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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.

August 11, 2004|DAN NEIL

"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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Magnum RT -- In some copies of today's Highway 1 section, a headline incorrectly refers to the Dodge Magnum RT as a Chevrolet. The story also indicates that an all-wheel-drive option is available; it will become available in the fall.

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 Laker 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.

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