From Embarrassing to Embraced
Station wagons have come a long way since the days of Custom Cruisers, Country Squires and Caprice Estates. Those leviathans have essentially been replaced by the ongoing crush of minivans and SUVs. Still, for those who prefer a vehicle more along the lines of a sedan with a large cargo hold, all is not lost. Unlike those wood-decaled Brady Bunch mobiles of yore, today's wagons are stylish and sporty and something you wouldn't have been embarrassed to drive to your senior prom.
At first blush, pitting the 2005 Dodge Magnum R/T against the 2005 Subaru Legacy GT Limited may seem a little bizarre, like having Clint Eastwood (in his "Dirty Harry" days) squaring off against Jackie Chan. But the question that launched this piece was essentially this: "You're a car enthusiast who has set his (or her) sights on a sporty wagon priced in the low $30K range — what are your choices?" That left us this pair, whose stickers were within $1,500 of each other.
We can almost hear the Dodge saying (in Clint's voice): "But being as I am a Hemi-powered Magnum, one of the most powerful wagons made, that could blow your doors clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question
." And then we've got the Subie saying, well, not much. Mr. Chan usually lets his moves do the talking, which we imagined would be the case with the Legacy GT.
Like our buddy Clint in his heyday, the Magnum has the type of confident presence that commands respect. The powerful stance is enhanced with the low-profile windows, semifastback roofline and 18-inch alloys filling the wheelwells. The Legacy is more sophisticated, almost European in flavor (check out the BMW-like headlights) yet still sports a hood scoop that gives it some Subaru attitude.
Heavy-Hitting Hemi, Blown Boxer
As almost everybody knows by now, the Magnum RT comes packing a 340-horsepower Hemi-head V8 with 390 pound-feet of roaring torque, while the middleweight Legacy GT gets 250 horses (250 lb-ft of torque) from its turbocharged flat four. Those of you with Rain Man-like minds might be thinking. "Gee, how fair is that? The Magnum's got 36-percent more power." Well, yes, it does. But do the math all the way and you'll see that in terms of weight-to-power ratios, the two combatants aren't as mismatched as one might first think — the Legacy carries 14 pounds for every horse, while the Magnum's steeds each haul around 12.4.
Our Magnum had rear-wheel drive (though AWD is available) where the Legacy only comes with AWD. Go with the AWD Magnum and its weight/power ratio goes up to 12.9-to-1. But as we wanted to keep pricing as similar as possible and also allow more distinct personalities between the cars, we opted to go with the rear-drive Magnum.
The Envelope Please
After getting these two together and enjoying two weeks of living with them, we were able to decide who would drive off with the Inside Line version of an Oscar. And unlike the Academy Awards, we won't make you wait until the end to let you know who got "Best station wagon in a sporting role."
As a close cousin to the highly respected and lusted-after Chrysler 300C, the Dodge Magnum RT could be the coolest wagon on the planet for under $34 grand (nicely equipped, no less). With more passenger and cargo room than the Legacy to please the kids and the parents, that bottomless well of power from the Hemi to please us enthusiasts and enough comfort and convenience features to please everyone, it was unanimous. The Oscar goes to the Dodge Magnum RT.
2005 Dodge Magnum RT
Hedonism With Horsepower
With a base price a tick under $30,000 ($29,995), the Magnum RT comes with, of course, the now-famous 5.7-liter Hemi V8, 18-inch wheels, air conditioning, a CD player, leather seating, power everything, cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, and important safety features such as stability control and antilock brakes. Note: We used our long-term Magnum for this test and our car was an early production model. The base price has since gone up $750, but the options pricing hasn't changed.
Our RT had some extras, namely a Protection Group (side airbags, self-sealing tires, cabin air filter); Electronics Convenience Group (trip computer, steering wheel audio controls, security alarm, universal garage opener); Convenience Group II (dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, power-adjustable pedals); towing package; Sirius Satellite Radio; and UConnect hands-free communication system. The bottom line on the sticker was a still reasonable $33,045.
Inviting but Not Intimate
A large cabin gives the feeling of an old-school American car. Wide, soft seats and plenty of room all around give passengers a sense of space. But as driving enthusiasts, we didn't feel as much a part of the car as we did in the Legacy, whose more intimate cabin fosters a greater connection between man and machine. This would prove to be an omen.
Storage space is plentiful in the big Dodge, and the fold-flat rear seat creates a cavernous trunk that rivals most small pickup trucks. The Magnum's large rear hatch cuts into its sloping roofline, offering excellent access to the rear storage space. Drop the backseat and that area grows to a whopping 72 cubic feet, 8 cubic feet more than the Legacy can carry. That's a big suitcase or a couple of golf bags.
Speaking of the cabin, build quality is generally quite good — everything feels solid and tightly fitted. The interior door release handles, for example, are smooth to the touch (no rough flashing trim) and operate with a fluid motion free of play. Still, the Magnum doesn't escape our common complaint of low-grade plastics in the cabin, located in the typical areas — the lower dash and console sides.
High-Speed Family Hauler
In terms of raw performance, the Magnum is pretty quick for a nearly 4,200-pound vehicle. Certainly a sub-7-second (6.8 ticks) 0-to-60 time and a near-flat-15-second (15.04) quarter are respectable. But legendary name or no, even with Hemi power you're not going to be blowing off Mustang GTs or BMW 330s. Looking beyond the stats, the Magnum's power delivery is what impressed us — it's seamless, strong and never feels strained. This car makes a great cruiser, 80 mph feels more like 50, and there's always plenty of thrust on tap to blast onto the freeway, pass daydreamers on cell phones or get around semis on a long two-laner. With our heavy feet, the Magnum averaged 16 mpg (against estimates of 17 and 25). On a long, open freeway trip, you should get around 22 mpg, as we've done that on several occasions.
Although the five-speed automatic comes with the "AutoStick" manual-shift capability, there's no need to use it as the tranny does fine on its own, delivering crisp upshifts and quick downshifts with a nudge of the throttle. Even under full throttle the drivetrain remains as unflustered and smooth as Clint with the ladies.
Picking gears ourselves was somewhat frustrating — like many of these setups there's a slight lag after you flick for an upshift, though response to a flick down is more prompt. Also annoying is the tranny's tendency to upshift on its own (a few hundred rpm short of redline) even in this "manual" mode.
For such a big bruiser, the Magnum does an admirable job of getting around corners. The lightly weighted steering is precise and, even though there's not much road feel, makes it easy to place the big wagon. At a moderately sporting pace through the twisties, the Magnum is composed, with minimal body roll, and the rear-drive chassis is nicely balanced. But push it harder and the big tires feel squishy — almost like you're going to wear the sidewalls out before the tread if you keep these shenanigans up.
Going to 19-inch wheels with lower-profile (say a 50-series versus the stock 60-series spec) tires would probably kick up the ultimate handling. To be fair, we were pressing pretty hard at that point and are confident that the Magnum's handling envelope would be large enough for most buyers. Notes from the slalom session at the track gave the Dodge kudos for great steering and the "right there" power to pull out of the cones, but also stated the Magnum is "just too big and heavy to feel nimble in the slalom." No real surprise there.
The ABS-assisted four-wheel discs did a commendable job of bringing all that kinetic energy to a halt. A trio of back-to-back stops from 60 mph displayed no fade and a progressive pedal, something we also noted on the street. The best stop took 130.4 feet.
Out on the open highway is where the Magnum feels most at home. A quiet cabin and a suspension that knows how to deal with expansion joints and frost heaves characterize the Magnum's road trip strengths. With supportive seating and a wheelbase some 15 inches longer than the Legacy, anyone short of Shaq should be comfortable riding in the Magnum, front or rear.
A Close One, but More Votes for the Magnum
At the end of the day, all three editors involved in this test found themselves leaning toward the Magnum. One staffer summed it up this way: "So it's not as nimble as the Legacy when you're driving it like a sports car. Who cares? In the real world you're going to appreciate the room, comfort and effortless power of the Magnum a lot more often than you will the Subie's edge in all-out handling."
2005 Subaru Legacy GT Limited
Those who prefer more of a gymnast's (or martial artist's) personality in their family truckster will want to pay close attention here. The Legacy GT is for those enthusiasts who get more delight out of zipping through corners than blasting away from stoplights. A nicely trimmed cabin and an eager turbo engine don't hurt either.
Listing at $31,570, this is the top-of-the-line Legacy wagon. One could forgo the leather seats, moonroof and other gingerbread of the Limited edition and trim the sticker by $2,700, but we wanted both cars to be as comparably equipped as possible (the Magnum RT comes with leather, for instance) so we went whole hog.
"Running" the Numbers
In a straight-line contest, the Legacy isn't too far behind the Magnum. Less than three-tenths separated the two in the 0-to-60 dash (the Subie posted a 7.08-second time) and it was the same in the quarter, where the Legacy ran a 15.29-second effort. But like we said before, the delivery of the performance is more different than the close times might imply.
Where the Dodge exhibits linear pull right off the mark, the Subie isn't as quick right out of the blocks, feeling a touch soft at step-off. But once the tach needle swings past 2,600, the Legacy hits its stride and pulls hard to the 6,500-rpm redline. Fuel "economy" was disappointing — we averaged just 17.2 mpg against EPA estimates of 19 and 25. But then again, we were as guilty as the day is long of having our feet deep in the boost whenever conditions allowed.
We've issued complaints in the past about Subaru automatics being a little lazy as far as answering the call for a downshift, and if you just plunk the gearshift in "D," you'll see what we mean. Upshifts occur too soon and those downshifts take a hearty stab to the throttle. But Subaru offers a way around that.
With a "sport" mode offered in addition to the other two (normal and manual shift), the tranny morphs into something more to our liking. Select "sport" and the reward is quicker response to downshifts and the smarts to hold gears longer, such as when running through a set of curves on a mountain road.
If you want to maximize fuel efficiency, leave it in "Drive," but if you're in the mood to really enjoy the feisty STi-derived 2.5-liter turbo four, pick "S" or just shift for yourself. Swapping cogs on your own is a similar experience to the Magnum, meaning it's quicker on the downshifts than upshifts — really not much fun. A real manual transmission is available on the Legacy GT, unlike the Magnum which is slushbox only.
With its best 60-to-0 braking distance a leisurely 137.8 feet, this Legacy's binders were mildly disappointing. On the upside was a lack of fade and the brake system's ability to provide a strong initial bite without being grabby.
Feeling more Germanic than Asian, the Legacy is more fun than a wagon should be on a serpentine stretch of road. With its perfectly weighted steering, invisible all-wheel-drive system and well-sorted suspension, the Legacy feels utterly composed through the curves at speeds that would have the Dodge falling all over itself in an effort to keep up. Not that we would know this firsthand or anything. The Subaru's firmer ride will also appeal to those who prefer more interaction than isolation between themselves and the road below.
A major bennie the Subie has over the Dodge is cabin ambience. Softer-touch materials and more variety in colors and textures give the Legacy more of a luxury car vibe than the more monotone and severe Dodge. Fake wood accents on the doors and console do a passable impersonation of teak, and the fit and finish on our tester was excellent all around. With more supportive contouring than the Magnum's bucket seats and bench, the Legacy was judged a little more comfortable. Well, except by those taller than 5 feet 9, who preferred the stretch-out space of the Magnum.
The Legacy also fell behind the Magnum in terms of interior storage space. The rear trunk area is noticeably smaller in the Subaru, and while the rear seat folds down it doesn't fold as flat as the Dodge's. With the seat down the Legacy can swallow 66 cubic feet of gear, which sounds impressive until you compare it to the 73 cubes the Magnum is capable of hauling. Factor in the Subie's low torque numbers and it becomes clear that wagon shoppers looking to haul lots of cargo would be better off with the Dodge.
No Wrong Choices Here
Although the Legacy got edged out by the Dodge in our informal comparison, we certainly appreciate its strengths. If you've got a small family and place more value on handling dynamics and cabin refinement than on maximum space and a burly V8, you won't go wrong here. We wouldn't kick it out of our driveways.
Road Test Editor Dan Kahn says:
Picking either the Legacy GT Wagon or Dodge Magnum is kind of like deciding who's the better superhero: Spiderman or Batman. One is light and agile with a super-sticky grip, while the other is big, powerful and intimidating. Both cars accomplish their given tasks of hauling lots of people and cargo while providing an exciting driving experience; they just go about it in very different ways.
If I had to choose one of these big haulers for my personal fleet, it would be the Magnum. The Dodge suffers from several shortcomings, including limited visibility and a plasticky interior that could use some refinement. None of that matters, however, when you twist the key and the Hemi fires to life. Torque flows forth like a raging river, and the gargantuan Magnum feels like a four-door dragster with room for the kids. The five-speed automatic is divine, and the suspension is sporty enough for a 2-ton wagon.
I like the Legacy wagon for the same reasons I like our long-term sedan. Steering is tight and offers excellent feedback, the suspension is perfectly tuned and the all-wheel drive offers amazing grip. The turbocharged four-cylinder doesn't have much bottom end, but once the boost kicks in around 3,000 rpm the Subie takes off like a rocket. I also enjoyed the fit-and-finished interior. Complaints include the bulbous Shamu-like styling, chintzy faux wood grain interior appliqués, and a trans that sometimes feels out of sync with the motor. The Legacy wagon is a great car, but I'd still choose the Dodge.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
It's hard to compare the Dodge Magnum and the Subaru Legacy. They're so similar and yet so different. They're similar in purpose but vastly different in execution.
I really like the Magnum's simple and straightforward approach — V8, rear-wheel drive, station wagon configuration. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than just a powerful and relatively affordable Dodge with a dose of attitude. It's a Dodge that Dodge can be proud of.
On the other hand, the Legacy is more sophisticated with its turbo motor, refined interior and all-wheel drive. The GT's engine is terrific. But so is the Magnum's — in a different way.
For me, the perfect performance wagon would be a car that had the Magnum's size and the Legacy's interior topped off by a Hemi V8. What the Magnum lacks in civility, it makes up for with brawn. What the Legacy lacks in low-end grunt it more than makes up for with style, fun and finesse.
I like them both but feel more comfortable in the Dodge Magnum. It's a car that fits me and my lifestyle so effortlessly.