Station wagons in the '70s and '80s spawned like mad. They were everywhere; ergo, they became very not cool. Minivans appeared on the scene with the '90s. They were new, unfamiliar; ergo, they became very hip, very cool.
Todayone scant auto-buying generation into the futureit's time to turn this sweater inside-out. It's minivans that have spawned like mad for the last 15 years. They're everywhere; ergo, they've become very not cool. Meantime, aided by cultural amnesia, a seemingly unprecedented crop of station wagons is rolling onto the 2005 car scene. They appear unusual, innovative; ergo, they're very hip, very cool.
So it's with a sniff of suspicion I've been transported into a parallel retro-universe that I present to my reading public the new 2005 Magnum SXT station wagon from Dodge. It's been 10 years, mind you, since The Wife and I sheepishly traded away our stalwart 1987 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagon so as to minimize snickers among valet-parking lads at pish-tosh garden parties. What a great car, though, for the kids10, 8 and 4 years old at the time. Then again, what a relief no longer to sit amongst and atop spatters of scabby, dried strained peas that rendered crimson velvet upholstery into transcendental patterns of camouflage.
I hardly have a frame of reference any more. The hullabaloo surrounding Dodge's debut of the Magnum seems better suited to a manifestation of the Holy Grail. "New, bold, revolutionary." "It's like nothing you've ever seen or driven before."
It's a station wagon, for crying out loud; a squared-off sedan. It hauls five people, and its boxy tail section encloses cargo. Besides, you have seen it beforein old Dick Tracy comic strips. (Oops! Showing my age again. I'm referring to a time, kids, when whispering "Can you hear me now?" into a small pod on your wrist was dismissed as rank science fiction.)
It would be nice to be able to say that the new Magnum relates to my old station wagon as an Apple iPod relates to my first three-by-four-inch nine-volt AM radio with the leatherette case. I can't do that; but don't get me wrong. The Magnum is a pleasant freshening of the station wagon concept. It is simply not a revolutionary re-definition of same.
What, then, hath Dodge wrought? For starters, the company has devised an automotive fashion statement that's predicated upon attracting attention to itself. Based upon styling of the equally iconoclastic new 300C sedan from Chrysler, Magnum's exterior exults in a free expression of snub-nosed, blunt-force effrontery. Like a '30s rod that's been chopped and sectioned (that's oldspeak, kids, for removing, lowering and re-welding the roof), the Magnum exudes something of the punky sullenness of a street-corner thug. You know, like in Greasethe musical.
And just like in Greasethe musical, it's all a pose. There's nothing thuggy about the Magnum. In fact, it's pretty Beaver Cleaver when you get right down to it. Inside is a clean, well-lighted place that looks for all the world like, well, like the family car that a station wagon is supposed to be. The interior is roomy for front- and backseat occupants, owing to Magnum's generously long (120-in.) wheelbase. The dash is unexceptional, yet complete with standard air-conditioning, AM/FM/CD audio and the usual range of conveniences like power doors and windows, cruise-control and steering wheel controls.
When it comes to cargo, Magnum has outsmarted itself a bit. That sulky, lowered roofline cramps storage capacity behind the rear seatsto 27.2 cu. ft., to be exact. Fold the rear seat backs, though, and stowage grows to 71.6 cu. ft. Magnum's virtue, moreover, is its ability to swallow long items that can stretch, say, 10-plus ft. from the folded front right seat to the rear left corner of the hatch. Magnum's station wagon DNA lends it real versatility, to be sure. Yet, it won't transport seven folks like my old "Wally Wagon" of yore. And that poseur of a roofline sweeps so dramatically low at the rear, that visibility suffers, particularly when backing up.
There are three available engines for the rear-wheel-drive Magnum, and come autumn an all-wheel-drive powertrain will make its appearance as well. My midnight blue tester was the mid-level SXT model, sporting a brisk 3.5-liter V6 that produces 245 horsepower and 245 ft.-lbs. of torque. Dodge's marketing campaign, predictably, is currently in overdrive touting the available Hemi 5.7-liter V8 with its 340 hp. Personally, I prefer the middle ground. The base engine's 190 hp is a tad anemic for two tons of curb weight; and Hemi's scandalous drinking habit can't withstand a comparison with the SXT's rating of 19 mpg/city, 27 mpg/highway.
At 245-hp, the Magnum SXT is no hot rod, for all its posturing like one. It is, on the other hand, a pleasantly civilized automobile. Back in my Custom Cruiser days, four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes were as sci-fi on a wagon as Dick Tracy's two-way wrist-radios. The Magnum's got both, with front airbags and optional front-to-rear side curtain airbags to boot. It never quite occurred to me to flog the Magnum over twisty backroads, but I can hardly think of a more trendy, stylish and comfortable vehicle for sport-touring my way cross-country with family in tow.
And that's the clever game Dodge is playing with its new Magnum. The company knows that drivers like me know that station wagons are nothing new. Getting us to feel hip driving one again, on the other handnow that's Magnum cum laude.