Say "muscle car" and you think of the big-engine Camaros, Firebirds, and Mustangs. Other than the Viper, Chrysler hasn't made anything that would raise your pulse since the mid-1970s Dodge Challengers and Plymouth RoadRunners. Until now, that is. Meet the Dodge Magnum R/T Performance Package, a factory- engineered and warranteed street-legal performance package that makes almost any Dodge Dakota (back to 1992) or Ram truck a genuine blue collar, fire-breathing muscle - uh, truck.
The R/T package consists of a special engine controller chip, custom headers and a 3-inch diameter exhaust system, a high-performance camshaft, and low-restriction air filter. Together, they add up to a 20% gain in horsepower and torque over the standard Dodge 5.2 liter (Dakota) and 5.9 liter (Ram) motors.
We tested two examples with the R/T Performance package, a Dakota Sport, with the 5.2 liter V8 and a five-speed transmission, and a Ram 1500, with the 5.9 liter motor and the four-speed automatic with overdrive. The Dakota 5.2 liter is normally rated a healthy 220 hp at 4400 rpm with 295 lb/ft of torque at 3200 rpm., the Ram 5.9 liter, 230 hp at 4000 with 330 lb/ft of torque at 3200. Neither is a slouch in standard configuration, but with the Magnum R/T Performance Package, both trucks are rocketships. Lighter by more than 780 lbs and equipped with a manual tranny, the smaller-engined Dakota was slightly faster, but not by much. How fast is fast? Even with stock tires and wheels (a definite if easily-remedied limitation with this kind of horsepower), our Dakota thundered through a tire-smoking quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds. Hold on to your pitchfork, Jethro, that's haulin' hay.
Just a tick slower, was our clear favorite, the automatic transmission 5.9 liter Ram 1500 Sport. Dodge has definitely raised the bar with the new Ram series. Start with a tough, industrial-strength work truck that, for '96, can be ordered with no less than five different engines; a 3.9 liter V6, 5.2 and 5.9 liter V8s, a 5.9 Cummins turbo-diesel inline six, and, should the need arise to uproot a giant redwood, the humongus 8 liter V10. Add a spacious - cavernous, really - cab with comfortable seats that are the proper distance from pedals and steering wheel (are you listening, GMC and Chevy?), a driver-side airbag, thoughtful storage spaces, simple, good controls, an excellent sound system, and the most car-like ride and handling we've ever experienced in a truck. Now, to this already attractive vehicle, in our case, with the big V8, the R/T package adds 46 hp and 51 lb/ft of torque - enough punch to make a grown man pucker.
No slouch in standard trim, a V8-powered Ram with the automatic gets from zero to 60 in the high nine-second bracket. You can lop two and a half seconds off that with the R/T package and continue on through the quarter in about 15 seconds - muscle car territory. What's more, with its swoopy headers and 3-inch diameter exhaust pipe, the big V8 virtually explodes into life when keyed to start. It's a wonderfully menacing thunder guaranteed to raise one's testosterone level, regardless of gender. Loud enough to be noticed, but not overwhelming. Just BIG and BRAWNY. At signals, we'd slip it into neutral and give the throttle a stab or two just to rock compact cars next to us.
We've not admired Chrysler's passenger car automatics that much recently, but found the Ram's four-speed to be smooth and perfectly matched to the big V8. Of course, as with any truck, handling would improve with a couple of 100-lb cement bags in the back of the bed. So would the ride. Predictably, when cornering near the limit, the back end is a little light, as well as a bit bouncy over rough surfaces and bumps. But overall, Chrysler's suspension folks have reached a good compromise here. It's obvious that the new Ram truck is generation ahead of the Dakota in this area, too. The truth is, with the Magnum R/T Performance Package, the Dodge Ram is the first truck we've ever coveted as an everyday vehicle.
Our truck was packed with options, air conditioning, anti- lock brakes (of special importance on a pickup truck), a premium sound system, power windows, seats, and door locks, an anti-spin differential, and chrome wheels among them. It also had the optional "Sport Appearance Package," the best part of which was a body color (red on ours) front bumper and grille. It looked awesome from the front. The total came to $21,628. The R/T Magnum Performance Package costs $2176.95. If a Dodge dealer installs it, there's a $1200 labor charge. Twenty-five grand and change, in other words. True, that's more than a Camaro or Mustang. But, hey, you can't haul furniture with them.