The great American SUV migration began in the station wagon. And why not? The land yachts of yore were foul-handling, gas-guzzling, fundamentally unsafe beasts. Trading them for taller, foul-handling, gas-guzzling, fundamentally unsafe beasts made perfect sense. The baby had a better view. And, to be fair, a flying disc offered better snow traction than a rear-wheel-drive station wagon. The genre's extinction was little mourned– especially by teenagers unfortunate enough to pick up a date in one.
Of course, times have changed. The all-conquering SUV is now PC poison, a pariah amongst the chattering classes. Enter, stage left, the Dodge Magnum. To lure mainstream America out of their SUVs, the Dark Lords of DCX have transformed the creaky Conestoga of our collective past into something infinitely more capable, stylish and desirable. The result could signal the much-anticipated death of the SUV.
The exterior is certainly killer. Like its drive-by doppelganger, the Chrysler 300C, the Magnum is suffused with hot rod and muscle car design cues. The chopped roof is only the most obvious and effective example. Clock the massive prow, steeply raked windscreen, top-mounted rear spoiler, blistered wheel arches, twin pipes and bling 18's. Taken as a whole, the Magnum has more than enough Hot Wheels DNA to banish potential buyers' TWT (Teenage Wagon Trauma).
The interior represents another radical departure from the wagon's hideous heritage. Nasty plastic and sticky pleather gives way to sexy soft-touch polymers and [optional] cow hide. Out goes dysfunctional heating and cooling and glacial demisting; in comes rapid fire climate control. Unreadable, inaccurate instrumentation is replaced by elegant, digitally controlled dials. And the dubious pleasures of 8-track stereo have been deep-sixed for a primo beat box. Of course, the whole point of a station wagon was/is interior space. And here's where things get gnarly…
Back when a smack on the head was the only child restraint, wagonistas could stuff two kids on the front bench, four kids in the middle, and three or four in the way back. Today's child seats and modern belts (the safety devices) have drastically reduced the tot-toting total, from 10 to three. That's the same seating capacity as an average family sedan– which makes the Dodge Magnum less of a minivan and more of an elongated hatchback.
Maybe that's why Dodge's website depicts the Magnum as a 'sports tourer' for Lifestyle Larry and his Schneider surfboard. It could also explain their TV ad, positioning the Magnum as a sports-car-in-drag for leather-jacketed, guitar-toting, thirty-something street-racers. (Apparently females need not apply.) And just in case you still thought Dodge's born again station wagon is more yin than yang, this sucker's got a Hemi.
Now you could purchase the Magnum SE with a 190hp V6. Or you could opt for the 270hp SXT. But you'd be MAD not to ante-up for the Magnum RT, with its 5.7-liter, 340hp V8. The Hemi combines milkshake smooth acceleration with barking mad grunt. Mated to a seamless five-speed autobox, the torquerific big-bore powerplant is one of the most magnificent automobile engines money can buy, bar none. So equipped, the Magnum cruises like a Bentley and just about out-blasts a base Boxster (0 – 60mph in 6.1 vs. 5.9 secs.).
When it comes to putting that power to work in the corners, well, anyone who expects a 16.5' long, 4000lbs. vehicle to dice with the Subaru Imprezas of the world needs a lesson in basic physics. Still, the Hemified Magnum is a hoot. Switch off the ESP and you can boot the barge's back end into a tail-out power slide. Leave it on, and practitioners of white-knuckled machismo can dispatch medium radius twisties at frightening speeds (for all concerned). In fact, the Magnum's biggest problem in the turns– other than boat-like body roll– is the seating, which provides about as much lateral support as a yoga mat.
So how about ditching the flat chairs for some Recaro racing seats, stiffening and lowering the suspension a tad, putting Oz wheels on each corner and adding DVD screens to the headrests? While we're at it, let's black out the windows and get some custom stitching onto those seats. I know it sounds weird– pimping a station wagon– but the Magnum RT is, as they say, all that.
Who who'd thunk it? The Dodge Boys tempting SUV drivers out of their oil-depleting tree-killers by re-inventing the station wagon as a race and rap-friendly urban assault vehicle. Still,as good as it is, I don't think the Magnum will trigger a mass exodus out of mucho macho SUV's. But it will find a home with thousands of Soccer Moms, who will give the keys to teenage sons, who will not be embarrassed to pick up their date in Mom's car. Yes, the Dodge Magnum marks the beginning of the end of the SUV.