The Dodge Magnum was part muscle car, part grocery-getter, and all attitude. We explore the rise and fall of America’s meanest station wagon.
It’s a truism both Biblical and secular: there is nothing new under the sun. The Ford F-150, the Porsche 911, and the Toyota Corolla all follow a formula for automotive success that rewards consistency over innovation. And it works. Even when developing a new vehicle, manufacturers, like movie studios, tend to stick with ideas that have a proven track record of success. This is to be expected. All creative projects build on what has come before. And so it was with the Dodge Magnum.
The trouble with this approach emerges when otherwise successful ideas, like say a large engine, bold styling, and practical application, are combined haphazardly or incongruously. The Dodge Magnum, perhaps America’s meanest station wagon ever, should’ve had a good fighting chance. Just look to the success of the Subaru Outback or the cult status of the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG wagon. People like wagons, people like powerful wagons. So why then did the Dodge Magnum see such a short production run?
Two words: John Carter.
The movie John Carter, based on the popular sci-fi novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was intended to be the genesis of a new blockbuster franchise for Disney. Unfortunately, the combination of derivative and muddled storytelling from the filmmakers and alternately wooden and overacted performances from its actors produced a historic flop at the box office. Today John Carter is best enjoyed ironically, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000, with viewers adlibbing their own comic additions to the unintentionally silly dialogue.
What does this have to do with the Dodge Magnum? You see, like John Carter, the Dodge Magnum was intended to appeal to a mass audience, and the execution ended up being so ham-handed that it struggled commercially. But, like the Avatar wannabe John Carter, there turned out to be a small but devoted number of people out there who actually love their Dodge Magnums.
The Dodge Magnum was in many ways a throwback vehicle. It was a big, heavy station wagon, like say the Ford Country Squire. It also had a big, growly V-8 achieving impressive 0-60 times, like its cousin the Dodge Charger. The novelty of the Magnum was in merging these two themes.
The Magnum ran 16.5 ft. in length and over 4000lbs.; OG station wagon stats. But it also came with some serious muscle to move all that car. Of the four engine options, the SE’s 2.72-liter V-6, the SXT’s 3.5, the RT’s 5.7-liter V-8, and the SRT-8’s 6.1-liter V-8, it’s the latter two that deserve real consideration.
The tricked-out SRT-8 was introduced in late 2005 as a 2006 model and wasn’t as widely produced as the lower trims. It came with 20-inch, 5-spoke wheels and Brembo brakes, as well as a stiffer suspension and distinctive trim elements. These extras, plus its rarity, have the SRT-8s running approximately $8-10,000 higher than their lower trim counterparts.
The RT is the reasonable alternative as it comes with both a V-8 and a price tag of around $7-8,000. Yes, you can get an SE or SXT for between $4-5,000, but without the V-8 you’re just left with a cool looking, yet somewhat sluggish station wagon.
Ultimately, the Dodge Magnum was a car born outside its time. Was it the savior of the boring family wagon come two decades too late? Or was it the stylish innovation to save us from an SUV takeover that ultimately proved too radical?
Whether ahead or behind the times, the Dodge Magnum was and remains a striking vehicle on the road. Its stance is hunkered down like a square-jawed high-school wrestling coach squinting menacingly at you from under its low roofline. It’s practically begging for confrontation. If cars could talk, the Magnum would say, Come at me, Bro! The proportions of the Magnum first appear to be those of a larger vehicle, yet it’s surprisingly, at times frighteningly, agile. It wants you to underestimate it.
The incongruity of a family station wagon with a growling V-8 and a mean disposition has always been the big appeal with the Magnum. Many you’ll see on the street are modified to play up this persona. Tinted windows, massive rims, loud exhausts, and even louder stereos. Ironically, today’s Magnums are the polar opposite of the staid family station wagon of yore.
So, why then did this powerful, practical, stylish wagon not live to see the end of the decade? No one thing doomed the Magnum. Instead, a combination of factors probably contributed to its demise.
Take the styling. Some car buyers liked the Dirty Harry grimace of the Magnum, but that low roofline meant short windows which limited visibility for the driver and restricted light for rear passengers. Plus, the vaguely tank-like lines were not what suburban moms were looking for in a family vehicle.
Or take the competition. Some reviewers hailed the Magnum as a serious, and seriously fun, challenge to the hegemony of the SUV. But most car buyers didn’t see the point. A wagon was still a wagon, no matter the shape or how big an engine you dropped in it (tragically short sighted, I know).
Poor sales numbers. Once the initial hype had worn off, even the release of the SRT-8 couldn’t redeem the Magnum in the eyes of the public. As Chrysler prepped for its merger with Fiat, they looked to trim its lineup and the underperforming Magnum, along with the PT Cruiser, Crossfire, and Pacifica, got the ax.
For those out there looking for a big powerful used wagon and who can’t quite muster the cash for a Mercedes-Benz or Audi, there’s always the Dodge Magnum ready to rumble. It trades out the German refinement for some much-needed American swagger. And if we, the car buying public, couldn’t love this muscle car for the whole family, then maybe we just don’t deserve nice things.