MOJAVE, Calif. -- As we're slipping on a protective race helmet and buckling the driver's seatbelt, the 2.5-mile road course at Willow Springs International Raceway in the California desert stretches beyond our windshield with a promise of super speeds and so much fun on four wheels. To maximize the experience of ripping flat-out around a lightning-fast track, it helps to have a vehicle with a powerful engine and the suspension tuned tight for hard-corner sport work. That's just the ticket we've punched with the Magnum SRT8 from Dodge, which idles on the starting line at Willow with a deep-throat bleat spewing from twin back pipes.
Outfitted with a big-block HEMI V8 on a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) platform and the suspension dropped half an inch on sport-taut springs, this big car can romp from zero to 60 mph in the low fives and pass the quarter-mile post in less than 14 seconds. But here's the incongruity: Magnum SRT8 is a stealthy race car because the body conforms to the shape of a station wagon -- sort of. Study this vehicle in profile and you'll see that, although the basic shape amounts to the familiar two-box format of a station wagon, something different happens here.
Magnum's hood stretches to an exaggerated length and the body's beltline on flanks seems rather tall, with a long roofline tapering down toward the rear and squeezing window glass to narrow -- and interesting -- proportions. Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and the enormous wheels on front and back corners convey an impression of strength and high performance. Overall, it seems as if Dodge's stylists took a station wagon and rearranged the structure to forge a slammed and stuffed hot rod skewed to a hip and sporty mode.
We prefer to think of it as a contemporary muscle car which also carries a wagon's rear cargo quarters. And Dodge even devised a descriptive term to keep from calling Magnum a station wagon: It's a sports tourer wagon. To create a stealth racer version, the gearhead gurus at the Street and Racing Technology (SRT) division of DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group requisitioned a Magnum and pumped it up with their retinue of kick-butt car tricks. The result of these experiments becomes the street-legal 2006 Magnum SRT8.
Special exterior modifications apply, such as a revamped front fascia scored with brake-cooling ducts and an oversized air dam to reduce lift or the integrated wake modifier in back with keen cutouts to house dual 3.5-inch exhaust tips. Also, Magnum SRT8 wears a unique mesh grille with chrome trim, satin-finish front and rear bumper strips, mirrors and door handles tinted to match body paint, and special SRT badges. Three exterior colors mark the Magnum SRT8 in Bright Silver, Brilliant Black or Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat.
Power comes from the big-block HEMI V8, whichs modified from Magnum's 5.7-liter HEMI by boring cylinders to a larger diameter, raising the compression ratio in cylinders, rearranging intake and exhaust systems on cylinder heads to improve air flow, and boosting the engine speed by 15 percent. Engine displacement increases to 6.1 liters and the plant generates up to 425 hp at 6000 rpm plus tall torque numbers to 420 lb-ft at 4800 rpm. And the exhaust routes through bigger pipes which culminate with those chrome tips beneath thick fascia. All power from the big HEMI channels through a heavy-duty automatic transmission with five forward gears and adaptive electronic controls from Dodge's AutoStick, which has automatic or shift-it-yourself manual modes.
The RWD platform underpinning SRT8 was developed through Chrysler's parent DaimlerChrysler and shares some components with a sedan by Mercedes-Benz plus the Charger from Dodge and Chrysler's 300C. A four-wheel independent suspension -- with short/long-arm (SLA) arrangement up front and a five-link design in the rear -- tunes up for sport work with firmer springs and larger anti-roll bars plus quick-to-damp Bilstein gas-pressured shocks. SRT8's vented disc brakes work through huge rotors (14.2 inches in front and 13.8 inches in back) with four-piston Brembo calipers in aluminum housings. All four discs are linked and controlled through an advanced anti-lock brake system (ABS), with all-speed traction control (ASTC), emergency brake assist (EBA) and electronic stability control (ESP).
The forged and polished aluminum wheels measure 20 inches in diameter and 9 inches thick. They roll with 3-Season F1 Goodyears (P245/45R20 in front and P255/45R20 in the rear) or optional 4-season RS-A Goodyears. The steering system with hydraulic power assistance remains a responsive rack and pinion device with 16.1:1 ratio and 2.75 wheel turns from lock to lock.
Measures for passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to front seatbelts with load-limited and pretensioning apparatus, backseat restraints with upper and lower anchors to mount a child's seat, smart multi-stage air bags up front plus side curtain-style air bags for all outboard seats.
Layout of the cabin consists of two big sport buckets up front and followed by a rear bench broad enough for three but with indented sections for two. Seatbacks on the second row split in 60/40 sections and fold down to extend the floor of the back cargo bay, which has over 70 cubic feet of room with rear seats flat, including bonus space in a broad below-floor box at the back with stow bins separated by netting. The front buckets house special sport bolsters and performance-geared suede inserts designed to keep a body pinned in place during tight-turn maneuvers.
A wrap of tactile leather goes around the steering wheel as the console shift bezel shines in satin silver. Magnum SRT8 stocks premium standard equipment including power-adjustable pedals and a stereo AM/FM radio with CD changer for six discs plus control tabs on the steering wheel. Options extend to heated bucket seats, a power sunroof and Sirius satellite radio subscription. Dodge sets the base price on a powerful Magnum SRT8 at $37,320.