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Just when you thought it was safe to make fun of the station wagon

June 02, 2004|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

If a station wagon pulls up alongside at the light, check to make sure the word "Hemi" isn't written on the front fender before you snicker or guffaw at your fellow motorist. Fail to spot the Hemi badge and he who laughs last -- and certainly best -- is going to be the one behind the wheel of the station wagon with a 5.7-liter V-8 that produces 340 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of get-up-and-go torque.

If you remember station wagons as misshapen machines that carried the family, luggage, crib, stroller and potty chair until the rug rats graduated from diapers, you're in for a pleasant surprise with the 2005 Dodge Magnum RT.

Magnum is the full-size, rear-wheel-drive replacement for the front-wheel-drive Dodge Intrepid. Its sister car is the Chrysler 300, replacement for the front-wheel-drive Chrysler Concorde/300M sedans.

Though you'll hear a variety of reasons for the switch from front to rear drive, such as the latter providing better balance and weight distribution, the primary motivation was that it allowed Chrysler Group to borrow drivetrain components from Mercedes-Benz to produce vehicles on the cheap.

While the balance and weight distribution makes rear wheel drive ideal for spirited performance cars, the pre-MTV generation remembers rear-wheel-drive cars as those that would slide on ice and snow because the drive wheels were pushing the load, not pulling it. No need to fear because this new generation of rear-wheel-drive cars comes with stability and all-speed traction control, Chrysler notes.

If a wheel starts to slip, sensors respond and the anti-lock brakes are applied to the offending wheel or the throttle automatically backs off -- or both -- to keep you in control. And a four-wheel anti-lock brake system is standard.

Magnum is offered in a base SE version ($21,870) with a 2.7-liter, 190-horsepower 24-valve V-6; the SXT upgrade ($25,370) with its 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6; and top-of-the-line RT that we tested ($29,370) with the Hemi V-8 and such goodies as 18-inch all-season radials designed for optimum handling (17-inch designed for smoother ride on the SE/SXT).

With more than ample low-end torque, the RT sprints to life as soon as you kick the pedal. A muffled exhaust rumble provides just the right performance sound. With so much energy, no wonder Dodge calls it a sport wagon, not a station wagon -- though the styling leaves no doubt it's a wagon.

There's a difference between raw and refined performance. The RT's sports suspension and 18-inch radials allow it to follow any path the road takes it on.

The fact that Magnum is built on a 120-inch wheelbase -- nearly 7 inches longer than Intrepid -- helps as well, not only in sure-footed handling but also in ride quality, because occupants sit far removed from the points of impact with the road. Ride is firm without jostling.

The muscular Magnum has a split personality. Need power, the Hemi delivers -- now. But if you don't need power, four cylinders shut down at cruising to conserve fuel. The transition is seamless. You can't tell when four cylinders shut down or fire back up again. No thud, not a sound.

For now, Magnum is offered only in rear wheel drive, but all wheel drive will be added this fall for more foul-weather stability and fair-weather control. Chrysler is hoping to lure motorists drawn to sport utility vehicles by their all-wheel-drive capabilities.

Boomers, according to George Murphy, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Chrysler Group, are ready to migrate back into cars, and all wheel drive will help seal the deal.

"The boomers have all had their SUVs now. As they age, they have less of a need for a seven-passenger-capable SUV and are finding religion on the car side," he said.

When boomers check out Magnum, they'll find a four- to five-passenger-and-possessions hauler -- four if all adults, five if there's one child who can straddle the drivetrain hump on the floor, something missing in front-wheel-drive vehicles.

Notable features include self-sealing tires and side curtain air bags in a $590 protection group; power adjustable brake/gas pedals in a $925 convenience package; and a rear cargo hold organizer that lifts from the floor to provide a series of compartments to hold groceries as part of a $410 cargo convenience package.

Standard equipment includes multistage air bags with automatic disabling of the passenger side if no one is in the seat; power windows, door locks and mirrors; power driver's seat; rear window washer, wiper and defroster; air conditioning; AM/FM stereo with CD player; and keyless entry.

There are some negatives. The low wagon roofline results in a rather small rear window and limited visibility out back. And the power adjustable pedal button is buried along the lower side of the driver's seat. Also, the options packages are numerous and quickly run up the price.

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