Dodge Magnum is impeccable and as interesting as it looks

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

They’ve got it wrong.

They, are those who are asking the question, “Who is going to buy the 2005 Dodge Magnum?” The Magnum being the first American-built rear-wheel drive station wagon (Dodge calls it a ‘sports tourer’) available with aV8 engine since the demise of the large General Motors wagons in 1996.

They (them again) say, “who is going to forsake their minivan, which holds a lot more stuff, or who is going to give up their high-riding go-anywhere Jeep Grand Cherokee or any one of the ubiquitous SUVs for that matter for the Magnum?”

These questions are all wrong. They simply aren’t the right questions.

We don’t think the new Magnum, one of the coolest cars to come out of the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler in years, is aimed at those customers.

It’s not meant to tempt the family who relishes a cavernous interior with three rows of seats and storage for a small army of rugrats. Although the Magnum may, indeed, win over some of these people, it is going to appeal more to the guy who loves his sedan, who  still thinks the true family car is an Accord, LeSabre, Taurus, Altima or Camry.

He’s the head of a household that has just welcomed its second child.  And although this growing family still fits into the popular mid-sized sedan, Mr. Head of Household is intrigued by the macho looks of the Magnum and the extra storage it affords behind the seats.

He’s the guy who might be longing for the rumble of a big V8, but has been reined in by his wife and his suburban family responsibilities.

Remember, he’s a sedan guy - and there are still millions of them out there - so he’s not looking for a three-seat vehicle and he’s not willing to trade his excellent-handling sedan for a top-heavy SUV that needs to be revitalized with expensive fuel every few days.

OK. So there’s your target audience as we see it. That’s our book. And we think the Magnum, which is surprisingly well screwed together and outfitted with rich-looking materials, will attract a large audience.

The Magnum is indeed the kind of car that turns heads because there is simply nothing like it on the road.

With its aggressive long and low athletic stance, chopped top, short overhangs and prodigious wheel arches, it breaks new ground. And when asked we unabashedly tell the questioner that the Magnum next to its kissing cousin the Chrysler 300C is about the best new and imaginative thing out there in the mass market.

It’s a car that will get conversations started. From a Sunday morning visit to our favorite supermarket (the produce manager had looked at it and gave it two thumbs up soon after we arrived) where it drew a crowd to a posh restaurant where the valet gave it a place of honor because it was so “really neat.” Believe us the high priced metal was in good company.

“How much?” they ask. Questions about price always seem to come up, and when we informed them it could be purchased well equipped in the mid-20s, (no, not with the Hemi) there were no sticker shock gasps. In fact, there was some surprise at the attractive price.
So just what is this Magnum aside from being related to the new Chrysler 300 – itself an instant hit in the fickle and incentive laden auto market. 

The five-passenger Magnum is exactly the same length as a Ford Taurus, but the Magnum has a foot longer wheelbase creating scads of rear-seat legroom compared to the Ford and most other mid-sized offerings.

Both the Magnum and the 300 can be purchased with Chrysler’s now again famous – “can you say Hemi” V8 generating 340-horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque.

With the big V8 under hood mated to a Mercedes 5-speed automatic transmission, the Magnum is a force to be reckoned with capable of a 0 to 60 time under 6 seconds.

Because the price of gas has become headline news around the country, it is noteworthy that the Magnum V8 is capable of gas mileage in the high 20s when cruising the interstate at a steady speed. That’s possible through Chryslers Multi-displacement system in which half of the eight cylinders are at rest during times when horsepower and torque muscle is not needed.

Other engine options are a 3.5-liter V6 generating 250 horsepower and a base 2.7-liter V6 making 200 horsepower, a choice we wouldn’t make especially if you’re using the vehicle at load capacity. The base SE 200-horsepower engine you might think would be adequate, but when you figure it has to haul nearly 4,000 pounds to begin with, it begs the question why not spend an another $1,000 and get the much needed extra 50 horses?

The Magnum comes in three trim levels: SE, SXT and RT.

The RT carries the 340 horsepower hemi V8 as standard equipment. It also carries a $30,000 base price and can easily reach 35 grand with a few desirable options.

The popular choice, we think, will be the mid-level SXT outfitted with the 250-horsepower V6. It can be well adorned for a price somewhere in the mid-20s.

We drove all the trim levels at launch and spent an extra week in each the SXT and the RT.

The Magnum is impressive, particularly when you consider the mundane Chrysler-built sedans of the not-to-distant past. This is not to say those cars weren’t pleasing in many ways to some, but the Magnum offers a higher level of ambiance, innovation and uniqueness.

The doors close with a solid thud. They sound heavy and substantial. Look closely at and touch the cloth seat fabric. The fabric has a somewhat rough texture with the expensive look and feel of material you would find in a high-end European car. We enjoy leather, but we could easily live with cloth seats of this quality.

The dashboard plastics and trim pieces have a quality look to them, especially in black as found in both of our test cars. Fit and finish in and out was to the highest standards. There could be a real cat-fight brewing between the Chrysler Group and the Mercedes Group on who can do it better.

Even though the interior is unusually spacious, it may feel claustrophobic to some people because of the chopped roofline that cuts into the window size, although we couldn’t find any. None of our riders had a problem with the slope of the roofline and visibility from all sides is certainly acceptable.

Headroom is not a problem up front and although the second row might look to be a problem from the outside it isn’t. Step into the second seat and you seem to sit down into the car keeping the roof a generous ways overhead. The back seats are comfortable and there’s real stretch out room for the legs.

The seatbacks can be folded forward in a 60-40 configuration to increase the 27.8 cubic feet of rear cargo space to 72 cubic feet. Dodge officials’ say a 27-inch television can be successfully loaded into the rear. We however are not foolish enough to find out for ourselves.

One neat design trick was hinging the rear liftgate about two feet into the roof providing a wide opening for the cargo area.

A shelf covers a shallow storage area in the floor. The carpeted cover can be flipped over to provide a rubberized surface if desired.

The Magnum’s gauges are housed in four ovals surrounded by stainless trim rings. The black numbers on a white background are classy. Overall, the dashboard is handsome in a conservative way. Nothing space age about the setup, but it fits the package very nicely.

We found that the 3.5-liter engine had more than adequate power for our needs and the Hemi had enough gusto to satisfy our wants. The SXT had no problem with moving smartly off the line at a stoplight or merging into interstate traffic.

If you aren’t into the macho V8 thing and you want to save a few thousand dollars at the time of purchase and add some miles to every tank of gas, go with the SXT.

It comes with a 4-speed automatic while the V8 gets a 5-speed.

The steering is accurate with good feedback, and the SXT edition performs adeptly on the back-road twists and turns. It can provide some enjoyment in that area if the head of the household can sneak off for a few miles of mid-day bliss. Needless to say if you choose the Hemi you’ll be more ‘blissful.’

All trim levels come with 17-inch wheels, air conditioning, a stereo with CD player, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and keyless entry.
The price of admission for the base Magnum is $22,495. Step up to the SXT and get antilock brakes, aluminum wheels, 8-way power driver’s seat, electronic stability control and traction control.  Our test car also had side curtain airbags. Price as tested was $26,585.

The RT steps up to larger 18-inch polished aluminum wheels, dual exhaust, performance brakes and more. Our RT also had leather trim, heated seats, dual zone climate control, power passenger seat, etc., etc., etc. As tested $34, 629.

For those people in cold-weather climates, an all-wheel drive option should be available by early fall. AWD vehicles will start at near $28,000.

The aggressive styling may turn off some people. But it may be a selling point for many others.

What shouldn’t turn anyone off is the quiet Magnum interior. Combine that with good ride quality; excellent handling; impeccable fit and finish and overall attention to detail with enough space to be eminently practical and it becomes one heck of a package.