August 11, 2004 Los Angeles Times
Gen.-X, meet your wagon
It's not a precision instrument, but as a kid-friendly ride for aging rebels, the Dodge Magnum RT cuts a cool profile.
By Dan Neil, Times Staff Writer
"HEY! Yo! Is that your Magnum?" I heard a voice in the front yard call out. I opened the door to find one of my Silver Lake neighbors, a young man in his early 30s. He had spotted the maroon Dodge Magnum RT test car parked on the
street. Let's call him Killer.
Killer was wearing a bowling shirt and baggy shorts, several earrings and a couple of ounces of high-quality tattoo ink swirling around his calves, forearms and neck — flaming dice, crossed pistols, hearts and death's heads, Bettie Page in fishnets. You know, the illustrated psychobilly.
Killer explained that he and his wife — huh? — had been trying to find a Dodge Magnum RT in Los Angeles because they had a 2-year-old daughter — wha?! — and they needed a family car. None of the local dealers had the RT edition — with the 340-horsepower Hemi V8 — and he was thinking of driving to Las Vegas to find one.
"Aw, man," Killer said, "that thing is just so money!"
It occurred to me as I closed the door and put down my can of "Welcome Mace" that Killer was the Magnum's ideal demographic: a middle-finger-waving anti-establishmentarian, bad-beer connoisseur, breeder.
Sometime between being hip and breaking a hip, even kool kats need a family car.
Let's get right to it: What makes the Magnum work is its subversive, hot-rod styling, which to me has a distinct rockabilly vibe. In this tribal subculture, with its goth-kitsch fascination with '50s teen rebellion — reform-school girls, DA hairdos, crushed-velvet doo-wop, dead-man's curve nihilism — the cars are big and bad. Cadillac convertibles, sloe-eyed Hudsons, Lincoln roadsters, noses aglow with flame-job paint schemes: these are the cars you see barreling out of mural tattoos.
At 197.7 inches long, the Magnum isn't particularly big, about the same length as a Chevy Monte Carlo. But its massive, blocky styling lends it that look of naked bulk that characterized the great lead sleds of the '50s and '60s. The Magnum puts the "blunt" in "blunt-force trauma."
Meanwhile, the styling vernacular is right out of the California rod-and-custom playbook. One of hot-rodding's favorite tricks is to cut a few inches out of a car's roof pillars and lower the roof, giving the car a slightly desperate, James Dean squint. This is the "chop" in the phrase "chopped and channeled." The Magnum's chop-top roofline, glowering greenhouse, low stance, and road-scraping body skirts all convey a wonderful, retro delinquency.
Drop this thing 4 inches, put on a set of lakes pipes, some Coker whitewalls and disc hubcaps, and you can be the star of your own B-movie fantasy. Calling Mamie Van Doren.
It's also worth noting that there is, sure enough, something sinister about the Magnum. In some lights it looks very authoritarian, like something from the Big Brother motor pool. It could be the smoked-out rear windows, behind which all sorts of truncheon-wielding attitude adjustment might take place beyond prying eyes. Dodge began selling the RT this summer, and will begin selling the Magnum SXT (with a 3.5-liter, 250-hp V6 mated to a four-speed automatic) with a police package coming this fall and a Hemi-powered pursuit cruiser next year. Evildoers, beware.
With the Magnum RT, retro is more than skin-deep. Under the hood is an overhead-valve 5.7-liter V8 — that's 350 cubic inches to the fuzzy-dice set — mated to a rear-wheel-drive drivetrain. We haven't seen that combo in a station wagon since the dearly defunct Buick Roadmaster wagon of the late 1990s, I think.
Dodge is going to some trouble to sell the Magnum RT as a "sports tourer," i.e., a performance wagon, and its posted time from nil to 60 mph — 6.3 seconds — is nothing to toss beer bottles at. The five-speed transmission's steep first gear and the big V8's 390 pound-feet of torque give the car pretty righteous launch capabilities. Switch off the traction control and you can paint the town black with the fat 18-inch Continental all-season tires.
At highway speeds, the RT runs with quiet, effortless authority and plenty of mid-range passing punch. The exhaust sounds dark and warm and velvety, like a vinyl LP recording of a '60s-era Hemi. The most trick feature of the car is its cylinder deactivation system: when engine loads are low, four of the eight cylinders' valve sets are deactivated, so that the car becomes, effectively, a V4. The RT returns decent — though by no means unprecedented — EPA mileage of 17/24 miles per gallon, city/highway. I tried many times to detect the cylinder deactivation system at work, but it was completely transparent.
The Magnum is a surprisingly refined piece of hardware for the money. The short-long-arm front suspension gives the front end a suppleness and nicely tuned feel through the steering wheel; the multi-link rear suspension is likewise well damped and composed. The highway ride is comfortable and body roll is reasonably well contained. Borrowed from the boys in Stuttgart, this chassis design is the same one that labors under the Mercedes-Benz E class.
As for handling, well, this is where it gets a bit sketchy. Don't expect the Magnum to hang with the Audi Avant or BMW wagons on the S's. This is a big automobile and heavy (4,142 pounds) on pretty tame all-season radials. So it slides around quite a bit — first by the nose if you plow into a corner with too much speed, and then by the tail if you lift off the throttle abruptly while cornering. The rack-and-pinion steering doesn't have a very positive self-centering feel, and it has poor "trace-ability," the quality of finding and holding a line in a corner. The Magnum does have traction and stability systems, however, and when the car senses a yawing rotation or an incipient spin, it will intervene aggressively and the car will snap back into shape. The brakes are only average.
A sport-tourer? No. A hipster-friendly SUV substitute? Absolutely. All-wheel drive will become an option on the RT package this fall, giving the Magnum surer footing in adverse conditions and raising the trailer weight capacity from 2,000 pounds to 3,800 pounds. Meanwhile, the five-seat vehicle is plenty roomy, despite the swooping roofline: The max cargo volume with the rear seats folded is 71.6 cubic feet, more than a Cadillac SRX and just shy of a Ford Explorer. The Magnum's rear hatch is hinged well forward of the break-over point, allowing the upright loading of tall items in the back.
The interior has a studied simplicity, with straightforward rotary climate and audio controls, four-gauge instrument cluster with black-on-white lettering, leather seating and a kind of indoor-outdoor, rubber-and-plastic dash and door treatment. In keeping with its young-parent audience, the car has loads of safety content, including auto-reverse power windows (to prevent hand entrapment); smart front airbags and side curtain airbags; rear parking assist and child-safety seat anchors.
I am a firm believer in sporty wagons. In most head-to-head comparisons they are lighter, faster, safer, more space efficient and less fuel intensive than SUVs. There is very little a Ford Explorer can do that a Volvo V70 R can't, and the Volvo is infinitely more versatile.
Until the Magnum, there wasn't a domestic — OK, quasi-domestic — entry in the hot wagon category. The Magnum claims this territory and tattoos it with a heart that says "Mother." As Gen-Xers yield to the imperatives of biology, the market needs more family vehicles that stand out from the hordes of bourgeois boomers.
2005 Dodge Magnum RT
Price as tested: $30,520
Powertrain: 5.7-liter, overhead-valve V8 with Multi-Displacement System; five-speed automatic transmission with adaptive learning and Autostick manual control; rear-wheel drive
Curb weight: 4,142 pounds
Horsepower: 340 horsepower at 5,000 rpm
Torque: 390 lb.-feet at 4,000 rpm
0-60 mph: 6.3 seconds
Wheelbase: 120 inches
Overall length: 197.7 inches
Seating capacity: 5
Maximum cargo volume: 71.6 cubic feet
Competitors: Volvo V70 R, Volkswagen Passat Wagon W8
Final thoughts: Rockabye, baby
Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.