Room, performance and safety come with luxury at a family sedan's prices BY MARK PHELAN FREE PRESS AUTO CRITIC March 4, 2004 Cars like the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum are the reason Detroit became known as the Motor City. Roomy and attractive, fast and affordable, the 300 and Magnum recall the best of Detroit's past: the days when an average family could afford a big, powerful car to carry its members in style and comfort. The 300 and Magnum are much more than a nostalgia trip, thanks to advanced systems that provide a combination of performance and all-weather practicality undreamed of in the land yachts of yore. The new rear-wheel-drive sedan and station wagon are also Chrysler Group's biggest gamble in memory. That's because they fly in the face of two decades and hundreds of millions of advertising dollars Detroit automakers spent convincing American drivers that front-wheel-drive cars are safer and more advanced than rear-drive. Chrysler, Ford and GM began building front-drive cars in response to soaring fuel prices in the 1970s and '80s. Front drive allowed them to offer reasonable passenger and luggage space in their downsized cars. Front-wheel drive works best in small cars and minivans where neither power nor performance is paramount. So the automakers tried to make a virtue of necessity by telling customers front-wheel drive was safer because it provides better traction in snow. A couple of generations of engineering advances have erased that advantage, but the campaign was so successful that Chrysler's biggest challenge might be convincing buyers just how safe and practical the 300 and Magnum are. Despite that, Chrysler's management team decided to roll the dice on a return to rear drive before the merger with Daimler-Benz six years ago. They knew Chrysler would never beat successful cars like the front-drive Honda Accord, Pontiac Grand Prix and Toyota Camry at their own game. I've driven the 300 and Magnum hundreds of miles on treacherous ice and bumpy side streets in Michigan and over mountain roads and highways in California. And I'm crazy about them. Like everything I've ever loved, they're not perfect, but I love them still. They offer the room, performance and safety luxury car buyers expect at family car prices, and that's good enough for me. Chrysler's bet has paid off. The 300 and Magnum are game changers. 300 sedan holds up well in class against pricey luxury rides The 2005 Chrysler 300 full-size sedan looks like a million bucks, or at least $250,000. I've lost track of how many people have told me the 300 looks like a quarter-mill Bentley limousine. I don't see the resemblance myself, but I have to tip my hat to a $23,595 sedan that folks compare favorably to the rides of royalty and rappers. There's no doubt the 300 looks distinguished with its big, upright grille and searchlight-size projector headlamps. It also has plenty of room, packing 106.6 cubic feet of interior space into a car that measures just 196.8 inches long. That's more interior room than BMW 745i in a body barely three inches longer than an Nissan Maxima. Despite its expensive looks, excellent performance and accommodating interior, the 300, which goes on sale this month, is priced in the heart of the family car market. The base model goes for $23,595 and the well-equipped, top-of-the-line, 340-horsepower, Hemi V8-powered 300C starts at $32,995. Its luxury looks and 6.3-second 0-60-m.p.h. acceleration notwithstanding, the 300 will succeed or fail on its success as a family car for everyday use. I've driven the 300 and Dodge Magnum over everything from dangerously slippery wet ice to twisty mountain roads, through smooth interstates and bumpy back streets, and they met or exceeded my expectations in every case. Equally important, the 250-horsepower 300 Touring model I tested on a cold February day in Michigan won over Free Press personal finance columnist Susan Tompor. A mother and a minivan user, Tompor admired the 300's looks but worried that its rear-wheel-drive layout would make it unsafe on slippery roads. So we took a 300 Touring model, with its standard antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability program, out for a spin on a hockey rink masquerading as an empty suburban street. Except the 300 didn't spin or fishtail or succumb to any of the vices that used to turn rear-wheel-drive cars into tow-truck fodder. Tompor put the safety systems though their paces, repeatedly flooring the gas pedal on glaze ice. The traction control kept the wheels from spinning, accelerating the 300 as smoothly as Wayne Gretzky on a victory lap. The stability control sensed when the car was about to slip sideways and adjusted power and brakes to keep the 300 as secure as a goal net minded by a healthy Dominik Hasek. We duplicated the test in Tompor's front-wheel-drive 1998 Plymouth Grand Voyager, hanging on tight as the wheels spun and the minivan slid sideways. "I like my minivan a lot," she said. "But I think I felt safer in the 300." She shoots; she scores. If Chrysler finds a way to show other potential customers rear drive is safe, it's scored a hat trick of price, practicality and performance. While the powerful V8 300C is a delight to drive, with the Hemi's rumble complementing its excellent Boston Acoustics stereo, I'm surprised to find myself most enamored of the less powerful Touring model. The 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 provides plenty of power for spirited driving, making it the bargain of the family at $27,395. The Limited model also performs well with the 3.5-liter, adding standard features such as heated seats, chrome wheels and dual-zone climate control for a base price of $29,890. Even the base model's 190-horsepower, 2.7-liter V6 moved the 300 well, accelerating confidently away from stoplights and on the highway. I think Chrysler erred by making antilock brakes and traction control options on the base model, though. Despite the lack of antilock brakes, all four models share their excellent four-wheel disc brakes and steering. I found the 300's steering to require more effort than the Dodge Magnum at low speeds. The 300's roomy interior features tasteful chrome strips. The tops of the dash and doors use an attractive dark plastic, but the lower portions get an inferior light plastic, some of which is covered by carpet on the top-of-the-line 300C. The 300C features an unusual and very becoming use of faux tortoise shell for the steering wheel, shifter knob and interior door pulls. The trunk holds a useful 15.6 cubic feet of space -- more than a Honda Accord, less than a Toyota Camry or Chevrolet Impala -- and there is a 60-40 split folding rear seat for outsize cargo. Despite the use of some materials that sell an otherwise excellent car short, the Chrysler 300 is a lot of car for the money. With an exceptional combination of style, performance and utility, it's a winner. Station wagon might appeal to discerning gangster If Pretty Boy Floyd had car-pool duty, he'd pack the kids and a Thompson submachine gun into a Dodge Magnum, then maybe knock over a bank. To call this rakish, devilish, powerful and practical, full-size five-seater the best-looking station wagon Detroit has built in decades is to damn it with faint praise. The Magnum is one of the most attractive cars on the road, thoroughly modern but with a tapering roof line that hints at custom hot rods without reducing headroom. Pretty Boy would want a Magnum R/T with the 340-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V8, in case he had to lose some G-men on the way home. I'm with Floyd on that one. The Magnum R/T is a riot to drive: fast and maneuverable, balanced and responsive through high-speed curves, stable and quiet on the highway. The Hemi comes with Dodge's multi-displacement system, which unobtrusively idles one side of the V8 when it's not needed, in order to reduce overall fuel consumption 10 percent to 20 percent, the engineers claim. The five-speed transmission operates smoothly, and its manual mode is as good as any car offers. There are also two V6 Magnum models with Chrysler's four-speed automatic transmission. The SXT uses the 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V6 that powered the discontinued Chrysler 300M. The base model gets a 2.7-liter, 190-horsepower V6 also used in the Dodge Stratus midsize sedan. The Magnum is the first rear-wheel-drive use for both engines. The 250-horsepower SXT model performs well on the highway, with good passing acceleration. Leadfoots like me might find it a little underpowered for stoplight-to-stoplight dashes. I did not drive the base 190-horsepower model. Magnum prices start at $22,495 for the base model. SXT prices begin at $25,995. Hemi-powered RT prices start at $29,995. The models I tested ranged from a $27,335 SXT to an option-laden $34,130 R/T. Dodge will offer full-time all-wheel drive this fall. The system will be available on SXT and R/T models and will probably add 100 to 200 pounds to the car's weight and around $1,200 to its price. The Magnum can tow up to 3,800 pounds. The suspension absorbed bumps well, and the brakes were excellent, with their optional antilock system and emergency assist features intervening unobtrusively when needed. The Magnum's traction control and electronic stability programs are among the best I've experienced, preventing wheel spin and fishtailing seamlessly. I believe Chrysler should have made antilock brakes and traction and stability control standard equipment on all models. The additional cost would have been minimal, and a modern family car with rear-wheel drive should come with traction control. The rack-and-pinion steering is direct and responsive. The Magnum and Chrysler 300 have the same steering setup, but the Magnums I drove had a lighter, easier feel for parking and low-speed turns, making the Dodge more pleasant for such everyday maneuvers. The Magnum also features a manually adjustable tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a very convenient feature that's standard on all models. The optional adjustable pedals and power driver's seat complete an interior that is extremely roomy and accommodating. I was disappointed that the power seat did not have a memory function. Some of the interior materials fall short of the Magnum's overall excellence. The lower half of the dashboard and door panels is a light-colored plastic with a hard surface and little graining to make it look or feel attractive. The soft-touch black plastic on the upper dash and doors is much more effective. The subpar light plastic returns on the inside of the Magnum's tailgate. The tailgate has a very interesting design, with its hinges set almost above the back seat. This unusual design allows the tailgate to open almost straight up, making it practical and accessible even in tight parking spaces. Despite that feature, the tailgate is within reach of average-height women, although the handle to pull it closed is a flimsy molding in the same unappealing plastic. A hanging strap or molded handle you could get your hand around would be better. Despite those shortcomings, the Magnum is a terrific car, distinctive and good-looking, with the kind of performance, power and room usually reserved for luxury cars. The Dodge Magnum is significantly more car for the money than most of its competitors. Unlike Pretty Boy Floyd, the only bank jobs I'm likely to pull involve an ATM card, but I'd take the Magnum as my getaway car any day, even if it's just a weekend getaway to a cottage by the lake.