Properly Equipped, It Hauls

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By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004

It was cool vanilla. But it was for driving, not licking.

It was cool vanilla clear-coat paint over the long, low-slung body of the 2005 Dodge Magnum RT wagon, this week's automobile.

The wagon had a Hemi -- Dodge's 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower V-8 engine with the hemispherical combustion chambers.

Air and fuel are mixed, compressed and burned in those dome-top cylinders, which are more often found in racing cars than in family wagons.

The dome design allows for a more complete mix and burn, which yields lots of torque, or twisting power, to turn the shaft that drives the standard Magnum RT's rear wheels. Thus, the Magnum RT, with its bulldog face and sassily tapered rear end, runs faster than any station wagon has a right to run.

For that matter, it runs faster than some sports cars.

But not all of the Magnum RT's eight cylinders fire up at the same time. The Hemi in it is what Dodge calls a "multi-displacement V-8" and what the people at General Motors Corp. call a "displacement-on-demand," or DOD, engine. It means that four of the engine's eight cylinders are working at low speeds and during gentle, gradual acceleration.

Operating in the four-cylinder mode improves fuel economy by 5 to 20 percent, depending on driving habits and conditions, according to engineers at DaimlerChrysler AG, owner of the Chrysler Group and its Dodge division.

But when you want to kick it, yeah! When you want to stomp that pedal to race that metal, whoa! When you want to raise a little hell, that's when you know that thing's got a Hemi in it!

All of the engine's eight cylinders go to work, hauling the Magnum RT's 4,125 pounds from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about seven seconds. It is a performance of muted drama. Instead of a roar, a low, steady groan arises from the engine bay, reminiscent of an awakening beast. The Magnum RT plows forward minus any lurching or other displays of hesitation.

The real action comes at full gallop, when the wagon squats down on its 18-inch-diameter tires, presses them to the road for maximum grip and tears ahead with such passion it appears that its only mission in life is to go fast.

But it would be a mistake to believe that, because the Magnum RT, also available with all-wheel drive, is very much a wagon. That's also true for its lower-powered versions, the Magnum SE and SXT.

What we have here is a motorized counterrevolution, an assault on the nonsense that station wagons are old hat, or otherwise frump-mobiles. The Magnum RT is neither. Nor is it a minivan, crossover vehicle or sport-utility vehicle. It is an unabashed hot-rod-when-it-wants-to-be station wagon.

It truly "opens at both ends," to borrow the phrase used by Dodge's marketing people to describe the Magnum RT and, to a lesser extent, its SE and SXT siblings. If you aren't towing or hauling things and people, you can open it up on the highway and enjoy one heck of a thrilling ride, curves and all. But you can fold down the wagon's rear seats to create 71.6 cubic feet of cargo space, a bit less than that in some minivans and wagons, thanks to the tapered rear roofs of the Magnum line.

When equipped with the proper towing package, the Magnum RT can pull a trailer weighing 3,800 pounds. The base Magnum SE, with its 200-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6, can pull up to 1,000 pounds. The Magnum SXT, equipped with a 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, can tow up to 2,000 pounds.

Some automakers have been rushing to stuff seven seats into family haulers, turning them into the personal equivalents of transit buses. Happily, the people at Dodge and DaimlerChrysler have avoided making that mistake with the Magnum wagons. These are all true five-seat automobiles, with lots of room for long-legged passengers in the second row. There is no attempt here to sacrifice fun on the altar of practicality; nor is there an attempt to jettison the practical in pursuit of the downright silly.

The Magnum RT is a wonderful compromise, the perfect combination of driving enthusiasm and transportation necessity. It says, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the station wagon is back, and that the station wagon is hip. And that is a very good thing.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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