 390 pound-feet or torque, rated to tow 3800 pounds. It uses a five-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick, designed by Mercedes and built in the U.S. by Chrysler. The R/T adds to the SXT features a leather interior, bigger and beefier brakes, 18-inch polished aluminum wheels, dual exhausts, foglights, and a Boston Acoustics premium six-speaker sound system with a 288-watt digital amplifier.
Optional equipment includes a power passenger seat, heated front seats, dual zone automatic climate control, electronic vehicle information center, electrochromic rearview mirror, front and rear air curtains, air filtration, self-sealing tires, hands-free cellphone capability, power adjustable pedals, GPS navigation system with integrated six-disc CD/MP3 player, SIRIUS satellite radio, sunroof and load-leveling shocks.
The styling of the Magnum is so distinctive that a picture will say far more than words can. It's a long, low, beefy station wagon on a wide track with big bold grille and a chopped top. It would be an understatement to say the Magnum has presence. In fact, there is nothing like it on the road.
However it's not called a station wagon any more; Dodge calls it a "sport tourer." Others call this new direction a sports wagon. And that's what it is: a crossover between sports car and station wagon. More accurately, the Dodge Magnum is a crossover between muscle car and station wagon. Eminently civilized, of course.
The grille is clearly from the Dodge Ram truck family, but it's smaller, softer and classier. The headlamp units are a nice integrated wedge shape. We like them better than those on the new Chrysler 300, the Magnum's sister car, which try harder to be retro. The air dam/bumper cover wraps up under the headlamps and grille, and looks impressively beefy and functional.
From the side, the Magnum looks like it could be rolled onto the floor of a hot rod show. The wheel cutouts are profound, and especially imposing with the 18-inch 10-spoke wheels on the RT. But a bigger visual effect is created by the tinted glass and roofline sloping back and pinching the rear window. This serves an innovative purpose. The one-piece liftgate is hinged about two feet up into the roof, providing a vast and liberating opening to the cargo area. It requires less ducking to reach things in there, and will be easier on lower backs of all ages.
The black trim around the windows is in keeping with the car's style, but the chrome ding-strip down the side seems gratuitous.
If you have any doubts about the Magnum carrying as much as your SUV, fold the rear seat down flat, lift the gate, easily climb inside and crawl around a bit. Dodge lists the cargo capacity as 27.2 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 71.6 cubic feet with them down, while the EPA interior volume indicates 133.1 cubic feet. But those numbers don't sway buyers as much as their own eyes, so have a look. We did and the cargo area looks wider, flatter, longer and easier to access than most SUVs. It's just not as tall; but how often do you stack loads to the ceiling?
We also climbed in the back seat and crawled around a bit. There was room to do so, only 10 percent less than in the front seat, according to the SAE volume index. The 60/40 split rear seat holds three, but a wide armrest with cupholders drops down to make it more comfortable for two. There's plenty of head clearance despite the roofline, which also poses no rear visibility problem for the driver.
Leather is standard with the R/T, and ours was a classy dark gray, with black trim on the excellent, sporty and functional instrument panel.
We really liked the Magnum's gauges, handsome and all business, white background with black numbers and stainless trim rings. The four-spoke steering wheel was sharp, with buttons for cruise and sound control. The center stack was clean and tidy in black, with buttons that were easy to click and knobs where knobs should be, for the climate control and radio. The console compartment is decent sized, and contains practical coinholders. There's also a sunglasses holder within the driver's reach. And speaking of specialized holders, the cargo area includes a nook designed for holding a one-gallon milk jug, and grocery bags.
But mostly the Magnum feels great from the driver's seat, which is firm and comfortable. With a similar long hood, and identical wheelbase, for some reason, from behind the wheel the Magnum doesn't feel as big as the Chrysler 300.
The Dodge Magnum was a car we didn't want to stop driving. All that horsepower, all that torque, great tight handling, solid comfortable ride, very enjoyable instrument panel and steering wheel and seats.
The five-speed automatic transmission, designed by Mercedes, upshifted sharply and smoothly, but even in the AutoStick mode it sometimes upshifted before we wanted it to. The specs say that the engine is electronically limited to 5800 rpm, but our Magnum shifted at 5500. The engine felt easily underworked at that speed. Numbers and charts notwithstanding, this is an engine that feels like it wants to rev. Although by the same token, the 340 horsepower peaks at just 5000 rpm, so revving past 5500 would seem to be unnecessary. It was just so much fun. We should add that we were testing a pre-production Magnum, and it's possible that showroom models may be programmed to shift at 5800, not 5500.
Even with all that power and torque, the acceleration isn't neck-snapping; the Magnum has a very tall final drive ratio of 2.82, which is great for gas mileage and quiet running, but tempers acceleration. There were times it felt like it had 340 horsepower, and times it didn't. There were more times that it didn't feel like it had 390 pound-feet of torque, which might be because the torque peaks at a relatively high level, 4000 rpm. With torque peaking at 4000 and horsepower peaking at 5000, there's a relatively small area of maximum happy performance for such a big engine. We're not complaining, merely lamenting what could be. And no doubt will, with aftermarket tuners.
They'll also find grippier tires for the Magnum. It comes with Continental Touring all-season tires, P225/60R18, which were the likely cause of the Electronic Stability Program's occasional intrusion into our hard but not overboard or even borderline driving. As the tires lost their limited bite, the ESP cut the throttle on us. With grippier tires it's unlikely that intrusion would occur. This car warrants sport or high-performance tires, though they may not last as long or work as well in the winter.
We also felt the front wheels bouncing at times, which was the only blemish on an otherwise great ride, tested in a variety of road conditions. Again, we suspect tires.
The brakes are another story: they are fully up to the task (for example, towing up to 3800 pounds is eminently doable). The front vented rotors measure a huge 13.6 inches and the rear vented rotors are 12.6; additionally, the fronts use dual piston calipers. Couple that mechanical strength with ABS with brake assist, which balances the braking between front and rear, and no worries, you're gonna get stopped when you need to. On the curvy mountain roads we repeatedly hammered the brakes into downhill curves, and the pedal never once showed any sign of stress or distress.
We drove the Magnum RT for half a day, and its dressier sister the Chrysler 300C for the other half. They're built on the same platform and have much of the same equipment, including rack-and-pinion constant-rate steering systems. Both handle extremely well; tight is the best word to describe them. It may have been in our head, but we think the Magnum felt more nimble. One difference might be weight distribution; even though they're heavier, wagons (er, sport tourers) inherently have better balance than sedans. The 300C is 54/46, while the Magnum RT is 52/48.
Finally, a word about the MDS, or Multi-displacement system, which cuts out half of the eight cylinders during those times when not much horsepower is needed. At a steady 60 miles per hour on a flat highway, or less, you're only using four cylinders and you're getting about 30 miles per gallon. With a response time of 0.04 seconds, we couldn't feel when it went from a V4 back to a V8, when we hit the throttle to speed back up again.
The Dodge Magnum is a landmark car, or a watershed car, or something like that. For sure, there is no other car like it. When equipped with all-wheel drive, it will do almost anything an SUV will do, with distinctive style, more speed, better handling and better fuel mileage.
For the irresistible price of $22,495 including destination, the Magnum SE comes with a good and proven V6 engine, making more horsepower than the six-cylinder that's in the BMW 525i Sport Wagon, which costs $40,000. The Magnum RT with the powerful and frugal multi-displacement 5.7-liter Hemi is one of a kind, at just $30,000.
The Magnum excels with its quiet cabin, smooth and solid ride, and tight handling. Its interior is well thought-out, and the rear-wheel-drive design with a long wheelbase and short overhangs allows a lot of room inside. The styling might be too aggressive for many, but the practical arguments for this car are hard to beat.