Catch a glimpse of any NASCAR race and there's a new face among the racers: the Dodge Intrepid.

This is the first year of Dodge's return to stock-car racing. The race car has a V-8 engine, rear-wheel drive, two doors and only a vague resemblance to a stock Intrepid. The success of a model in stock-car racing is about brand loyalty. Dodge fans know they can't buy a car like the one that competes on the racetrack, but the Intrepid R/T should benefit from the image rub-off.

The R/T is the 242-horsepower version of the Intrepid, a full-size family sedan. Dodge calls it a "modern-day muscle car," but I would characterize it as a people hauler with muscles. The 3.5-liter, SOHC V-6 that was once the exclusive property of the 300M now sits under the hood instead of the base 2.7-liter V-6 or the optional 3.2-liter V-6. It has been detuned slightly from the 253 horsepower that it generates in the 300M.

Twist the key and you're greeted with a throaty rumble that lets you know this is not just another grocery getter. The 3.5-liter engine has excellent low- and mid-range torque, so it responds to the throttle eagerly. Accelerate through a freeway on-ramp and you're not going to think you're coming off Turn 4 at Daytona, but the power and handling are quite pleasing for a car capable of carrying five people comfortably.

The AutoStick transmission can be shifted manually by nudging the gear lever from side to side. Most drivers will leave it in full-automatic mode 90 percent of the time, but shifting manually adds fun whenever you feel racy or want extra control, such as on slick pavement or curvy roads.

And considering the base price of $24,975, the R/T is reasonably priced. Even though the test car's sticker price was $30,020, careful selection of options could keep it a couple of thousand dollars under that.

Although the R/T package adds crisper handling and 17-inch wheels, one of the best things about the Intrepid is the spacious cabin. The back seat is quite large and rear-seat legroom is more than generous. The trunk will swallow a lot of stuff as well, and the optional 60/40 fold-down rear seat gives a cargo space almost as long as a station wagon's. That is great for folks who want to haul bicycles, golf clubs or skis inside where they are safe from the weather and prying eyes.

In keeping with its sporty nature, the R/T's instrument panel has white-faced gauges that look sharp and are easy to read. Some critics think the instrument panel's plastic is too harsh, but I disagree. The cross-hatch pattern on the center console is pleasing to my eye.

Even though it is built on a longish 113-inch wheelbase, the R/T responds like a much smaller vehicle. The nose feels a little heavy in sharp turns, but a firm ride and very little body roll enables it to change directions without feeling caught by surprise.

Sound reduction is one area that could use improvement. Engine noise is not unpleasant, but road n oise is more intrusive. More sound insulation would result in a quieter ride.

Price
The base price of our test car was $24,975. Air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, tilt wheel, cruise control, power windows, power mirrors and anti-lock brakes are standard. Options on the test car included eight-way power leather seats, power moonroof, side airbags, full-size spare tire, an engine block heater and red pearl paint.

The sticker price was $30,020.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point:
A five-passenger sedan with 242-horsepower and sports-sedan reflexes is appealing for those who want to mix practicality and fun. The back seat is generous and the trunk spacious.

Counterpoint:
More sound insulation would cut down on road noise.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 3.5-liter, V6
Transmission: automatic Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113 inches
Curb weight: 3,511 lbs.
Base pric 24,975
As driven: $30,020
Mpg rating: 18 city, 26 hwy.
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