Main Dodge Magnum Page | Magnum R/T Review | Magnum SRT-8 information page | SRT-8 track drive
The SRT group takes ordinary vehicles and turns them into high performance muscle machines; they have three cars and a Jeep named SRT-8, all using the 6.1 liter Hemi engine. The least likely of the trio is the Dodge Magnum, the station wagon we’re not supposed to call a station wagon.
The Magnum R/T has a nice ride and surprisingly good dry-road handling, with quite a bit of power; but it's hard to break the rear tires loose for longer than it takes to chirp them. Though big, it's easy to throw through tight or fast turns, and works well on wet roads, keeping its footing even when we tried to knock it off kilter with sudden straight-line acceleration. The SRT-8 ups the ante by over 80 horsepower, making it more difficult to keep the rear tires planted, especially on wet or dirty roads. Acceleration is a blast, and unpowered dry-clean road cornering is even better than the Magnum's already-quite-good performance.
In the hands of a professional driver, the sheer amount of tilt you can experience in a Magnum SRT8 is amazing - as is the speed with which it flies around a skidpad, electronic controls off. Turn them on, and the throttle automatically cuts back to a sane level to get you around the turn as fast as you can go without losing control. The SRT8, with its big high performance tires and bigger engine, goes even faster around those dry turns. Steering is heavy but tight, and the Magnum feels very bit its two and a quarter tons. (Even with the stability control system ostensibly shut off, the computer will intervene if it feels things are really out of control - but it’ll intervene with a lighter hand.)
In addition to getting the SRT8 around turns more quickly, those big wheels make room for massive, bright red Brembo brakes, a full 14 inches in front and nearly 14 inches in the rear, sporting four pistons per caliper and bringing the two-and-a-quarter ton vehicle to a full stop from 60 mph in a mere 112 feet - an accident-preventing distance considerably shorter than most big or small cars (and considerably shorter than the already class-leading Magnum R/T).
With so much power, and with performance tires tuned for clean, dry roads, the traction and stability control systems become important in bad weather or on dirty or wet roads. This leads to sudden interventions, unexpected lack of acceleration, and stuttering as the systems work; on the lighter side, the systems really do work. But don't expect big acceleration on dirty or wet roads; the SRT-8 likes it clean and dry, thanks to tires designed for the best possible 0-100-0 times rather than commuting.
Acceleration is extremely good, but not always predictable. The engine makes good power in low rpms, but really comes into its own when revved. The Mercedes five-speed automatic transmission doesn’t always shift for optimal acceleration, but stays in low gears longer so if you hit the gas, back off the throttle for a moment, and still want instant power, you can get it. Once you get the feel of the transmission and can consistently get that power, taking the odd grain of sand on the road into account, the SRT-8 feels as though it has far more brute force than cars with similar sprint times, such as the Lexus GS450h, albeit less than all-out sports cars like the Corvette. In case you were wondering, the ideal-condition 0-6o time is about 5.0 - 5.2 seconds, with 0-100 in about 12 seconds, a 13-13.6 second quarter mile, a top speed of 165-170 mph (depending on quoted source), a skidpad rating of .9 g, and a zero to 100 mph back to zero time of under 17 seconds.
The 6.1 Hemi roars loudly into life and has a fairly loud, deep note, making it clear that it means business. Inside the Magnum, though, it is not at all annoying, as it is in some cars with performance-sounding exhausts; the rumble isn't evident at normal speeds, and isn't overpowering at idle. On the highway, the Magnum has moderate wind noise at higher speeds, but isn't too noisy. It also feels completely stable and in control. Acceleration comes immediately; then the transmission downshifts, and the Magnum shoots forward, sometimes with the stability control having to take over even at highway speeds due to the raw power of the Hemi.
The interior has the usual SRT-style seats, with oversized side bolsters to hold you in place no matter how quickly you go around turns, and with a grippy cloth in the center of the seats (the bolsters are covered in clearly stitched leather). Powerful seat heaters have two levels, and are visible at the bottom of the center stack. A special gauge set is used, the differences being oversized numbers on the temp gauge instead of letters, and a 180 mph speedometer that puts very illegal speeds where 60 mph would normally be. We're dubious about even the SRT-8's ability to do 180 mph, and the cramping together of legal speeds does make it harder to drive in legal (or acceptable) limits.
Like all current Magnums, the SRT uses Mercedes’ inane steering column with a cruise control stick coming out about where the turn signal is on most cars; the cruise stalk sets when pushed down, speeds up when pushed up, and cancels when pushed back, activating when pushed in.
The Magnum also uses a Mercedes manual-override on the automatic transmission, activated by pushing the shifter to the right or left, and deactivated by pushing and holding it, an awkward system especially when compared to that used by humble Hyundais.
Other Germanic oddities in the controls include a wiper control that requires one to go through all the intermittent stops before coming the normal low and high settings; and a vent knob that is backwards by American convention, with defroster at the driver and main vents facing the passenger. Labels on the right of the button were hidden by the button, which may be the reason for designing it that way; but the Avenger, for one, has a considerably more attractive and less pointlessly idiosyncratic interior (seats excepted). While Mercedes contributions to the rear suspension are no doubt improvements, albeit costly ones, the standard Chrysler steering column and controls look better, feel better, and function better.
Most other controls made sense: the dash-mounted headlights, sensible seat adjustments, and dash-mounted ignition were all above average for ease of use.
There is plenty of room for four, with good headroom in all seats and good rear legroom. Visibility is good in all directions, despite those high door sills, the roof overhang, and the sheet metal rise towards the back. The rear quarter blind spot is far smaller than on many new cars, and the roof overhang can be handy for blocking the sun without having any harmful effect. We appreciated the ease of using the sun visors - some cars make them hard to get out of their default positions - and the fast-acting window defogger. The rear washer/wiper only reaches about 2/3 of the back window but cleans its little patch well.
The rear hatch area seems somewhat small for a wagon; it's long, flat, but low. The flat surface of the "floor" belies a somewhat deeper area when a cover is folded out of the way; and beneath that is a small-sized spare and the battery, mounted in back to make room for the Hemi and balance weight a little. Our test car also had an optional shopping-bag organizing system, designed so various bags can be leaded and kept upright around the kind of turns you'll be tempted to take in the SRT. Loading the cargo bay is made easier by a clever hatchback-style rear door; its hinge is actually positioned about six inches in towards the front of the car, so the hatch doesn't hit your head while opening, and provides more loading room. Still, the cargo bays of the PT and Avenger seem to have more useful space.
The instrument panel is not unattractive, but the pods are deep and straight, so that parts of the outlying gauges are cut off from sight (including the coldest position of the temp gauge). The black on white gauges remain that way at night, when a bluish backlight comes into play; they are easily visible day or night. The 180 mph speedometer means that the range most often used (0-80) occupies less than 1/3 of the dial; to be fair, the Magnum SRT8 can apparently hit 170 mph, a surprising 5 mph more than the Charger SRT8. (Illustrations: Magnum R/T top, Magnum SRT bottom. This also illustrates the quality difference between a Nikon D40 and a Canon G2.) The differences between R/T and SRT gauges are confined to graphics and that extra 20 mph.
Under the gauges are warning lights, the odometer, and the gear indicator. The trip computer lets you easily set the car's options and also provides a compass, outside temperature, digital oil temperature and pressure gauges, gas mileage, tire pressures, and cellphone information. As if to compensate for the cruise control stick, it also tells you when a speed is locked into the cruise; and it can show instructions from the navigation system.
The tilt wheel telescopes forward and backward; it's a manual adjustment but has no steps, and is easy to use. Storage spaces abound, with map pockets on the front and rear doors, a padded tray under the climate control, a removable sunglass or CD holder next to the gearshift, usable, large glove compartment and center console, and overhead sunglass holder. Two pen holders and a mini-tissue holder are incorporated in the lid, with a removable tray at the bottom, and a power outlet in the side of the console. Overall, it's a more effective design than most. Minor conveniences include the folding outside mirrors, touch-on dome lights, dead-pedal, and foot-operated emergency brake (which allows for more power to be applied) - unfortunately now with the push-once-to-set-twice-to-release control.
Our test car had a dual driver/passenger heat zone climate control. The fan has two auto settings, low and high, to provide an automatic range for people who don't like the noise of full blast. Most normal fan ranges are quiet. The stereo (with Sirius satellite radio) sounded good and generally got good reception, even when the antenna was iced over, though changing channels could take a second or two.
The SRT8 is almost a steal at $38,345, compared with similar cars (such as a Mercedes E-Class); a base Corvette, with only two seats, two doors, and no real trunk, but admittedly better gas mileage and performance, runs over $45,000, and can't be used to take your kids to school (or your carpool to work). That price includes four-wheel antilock brakes, the various stability and traction control programs, adjustable pedals, tire pressure monitor, vehicle information center, 160 amp alternator and 730 amp battery, solar control glass, rear wiper/washer and defroster, tilt-telescope steering column, air conditioning, power locks and windows, cruise, satellite radio with Boston Acoustics speakers, wheel-mounted audio controls, full lighting package, rear vents, fog lights, power heated folding mirrors, 20 inch wheels with low-profile tires, spoiler, and the ever-popular but often not included floor mats.
Our test car had three option packages which raised the price to $41,900 - still quite reasonable for the speed when compared to Eurowagons. These were Option Group I, with air filtering, automatic headlights, dual-zone thermostatic climate control, heated front seats, and rear cargo organizer, all for a reasonable $735; Option Group III, with navigation system, auto-dimming rearview mirror (not an option we recommend), and UConnect hands-free cellphone system, for a whopping $1,870; and the sunroof for $950. Option Group III really seems to defeat the purpose of an SRT, since the buyers of this car should be able to operate a standard day-night mirror, ask for directions, and shut off their cell-phones while driving a brutally fast performance car.
We had the misfortunate of getting the SRT-8 just before the first (and only) snowfall of Northeastern Winter 2006-07, and found that it was a bit hairy on snow, but nowhere near as bad as the Audi TT AWD we had a while back. Driving very slowly and letting the traction control do its thing seemed to do the trick, though those with other cars would be advised to drive them in snow. Before the snowfall, though, we enjoyed the SRT-8's brutal acceleration and high-g dry-road grip.
The fun side of the SRT-8 is the incredibly powerful engine. Accelerating is quick and thrilling; you never have to worry about passing power; and cornering is terrific. The down side is the vulnerability to dirt and water on the roads, not to mention snow, due to the performance tires (snow also tends to get stuck in the wheels, and has to be poked out); and the great thirst of a Hemi tuned for power, without MDS, coupled to a power-tuned automatic. The result of all this is 14 mpg in the city, 20 on the highway, according to the EPA - we experienced, on a car not yet broken in, 12-13 city and 19 highway, so we think you can really achieve EPA results without much trouble. The SRT-8 would probably be more fun (and perhaps even slightly better on gas) with a stick-shift, but that's not in the cards - at least not until the 2008 Dodge Challenger shows up. For ordinary use, drivers might want to buy a spare set of wheels with all-season radials for less stunning dry-road performance and better not-perfect-road acceleration and handling.
The SRT-8 is a blast to drive, providing great performance with lots of room; but when it comes down to it, the lighter-feel, better-mileage, cheaper Charger Daytona is a better balance, unless you really crave that extra blast of power and the extra g-forces on the turns. Then again, you can get those from a base Corvette — if you only need two seats, and no cargo space.
Main Dodge Magnum Page | Magnum R/T Review | Magnum SRT-8 information page | SRT-8 track drive
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