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With the arrival of the Dodge Magnum, you didn'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 SUVs leaning in the direction of cars and/or minivans. But the tag is too vague to mean much.
Suddenly, with the Dodge Magnum, it fit. There was a car with the capability to wean the country off of SUVs. Its bold, hot rod lines might scare some 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. It's engineered for safety, styled for image and designed for utility. If those aren't what people want when they buy an SUV, what do they want?
Plus, the Magnum gets better gas mileage than full-size SUVs. The base Magnum SE comes with a 190-hp, double overhead cam V6 that gets 21 to 28 miles per gallon, at a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $23,095 including destination. And the 340-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi in the R/T boasts technology that shuts down four of the engine's eight cylinders when the car is just cruising, delivering up to 30 miles per gallon during those moments. Put in everyday terms, if you used it to commute on the freeway at a steady 60 mph, you could average 25 miles per gallon.
For 2006, Dodge has pushed a different edge of the performance envelope with the SRT8. Powered by a 6.1-liter, V8 Hemi making 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, the SRT8 lives up to the Magnum name, accelerating from 0 to 60 in about five seconds and from 0 to 100 and back to 0 in less than 17 seconds. And it does that without giving up any of the utility or much of the comfort of the other three models.
Take your pick. There's not a loser in the bunch.
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. The EPA classifies it as a sport utility. Dodge calls it a sport tourer. Others call this new direction a sport wagon. That's what it is in our book: a sporty wagon, a cross between muscle car and station wagon, a hot rod hauler for grown-ups who haven't grown up, or haven't needed to, but 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, a Magnum sibling, which try harder to be retro. The air dam/bumper cover wraps up under the headlamps and grille, and looks impressively beefy and functional. The SRT8 gets a mesh grille insert surrounded by a blockier fascia with a more aggressive air dam and enlarged, brake-cooling ducts.
From the side, the Magnum looks like it could be rolled onto the floor of a custom rod show. The wheel cutouts are profound, especially imposing with the 18-inch, 10-spoke wheels on the RT and borderline brutish with the SRT8's 20-inchers and ultra-low profile rubber. A big 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 SRT8's roof-mounted wake diffuser is deeper, and its rear bumper mirrors the front's blockiness, with cutouts for the two, oversize, chrome exhaust tips.
If you have any doubts about the Dodge 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 total 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? It's usually the length and width and flat floor that matter, and the Magnum excels by those measurements.
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. In people terms, the rear seat's measurements come within an inch of the front's except in legroom, where the rear seat gives up just over an inch and a half to the front. The 60/40 split rear seat seats three people, but a wide, center armrest with cupholders drops down to make it more comfortable for two. There's plenty of head clearance despite the roofline, which poses no rear visibility problem for the driver. Even so, the chopped-top proportions left us feeling a touch claustrophobic.
The driver should have no problem finding a comfortable position. The steering wheel offers both tilt and telescope adjustments and the pedals are power adjustable. If anything, this is overkill, but adjustable pedals can help people of small stature (petite women, for example) position themselves farther away from the airbag-equipped steering wheel, lessening the chance of airbag-related injuries.
Fabric covers the seats in the SE and SXT, with leather optional in the latter and standard in the R/T and the SRT8. We found the regular seats generally supportive. The SRT8's deep-dish sport seats were especially effective in keeping our backside in place during aggressive motoring. However, all of the seats were somewhat short in thigh support.
We really liked the Magnum's gauges, handsome and all business, white background with black numbers and stainless trim rings. We detested, however, the Mercedes-Benz column stalks with the turn indicator lever drooping down around 7 o'clock and the wimpy cruise control stick perched up at 11 o'clock. (We dislike these controls just as much on Mercedes cars.) The four-spoke steering wheel was sharp, with buttons for cruise and sound control.
The center stack was clean and tidy in black, with switches that were easy to click and knobs where knobs should be for the climate control and radio. The navigation system's screen displaces the stereo faceplate, with controls for both functions arrayed around the perimeter.
The console compartment is decent sized, with two levels, the upper stamped with recesses for holding sundry items, and contains practical coin holders. There's also a sunglasses holder within the driver's reach. And speaking of specialized holders, the optional cargo organizer keeps grocery bags from topping over and incorporates a nook designed for holding a one-gallon milk jug.
The Magnum takes an innovative approach to placement of the entertainment system's video screen. In lieu of suspending it from the ceiling or planting it in the backside of the front seat head restraints, Dodge pivots the Magnum's up out of the front center console. This positions it for viewing between the front seats at just above knee level. We're not sure what this will do for passengers susceptible to motion sickness, but it does preserve the driver's view out the back window. If your Magnum is to be used frequently as a station wagon, that is, to haul stuff, don't pop for the upgraded sound system that parks a monster subwoofer in the cargo area right behind the rear seat.
The Dodge Magnum was a car we enjoyed driving, especially the SRT8. All that horsepower, all that torque, predictable handling, and a solid, comfortable ride.
The five-speed automatic transmission upshifted smoothly. Even in AutoStick mode, however, it sometimes upshifted before we wanted it to. Gear engagement often lacked the crispness we believe should be the norm in a car with the SRT8's credentials. The shift lever moves through a slotted gate, with AutoStick actions managed with sideways movements at the bottom end of the gate.
The specs say that the SRT8's engine is electronically limited to 6600 rpm, but the tachometer redlines at 6250 rpm, and upshifts generally occurred between 6000 and redline. The engine felt comfortable at that speed, as it should, seeing as how the 425 horsepower peaks at 6400 rpm.
Power in the SE with its 2.7-liter V6 is barely adequate for a car weighing close to two tons, and the base, four-speed automatic is, shall we say, basic. But with judicious selection of aftermarket tires and wheels and body tack-ons, who's to know it's the lowest-cost ride?
The SXT is better, with some 30 percent more horsepower and torque on tap, plus a five-speed automatic, in a car weighing barely 50 pounds more than the base SE. The SXT's 3.5-liter V6 makes 250 horsepower and, in these days of high horsepower V8s, that number might have lost its meaning, but 250 horsepower is a lot, and it's especially effective with the 250 pound-feet of torque this engine offers. The SXT is more fully featured for the money, too, including sharper wheels and tires more befitting the car's abilities. It's rated to tow 2000 pounds and gets an EPA-estimated City/Highway 19/27 mpg. The SXT uses a five-speed automatic with AutoStick for manual gear selection.
Best in our estimation is the R/T with its 5.7-liter V8 Hemi, although even with all that power and torque, the acceleration isn't neck-snapping; the R/T has a very tall final drive ratio of 2.82 in the rear-wheel-drive version and 3.07 in all-wheel drive, which may be 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 horsepower peaking at 5000 rpm, that's a relatively narrow stretch of maximum happy performance for such a big engine, although not at all out of line in a multi-valve, overhead cam design. We're not complaining, merely lamenting what could be.
The Multi-Displacement System, or MDS, on the R/T Hemi cuts out half of the eight cylinders whenever horsepower is not 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, and just as in the 2006 Dodge Charger with the same system, we couldn't feel when it went from a V4 back to a V8, when we hit the throttle to speed back up again. is rated 17/25 mpg. Although technically capable of towing 3800 pounds with the optional tow package, Dodge does not recommend using the R/T as a tow vehicle. The R/T uses a five-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick.
The R/T longs for grippier tires. 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 feathered the throttle. With proper 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
The 2006 Dodge Magnum is a landmark car. 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. The Magnum excels with its quiet cabin and smooth and solid ride. Its interior is well thought-out, and the underlying 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. The SRT8 trades fuel economy for muscle car fun and succeeds.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Northern California.
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