Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Its manufacturer may spin the Dodge Magnum as a "sport tourer" that defies conventions and redefines categories, but polish off the PR shine and the Magnum is nothing more than a station wagon, pure and simple. But while calling the Magnum a station wagon may be technically correct, putting it in the same class as the homely wagons from Ford and Volvo, not to mention the nearly endless stream of domestic behemoths that predated the SUV era, just doesn't do it justice. The 2005 Dodge Magnum takes what was up until this point the eternal damnation of car ownership and turns it into a vehicle that you not only won't mind owning, but may even enjoy.
How does it pull off this seemingly impossible act of practicality and panache? For one, its low-slung design makes it look like a cross between a family hauler and a '50s chop top. It may not be the most space-efficient setup, but it turns heads like a Ferrari on fire. The Magnum is also the first Dodge vehicle to take advantage of the Daimler part of parent company DaimlerChrysler. By using a suspension setup similar in design to that of upper-class Mercedes sedans, the Magnum is able to deliver ride and handling qualities that rival many sedans, let alone other wagons. Topping off the Magnum's impressive repertoire of talents is the fact that while it may look and feel unlike any other wagon on the road, it's still able to deliver the kind of passenger and cargo space that made wagons popular in the first place. It's no SUV, but as consumers wise up to the compromises those vehicles present, the Magnum offers an alternative that appeals both logically and emotionally.
There's no denying that part of the Magnum's allure is the prospect of getting Hemi power under the hood. Already a hit in the Ram truck, the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 has the kind of guts that every driver loves to have underfoot. The prospect of having 340 horsepower on tap in a rear-wheel-drive wagon is an undeniable draw, but we didn't forget that not every owner wants and/or needs the added expense of such a large motor. Our test vehicle was the midgrade SXT model equipped with the more sedate 3.5-liter V6 and a slightly lower sticker price. Not having the big engine not only brought the Magnum in at a more reasonable price, it also put more emphasis on the vehicle's inherent strengths and weaknesses beyond its ability to smoke the tires.
Even without the optional Hemi engine, the Dodge Magnum still isn't cheap. With over three thousand dollars' worth of options tacked on it, the final sticker price of our particular test vehicle ran just shy of $30K. For that chunk of change, it had options like side airbags, an upgraded audio system and a sunroof along with satellite radio, a roof rack and hands-free phone capability. Not every one of those options would be considered essential, but even without some of the more unnecessary features the Magnum is still slightly more expensive than your average family sedan and about on par with a midsize SUV.
But while its competitors may compete on price, they would be hard-pressed to match the Magnum's blend of personality and performance. From the minute you slip into the driver seat, the Magnum gives you the sense that it's more than just your standard family wagon. The seats are outstanding, with high-quality cloth, firm cushions and substantial side bolstering. Nearly every editor who got behind the wheel praised the comfortable buckets for their ability to hold you in tight without being too restrictive on longer drives. The black-on-white gauges have a much sportier look than anything you would find in an SUV, yet they still manage to give you all the information you need at a glance.
What really struck us about the interior, however, is how good it looks despite its relatively basic overall design. Unlike cars that try too hard to inject some character into their interiors through the use of funky shapes, colors or textures, the Magnum's cabin uses nothing more than a two-tone color scheme, the aforementioned gauges and a few well-placed pieces of metallic accents to spruce things up. The center stack is just about perfect with its symmetrical layout of climate and radio controls, while secondary controls are all within easy reach.
There's plenty of basic functionality built in, too. Large cupholders with grippy rubber bottoms are placed just in front of the console for easy access, while the console itself is large enough to accommodate a hefty load of miscellaneous junk. The door bins are about average and we would have liked a few more places to put stuff like keys, garage door openers and the like. But overall, there's enough interior storage to make daily usage manageable.
As good as the Magnum's interior is, it still commits the sin that stains all too many domestic vehicles these days — poor materials quality. Confined mostly to the door panels and parts of the dashboard, the Magnum's cheap plastic trim is hard to stomach given its price tag. It's not glaringly ugly or brittle to the touch, but put the Magnum next to a Volkswagen Passat wagon and you suddenly realize how far from luxurious the Dodge is in comparison.
No such shortcomings present themselves once the Magnum is underway, however, as its driving dynamics are exceptional — even compared to the well-regarded Passat. From the steering to the suspension to the rock-solid brakes, the Magnum imparts a feeling of solidity that few wagons can match. If you're looking for a wagon that won't remind you of its size every time you get behind the wheel, the Magnum is in a class by itself.
As much hype as the Hemi gets for its tire-melting torque, the 250 horsepower from the SXT's 3.5-liter V6 isn't exactly meager. Take a look at any comparable wagon in the Magnum's class and you'll find very few wagons other than Subaru's new turbocharged Legacy that can match the Magnum's power. Having lived with the same engine in our long-term Chrysler Pacifica, we are well aware of its smooth running nature, but with nearly 600 fewer pounds to lug around the 3.5-liter V6 feels considerably stronger in the Magnum.
That said, some editors still expressed disappointment with the Magnum's slow response when accelerating from a stop. "I found the V6 surprisingly capable for the most part," one editor wrote, "but when it came to getting up to speed from a stop the Magnum was asleep off the line." The high-revving nature of the overhead cam engine is partly to blame as it doesn't begin to hit its stride until around 3,500 rpm, but the V6 is also saddled with a four-speed automatic transmission while the Hemi gets a more flexible five-speed. Not only is the four-speed a little lazy on downshifts, but we also noticed a few clunky gear changes that left us less than confident in its performance.
There's definitely no lack of confidence when it comes to the brakes, as the Magnum's four-wheel discs provide the kind of immediate stopping power typically found only in high-end European sedans. It's not often that a vehicle's brakes stand out enough to elicit comments, but every editor who put in some seat time remarked on the Magnum's powerful and easily modulated pedal feel.
Similar comments were directed toward the Magnum's suspension as it yields the kind of balance between comfort and control that we tend to associate with cars costing thousands more. Tight steering, minimal body roll and excellent road feel give the Magnum an intangible solidity on the road that makes it feel less like a wagon and more like a sport sedan. It's not harsh enough to make passengers complain, but the fact that it doesn't wallow through turns, get skittish over rough pavement or float on the freeway makes it handle like no wagon we've ever driven.
As sporty as the Magnum feels through the wheel, however, it doesn't force a compromise when it comes to delivering on the more menial aspects of its wagon configuration. The cabin is spacious for the driver and passengers alike, with the rear seats standing out as particularly accommodating even for taller passengers. With five more inches of rear legroom than most of its competitors, the Magnum really lets you stretch out in back. The bench seat isn't quite as accommodating as the terrific buckets up front, but two adults could spend considerable time in back without complaint.
As with nearly all modern wagons and sedans, the rear seats fold flat for added cargo room. In the Magnum's case, dropping both rear seats opens up 71.6 cubic feet of cargo space, putting it on par with most other midsize wagons and slightly below most midsize SUVs. With the seats up, the Magnum's cargo bay is reduced to 27.2 cubic feet, but a flat load floor and an oversized hatch opening make it seem bigger. Taking a page from the minivan handbook, the Magnum also offers an optional cargo organizer that provides multiple bins and cargo nets to keep groceries and other easily spillable items in place. We used the organizer on more than one occasion and found that it worked as advertised, keeping a picnic full of Fourth of July groceries in place despite repeated attempts to dislodge them.
While family-friendliness is appreciated, advanced safety equipment is required for any legitimate wagon. We would have liked Dodge to offer a full array of safety equipment as standard equipment on all Magnum models, but instead you'll need to upgrade to the SXT to get features like traction control, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. Side curtain airbags are an available option across the board. Given the Magnum's already surefooted handling and massive stopping power, the addition of stability control and multiple airbags should make it as safe as any family sedan in its class.
With so many things going for it, the 2005 Dodge Magnum certainly presents a unique, if not wholly original, alternative for families who don't need seating for eight or any semblance of off-road capability. Although an all-wheel-drive version will be offered later in the model year, the Magnum certainly isn't a vehicle that tries to project an image as anything else other than a functional and stylish street wagon. That may seem like an awkward place to be given America's endless love of all things gigantic and unnecessary, but the Dodge Magnum is so good at it that it might just change your mind — it certainly changed ours.
System score: 9
Components: Our Magnum was upgraded with the optional Boston Acoustics speaker setup that also includes a 288-watt amplifier. There are six speakers total: two 3.5-inch tweeters in the dash, two 6-by-9 woofers in the doors and two 6-by-9 full-range speakers in the cargo area. This was in addition to an AM/FM stereo head unit with an in-dash CD changer and MP3 playback capability. Placed dead center in the dash, the head unit features an easy-to-use interface that we had little trouble mastering quickly. Two large knobs on either side control volume and tuning while smaller auxiliary buttons take care of the rest. It still sticks with Chrysler's somewhat cumbersome memory setting procedure, but other than that we found few faults with the overall usability of the setup.
Performance: We're not sure if it was the Dodge badge on the steering wheel or the fact that we were driving a family wagon that had us so surprised, but this system's sound quality is exceptional. From the distortion-free bass to the excellent spread of the sound stage, this system makes any music sound terrific. Other systems may list higher-powered amps, but the clean, smooth sound of this system never stopped no matter how hard we cranked it. We found a few bass-heavy tracks that managed to get the speakers a little off kilter, but we were admittedly trying to find a weakness. We also liked the fact that rear-seat passengers don't get cut short thanks to full-range drivers in the cargo area.
Best Feature: Clean, smooth sound at any volume.
Worst Feature: Display washes out with the sunroof open.
Conclusion: An excellent all-around system that's well worth the price for those who appreciate fine audio. — Ed Hellwig
Associate Editor Warren Clarke says:
The Magnum offers lots of, well, bang for the buck. It's less expensive than the competition; wagons by Subaru, Volkswagen or Volvo will set you back an additional two to five grand. You're probably thinking that this ultra-affordability is going to cost you in terms of features or amenities. Not so. The Magnum has just as much to offer as its pricier competition; in some respects, even more.
The SXT we tested boasts 250 horses — pretty rollicking for a station wagon, and peppier than nearly everything else in its segment. Step up to the Hemi V8-powered RT, and things get even more bracing. Functionality? Dodge's latest does well in this area, too, with 72 cubic feet of cargo room to meet your hauling needs — a figure that places it near the top its class. The wagon's 60/40-split/fold rear seat allows you to use one side for stowing long cargo, and another for carrying passengers. It doesn't get much more versatile than this.
In putting it through its paces on highways and hilly back roads, the king-size hauler never felt less than quick and nimble; this is one wagon that's as much fun to drive as some sedans. And its interior was a pleasant surprise. With lots of charcoal and a few well-placed glints of chrome, the cabin actually looked reasonably stylish — not bad for a vehicle in this price range.
It all comes wrapped in an eye-catching package. The Magnum's low-slung, muscular exterior has bite to spare, and turned heads as we tooled around town. Fun to drive, value-packed and more "edgy" than "vanilla," the Magnum would definitely be at the top of my list if I were in the market for family transportation.
Road Test Editor Dan Kahn says:
I consider myself a traditionalist. While cab-forward designs, aerodynamic jellybean styling and front-wheel drive are all well and good in compact cars, I'm a firm believer that full-size family sedans should be solid, powerful, comfortable and rear-wheel drive. I've never been able to understand why Chrysler and Chevrolet stopped building what they knew best and instead attempted to beat the Japanese at their own game. After a few decades of economical but uninspired front-wheel-drive people movers, Dodge has finally gotten back to its roots with an aggressively styled full-size car that features a big motor in the nose and wheels that spin out back. Ironic that it took an infusion of German DNA to make the project happen.
With that said, I couldn't wait to hop behind the wheel of a new Hemi-powered Magnum. Unfortunately, it looks like I'll have to wait a little longer. Although our test vehicle didn't have the most popular power plant to come out of Detroit in decades, I was very impressed nonetheless. I absolutely loved the interior, from its supportive and ultracomfy front and rear seats to the sporty gated shifter and white-faced gauges. Build quality is the highest I've ever seen in a Chrysler product. The two-tone plastic panels were stylish, perfectly aligned and made out of a softer textured material than is usually found in American cars. The dash is elegantly laid out, and the four-spoke steering wheel hearkens back to an earlier performance-minded era.
On the road, the Magnum continued to impress. The standard V6 provided plenty of power, steering was extremely tight and responsive and the brakes were outstanding for such a large vehicle. This "station wagon" was actually fun to drive. Of course the styling elicits love-it or hate-it responses, and I happen to fall into the first category. The large open grille and low-slung roofline remind me of chopped-top customs from the 1950s with a modern twist, a look I vastly prefer to the cookie-cutter shapes we've come to expect these days. Factor in a sub-$30K price tag, and I can safely say that this is the car Detroit should have been making for the past decade. Now if only I can get my hands on a Hemi-powered version
"I was in love the moment I laid eyes on my black Magnum. I wasn't even aware that it existed. My husband and I were looking for a 2nd option to the new Mazda when we saw the front end of this amazing vehicle. We studied the lines of the body, the options, the gas mileage, the interior (what we could see — the lot was closed at the time). Within 10 minutes of leaving the lot we both agreed that we had just changed our minds. We bought it the next day. SOFT is the word I would use to describe the way it rides and handles. It is the most different-looking vehicle I've seen. It also seems to have a personality to it. It's perfect for me." — gallowhl, June 24, 2004
"Magnum is a head turner. I've been asked at stop lights and parking lots, 'What are you driving?' When I tell them it's a Dodge they are surprised. They are expecting a foreign car badge name. Due to the '50s look, this car is begging to have performance items and dress-up packages available before the year is out. The 3.5-liter engine performance is ample, but it ain't a Hemi!! This car will have a strong appeal for drivers of all ages. With 1,300 miles on the odometer the gas mileage is around 22 mpg city and hwy. Enough, I'm taking my wife to the Big Boy for more adulations." — Mr. High Hat, June 9, 2004
"I can honestly say I love this car. I've had mine for just over a week and 700 miles and have no complaints OK, well the gas gauge and my ATM card might complain but all in the name of fun. For an all-around daily driver with room to spare, it doesn't get any better. It has the power and handling of a decent sports car, yet seats 5 comfortably with their luggage. So far I've pushed the car pretty hard and it just keeps taking it. Better be prepared for the 2nd set of tires. It will come soon!" — bigdaddyoc, June 10, 2004
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