Once dismissed as stodgy vehicles only your hopelessly out-of-style parents would drive, station wagons have waged a comeback in recent years. Wagons like the Toyota Matrix and Volkswagen Jetta offer flexible transportation for younger buyers. The larger Chrysler PT Cruiser, Subaru Outback, VW Passat and Volvo V70 make stylish family vehicles. And sleek, crisp-handling luxury models like the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class give even big spenders reason to consider a practical wagon. For all the merits of these nameplates, though, we suspect that Dodge's new Magnum could be the station wagon to shove the revival into the mainstream once and for all and convince droves of buyers to give up their SUV habit.
What's the Magnum got going for it? For starters, it's an extremely attractive car. Its long, low stance and flat tail end call to mind the colossal wagons of decades past, but a rising beltline, tapering roofline, short overhangs and prominent wheel arches allow it to pull off a contemporary caricature of its ancestors while giving it an athletic look. Up front, its quad segment grille strongly resembles that of the Ram and Durango yet manages not to appear too trucklike. Standard 17-inch wheels (or 18s if you go for the top-of-the-line model) complete the Dodge station wagon's authoritative stance.
Out on the road, the Magnum promises to offer an old-school flavor with few if any of the old-school drawbacks. Its rear-wheel-drive layout is a throwback to muscle cars and family cars of 30 years ago, but a Mercedes-designed five-link independent rear suspension and electronic stability control assure confident handling on both wet and dry pavement. To appease Snowbelt residents, Dodge will offer optional all-wheel drive starting this fall.
The company is so confident about the Magnum's driving dynamics that the public relations staff turned journalists loose on some very twisty roads near Palm Springs something that rarely happens when the vehicle in question is essentially a family car. The wagon's two-ton girth is apparent from the cockpit, but the suspension does a wonderful job of managing all that weight in the turns, giving the car a predictable, almost nimble feel. Handling doesn't come at the expense of ride quality, though, as the Magnum remains smooth and composed over most types of pavement.
An available Hemi V8 engine sends a monstrous 390 pound-feet of torque to the Magnum's rear wheels (plenty to induce a little off-the-line tire spin). Unlike Hemis of the past, it can't generate the same thrust to bury your behind in the seat cushion under full throttle. Not that you'll care, though. Matched to a five-speed automatic transmission, this modern-day Hemi provides stout acceleration at any speed while keeping up a quiet, refined demeanor that lends itself to relaxed long-distance travel. Only when you stomp on the accelerator pedal does the V8 flex its muscles, letting loose a baritone rumble.
Equally important is the fact that the Magnum's Hemi doesn't gulp down gasoline as if this was still 1970. Although Dodge has used this 5.7-liter V8 in the Ram pickup for the last couple of years, the Magnum version will be the first to incorporate the company's Multi-Displacement System (MDS), which seamlessly deactivates half the cylinders in less demanding driving situations to conserve fuel and reduce emissions. During our initial drive, we spent over 60 miles behind the wheel of a Hemi-equipped Magnum, and at no time were we aware of the engine's transitions between eight- and four-cylinder operation the process is just that unobtrusive. The EPA has yet to release fuel mileage estimates, but Dodge's own tests put it at 17 mpg in the city and 24-25 mpg on the highway.
Not quite ready for the idea of a 340-horsepower family wagon? Well, Dodge will offer a pair of V6 engines for buyers with smaller appetites (and less disposable income). The better bet of these two is the 3.5-liter V6 rated for 250 hp. This engine is a carryover from Dodge's Intrepid sedan, and it provides ample power for easy city and highway travel in the heavier Magnum. There was a noticeable drop-off in stamina while scaling the mountain roads on our introductory drive route, and the wide-spaced gearing of the V6's mandatory four-speed automatic transmission didn't help matters. Opting for all-wheel drive allows you to trade up to the V8 model's five-speed unit but adds an extra 200 pounds of curb weight.
The other choice is a 200-hp, 2.7-liter V6, also borrowed from the LH cars and also matched to the four-speed automatic. Given the engine's small displacement and the Magnum's 3,800-pound body, we would caution against this combination if you can avoid it. We weren't able to get into a 2.7-equipped wagon, but a brief drive in a base version of the Magnum's corporate cousin, the Chrysler 300 sedan (it weighs a mere 3,700 pounds), suggested that most buyers would find the acceleration barely adequate with this powertrain: The engine was smooth at a cruise, but simple maneuvers in suburban traffic proved taxing.
Trim levels are designated SE, SXT and RT. The SE takes the small V6 and comes with four-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, a CD player, a telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, full power accessories, keyless entry and an outside temperature display. To that you can add ABS, stability control, a power driver seat and leather upholstery as options. The SXT incorporates most of these items as standard while swapping in the 3.5-liter V6. The high-line RT is your ticket to V8 power, dual exhaust, 18-inch wheels and an upgraded 288-watt Boston Acoustics sound system. Safety features like side curtain airbags, adjustable pedals and self-sealing tires are optional on all trims. An MP3-compatible in-dash CD changer is also available, while a navigation system and dual-zone automatic climate control are RT exclusives. The self-sealing tires are Continentals, by the way, and we were impressed by their level of grip on both dry and rain-soaked pavement.
Interior styling isn't quite as fresh as the Magnum's sheet metal, but the cabin's simple layout and crisp, two-tone color scheme are welcome changes from the Intrepid's shapeless, monochromatic ensemble. White-faced gauges housed in individual binnacles reinforce the wagon's sporting personality (well, at least in RT trim), as does the sparing use of faux aluminum accents. Dodge has finally seen fit to replace its outdated corporate stereo head unit; the new one is well organized and includes large volume and tuning knobs. Although the Magnums on hand for the event were all preproduction cars, it was obvious to us that materials quality has improved over that of the Intrepid. Most of the panels had a solid feel, and designers did a good job of matching grain patterns.
The Magnum's long 120-inch wheelbase translates into generous passenger space, and based on published specs, this five-seat wagon leads its peers when it comes to rear legroom, while offering competitive amounts of head-, hip- and shoulder room throughout the cabin. After spending several hours in the front seats, we can confirm that there is plenty of room in all directions, particularly in Magnums without a sunroof where head space is abundant. In back, the seat bottom could stand to be a bit longer and higher, but even taller adults and children will not feel cramped.
Although the wagon's dropped roofline limits cargo capacity somewhat (there's 27.8 cubic feet of space behind the backseat), engineers have made excellent use of the available space. The liftgate's hinges have been mounted far forward between the C- and D-pillars, so that the gate opens more like a hatchback you don't have to step back to avoid hitting your head after pulling on the release handle. Simple as it sounds, this setup is unusual among wagons and does make a difference when it's time to load groceries or an auto journalist's overstuffed backpack. Another family-friendly feature is the Magnum's reversible cargo floor carpet on one side, wipe-clean plastic on the other.
While sales of seven- and eight-passenger SUVs remain strong, the reality is that most families only need seating for five and a fair amount of luggage space. And with its rear-drive layout, available 340-horse V8, high-fashion wagon body and roomy interior, the Magnum is probably the most intriguing five-passenger vehicle on sale for 2005. Consider that it only costs about $30,000 to get into an RT, and you know this one has to be on your list.