Thursday, November 03, 2005

DRIVEN: 2006 Dodge Magnum RT

Story and Photos by Mike Galipeau

The family vacation – a drive halfway across the country in the middle of the summer, with two children. For this story, I’ll be Clark Griswold, my wife will play Ellen, my son is Rusty, and my daughter will be Audrey.

The old family wagon has 270,000 km on the odometer. It’s a Volvo, so I know it will make the 5,000 km trip to Wally World. Alright, so we weren’t going to Wally World, but we were heading to the East coast, to visit cousin Eddie (My brother). Ellen was a bit concerned about the reliability of the trusty wagon.

Off to the dealership I go to find a new family car. There it was, the 1983 Family Truckster in Metallic Pea, with wood paneling and eight headlights. I wish…

Truthfully though, DaimlerChrysler Canada, hooked us up with a 2006 Dodge Magnum R/T, almost as cool as the Truckster. Instead of Metallic Pea, we got Cool Vanilla and no wood paneling. It was the first time I had seen a Magnum in that colour, and it really brought out its muscular look. Well that, and the HEMI badges, the dual exhaust, and the 18-inch wheels and tires.

Gas was $1.04 a litre in Eastern Canada, so Ellen was not impressed to see a 5.7-liter 345-hp, 395-ft-lb powered car show up in the driveway. More about that later!

Wally World, er, sorry Halifax, was waiting so it was a 5:30 a.m. departure for 10 days of family bliss. However, the night before was spent loading the car.

My initial thought when I popped the trunk on the Magnum was “this is smaller than our Volvo back here.” However, the Magnum’s cargo space is deceiving. The sloped roofline and tiny rear windows make it seem small. The rear floor has a removable system that provides added cargo space, but I found this out after we had returned from our trip.

Even without the floor panels removed the Magnum swallowed a full-size stroller, two huge (and heavy) suitcases, a playpen, two diaper bags, a massive bag of toys, and various other items that we never looked at again.

Audrey and Rusty were ecstatic about the optional DVD system in the back – I got to listen to the Wiggles and Bob the Builder the entire trip, as Rusty didn’t want to wear the supplied headphones. I was excited to use the DVD based navigation system, though.

Our departure time felt very, very early, and we were off. Ellen was expecting to have to fill up every hour, but I secretly kept my eye on the mileage as we went. The number finally settled on 10.5 L/100km while on the highway – I was amazed. I had not seen the old 5-cylinder turbo Volvo do that. I had really hoped that the MDS (Multiple Displacement System) would prove Ellen wrong.

And yet, when you wanted to pass, the five-speed auto downshifted smoothly. It didn’t matter that we had a full trunk, two adults and two children in the car going up a 50 per cent grade with a headwind and the A/C on – this car moves!

My 2 1/2-year-old son “Rusty” put it best. “Dad, when you pass someone, I hear the HEMI, I like it.”

Eighteen hours later, thanks to the engineers at DaimlerChrysler for the DVD system, we were at Cousin Eddie’s in Porter’s Lake, NS. Eddie is a die-hard Dodge fan, and was blown away by the Magnum. We spent the next three days at their trailer. Alright, it’s a house, and a very nice one.

While in the Halifax area, we took a Griswold family day-trip to Peggy’s Cove. We had parked right beside a couple who had rented a V6 Magnum. It really occurred to me then how much the R/T package adds to this car. Yeah, you get the HEMI, but the car just looks more aggressive. While he was whining about the cost to rent a car and the rearward visibility, I was telling him about the 100-foot patch this thing laid. I mean, could lay if you wanted it to…

It was time to hit the Cabot Trail. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip the most. A friend had told me that he had to have the brakes done on his car immediately after driving the loop! With the Griswolds in the car, though, I’d have to take it easy and enjoy the ride. Turns out, the Cabot Trail is the most scenic, twisty, hilly road I have ever been on.

The Magnum is a big car. I didn’t realize it until we got back in our Volvo wagon – it felt tiny by comparison. However, the Magnum does an amazing job of shrinking itself on the tight, twisty sections, then feeling like a ‘60s Big Block beast when the road straightens out. The ability to manually select the gears on the Mercedes-Benz-sourced five-speed automatic worked well when heading downhill into a 180-degree bend. The brakes never even felt like they were working too hard, although I did think the steering was a bit over-assisted.

The rest of the trip was amazing although the Cabot Trail was my Wally World, and as far as I was concerned, we had made it. With three days to go, we hopped on the ferry in Pictou, NS, and headed to PEI. From PEI we drove the 11 km Confederation bridge back to New Brunswick. We stayed another night in Moncton, then drove the next day straight to Burlington, on the west side of Toronto.

We had put the 2006 Magnum R/T through a lot – we drove a total of 4,980 km in 10 days. We had the car on two ferries, one big bridge, through five provinces, took it to the beach, the Cabot Trail, through Montreal and spent a grand total of only $512.00 in fuel door to door. That’s only 10 cents per kilometre. Considering we had budgeted $800.00 for gas for the trip, Ellen was now a believer that a big-cube V8 could be practical and fuel efficient when built and packaged properly.

However the car is not perfect. The interior door panels did feel and look a bit plasticky in areas, but overall the interior has an upscale feel. Ellen felt that the seats could have been a bit deeper, and some more bolstering could be added, but stepping up to the SRT-8 package should take care on that.

The Magnum truly is practical power. It worked as a Family Truckster, it satisfied my need for grunt and handling, it kept the kids entertained. The entire Magnum line-up should be high on your list if you’re looking for the next Family Truckster – just pray you don’t have to deal with a salesman that looks like Eugene Levy in a cheap suit.

DRIVEN: 2006 Audi A3 2.0T

By Mark Atkinson
Photos by Mark Atkinson and Michael Banovsky

Look back through the history of premium-brand entry-level small coupes, and there’s lots of wreckage piled high. The E36 BMW 318ti Compact and more recently the Mercedes-Benz C-class Coupe have all failed miserably when it comes to sales in North America. The fact that their high-gloss badges weren’t enough to justify their high price tags – relative to their performance and equipment – should be a warning to any up-market brand.

So why has Audi chosen this point in time to launch the second-generation A3 – the first one was sold everywhere else – into the North American marketplace, especially when the United States is very fickle when it comes to hatchbacks? It’s a big gamble, especially given that the upcoming Volkswagen Golf GTI and Jetta GLI will be mechanically identical and arguably lower priced.

Yes, the A3 shares the same platform as the new Jetta and upcoming Golf – and stretched to fit in the brand-new Passat – replacing the venerable ‘MKIV’ architecture that underpinned everything from the Seat Leon to the Audi TT, and everything in between.

The main feature of the new design comes in the form of an independent rear suspension – a first for Volkswagen. After fielding bags of criticism about the old car’s rear beam axle, VAG went out and poached the engineer responsible for the excellent class-leading ‘Z-axle’ found initially under the Ford Focus and now spreading across the entire Ford/Mazda/Volvo lineup.

What does this mean? Sharper responses and a more controllable ride, for starters. The A3 has excellent turn-in, despite the typically numb steering, and feels quite nimble when thrown about. This really is a car you can take by the scruff of its neck and muscle it around – it will plough into understeer at the limit, of course, but at 9/10ths it’s rewarding in a solid, Germanic way.

Powering the A3 is VAG’s new 2.0-liter FSI turbocharged engine, replacing the ubiquitous 1.8T that found its way under millions of car hoods. The FSI stands for Fuel Stratified Injection, which is essentially means the fuel is injected directly into the combustion chamber like a diesel rather than back in the intake manifold. First seen on the nearly unbeatable Audi R8 racecar, FSI increases power and improves fuel economy.

The new engine produces a neat 200 hp at 5,100 rpm and 207 lb-ft at 1,800 rpm. The engine is then mated to either a six-speed manual transmission, or Audi’s very trick six-speed DSG gearbox. Either way you go, the car is quick, but the DSG is worth every penny, not only for the quicker acceleration, but also for the seamless operation across the board. Whether you keep it in automatic, sport or shift it yourself, the DSG is a hugely impressive piece of technology, making BMW’s SMG technology look clumsy in comparison.

The downsides of DSG when compared to SMG are courtesy of Audi’s lawyers – it doesn’t give you absolute control over the gears selected – i.e. it’ll shift to first when you come to a stop, shift up if you bang it off the rev limiter long enough. And Audi still won’t let you press the gas and brake at the same time – in either the manual or DSG cars – so forget serious bouts of left-foot-braking as the engine will just kill any and all power. BMW will let you do whatever you want with its SMG, although both companies have disabled their respective ‘launch control’ features for North America.

Still, despite the relatively minor headaches, the DSG shifts keenly with either the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, or with the floor-mounted shift lever. Floor it from a stop, and the 1,510 kg DSG-equipped A3 will hit 100 km/h in 6.7 seconds, 0.2 seconds faster than the six-speed car, despite a 30kg advantage for the stick-shift. The one complaint about the A3 is the lack of Quattro availability, at least for now. It appears that Audi plans to release a V6-powered model, which will feature all-wheel-drive. Whether or not Quattro will be an option on the 2.0T remains to be seen.

Besides the attractive spec sheet, the styling will hook you, of course. Whether or not Audi’s now-signature big horse-collar grille and squinty headlights looks good depends heavily on what’s tacked on behind it. The A8, where the corporate face first appeared, is large enough to compensate, while the new A4 looks very awkward, mainly because the rest of the car didn’t change with the facelift.

The A3 somehow makes it work, despite being the smallest of the redesigned cars. Strangely, while the five-door A3 is shaped like a typical small wagon – and stretched compared to the three-door version sold everywhere else – Audi calls it a Sportback. Anything to avoid that station wagon stigma...

The lines are tasteful and sharp – Audi design chief Walter da Silva’s guiding hand is very much apparent – and helps justify the price.

Inside, the design is very much new-Audi, although the materials can be hard and hollow in some spots. The airbag cover on the three-spoke steering wheel is supposed to evoke that horse-collar grille, and the controls are located within easy reach. The DSG paddles also feel worth their price thanks to a fluid action and tactile clicks with every shift.

So what we have is a semi-luxurious, semi-performance-oriented ‘hot hatch’ that’s trying to take customers away from both its lower and higher-priced competitors. Not an enviable position to be in, frankly.

Pricing for the A3 2.0 T is like a bad dream. It starts at $33,650 for the six-speed manual, and $34,600 for the DSG. Then you get to the options list: Sport package ($2,500 for 17-inch wheels and tires, leather seats, three-spoke steering wheel, aluminum trim, fog lights, sport seats, tighter suspension and a roof spoiler), the Cold Weather package ($950 for heated seats, mirrors and windshield washer nozzles), Sound package ($1,250 for Bose premium audio package and six-disc CD changer), Open Sky system ($1,500 for the dual-pane panoramic glass roof, rear side airbags ($500), Bi-Xenon headlights ($900), Convenience package ($950 for Homelink, storage package, trip computer, auto-dimming interior mirror, rain/light sensor), and finally the Navigation system for a whopping $2,750.

That totals $45,650, a not inconsiderable sum for what is essentially a front-wheel-drive compact car with a huge number of more able competitors at that price.

Canada would appear to be the ideal place for the A3 given our love and acceptance of five-door vehicles – witness any number of Mazda Protégé5’s, Mazda3’s, Volkswagen Golf’s, Toyota Echo’s, Subaru Imprezas and Ford Foci in our cities. Canadians love the practicality of a hatchback and buy them in droves. And while the high price point of the A3 relative to its class competitors may be a big hurdle for most, you only have to glance around at the dozens of no-option BMW 320i’s running around with plastic hubcaps to realize that there are many who are willing to part with big sums of money to be on the lowest rung of a brand’s ladder.

It’ll be up to Audi to convince potential customers to spend with their hearts and not their heads if they want the A3 to really thrive.