By Dan Carney
The Magnum SRT8
burbled into its supermarket parking space alongside a C5 Corvette like a
powerboat idling up to a dock. Looking over at
It tops all the regular C6s, all the C5s — Z06 or not — the Lotus-powered ZR1 C4, everything. There might be a couple old ’60s-vintage 427 ’Vettes out there with more power, but it is hard to be sure, because those engines were rated on gross horsepower rather than today’s net horsepower, and because the numbers were said to be fudged downward to avoid scaring regulators and insurance companies. It even has more power than the original Dodge Viper.
We’re talking a wagon that does 0-60 in the low fives, and the quarter in the high 13s.
The notion that a station wagon can pack so much mustard surprises people who don’t remember 455 big-block Buicks. But unlike those antiques, the Magnum passes today’s restrictive EPA emissions requirements, carries a three year/36,000 mile warranty, and includes safety features such as multistage airbags, side air curtains, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and electronic stability control.
And forget the skinny 70-series 15-inch bias-ply rubber on steel wheels with chrome pie pans. The Magnum rolls on 45-series tires mounted on 20-inch alloys that are nine inches wide. The vast rolling stock sticks the Magnum to the pavement, letting it rocket from a standstill at full bellow with little accompanying screech. Roadholding is equally dependable when cornering, which the Magnum does with aplomb. Having an aluminum small-block powerplant rather than the ol’ Buick’s half-ton iron big block reaps significant handling dividends.
The fat rubber does have its tradeoffs, aside from, presumably, high replacement cost when that time comes. The wide tires bind up when making hard turns in parking situations, and even with the power assist, steering effort is quite high. The effort serves to subconsciously reinforce the SRT8’s purposefulness, but on chilly mornings at around freezing temperatures, the power steering could be sluggish and unable to keep up with a rapidly palmed steering wheel when backing out of a space.
Hardly the stuff of disqualification from purchase consideration, but it is the kind of detail that should be attended to in model-year refreshes. Similarly, the automatic transmission was slow to engage drive on those chilly mornings, a trait that recalled those finicky old Buick wagons once the odometer had rolled over.
The four-piston Brembos pinch huge 14.2-inch front rotors and 13.8-inch rears for absolute stopping power. However, the brake pedal travel is quite long, with medium-high effort, combining with the high steering effort to confer a feeling of rough unsophistication. Brake feel and stopping power are above reproach, but with a 6.1-liter SRT-prepped HEMI underhood, there is no need to exaggerate the Magnum’s potency, and the slow-responding controls only create the (false) impression that the car is bigger and more unwieldy than it really is.
The crude tactile impressions are probably a bonus for the Tim Allen “more power!” customers who have fond recollections of the Chevelles they drove in high school, but a touch more refinement would be helpful in attracting shoppers out of foreign-brand showrooms without diluting a bit of the Magnum’s awesome performance or visceral appeal.
Rumbling by the awed
Underway, en route to the morning preschool drop off, the Magnum rumbled past dads standing with kids waiting for the bus, and without fail, turned every one of their heads as it passed. You could see them thinking, “The kids would fit in that as well as in the SUVan.” The ought-six Magnum has even more menacing curb appeal thanks to shorter springs that let it ride a half-inch lower than before.
Behind the thick-rimmed steering wheel, the driver settles into a heavily bolstered racing-style seat that is edged with leather. The primary seating surfaces are a high-friction suede, to help keep the occupant’s in place during spirited cornering and braking. Staying in place during acceleration is no problem, because the Magnum does a good job of pinning occupants to their seats.
The rear seats are comfortable, with good access and useable space. The cargo area is a bit small, as seems to be the way with these neo-wagons. Dodge has offset the smallish size by providing a large opening that lets owners use every cubic inch of the available space, with a rear hatch that extends well forward into the roof. This is a great way to increase the Magnum’s utility and flexibility without detracting from its styling or adding to its size. However, one upgrade the company might consider is a flip-open rear window that would make it more convenient to retrieve smaller items from the way back.
Seeing out the back remains a challenge as with less powerful Magnums, courtesy of the car’s machine-gun, slit-window openings. But with the SRT8, it is easier to embrace the First Rule of Italian Driving (The Gumball Rally), “Whatsa behind me is not important,” attitude, thanks to an effortless ability to punch “hyperspace” and vault forward into traffic openings that you can see ahead.
Hopefully, what is ahead isn’t important either, because the driver is faced with plastic and trim not befitting a $40,000 car. It is part of the tradeoff you make when you get a 425-horsepower engine, sophisticated suspension, racecar brakes and the Magnum’s other impressive goodies for a bargain price. But bargain or not, forty grand is still forty grand, and VW Golfs have nicer-looking plastic in the dashboard. The Dodge’s stuff isn’t terrible, but it is too hard and shiny for this nice a car, and it isn’t what potential conquest customers from other brands want to see.
But plastic isn’t what motivates muscle car buyers, iron is. Or in the case of the 6.1-liter HEMI, aluminum. And the Magnum SRT8 matches muscle-car growl and grunt with sport-sedan handling and family-wagon practicality in a package sure to put a smile on the face of any dad who gave up his automotive toy for responsible family transportation.
2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8
Base price: $37,320; as tested: $42,150
Engines: 6.1-liter V-8, 425 hp/420 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 197.7 x 74.1 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 120.0 in
Curb weight: 4260 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 14/20 mpg
Safety equipment: Anti-lock Brembo disc brakes; dual front, side, and curtain airbags; traction and stability control
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; power adjustable pedals; AM/FM/CD stereo
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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