The Great American Cop Car Shootout

The death of Ford's Crown Victoria leaves a gaping void in law enforcement garages. This weekend, new high-tech models from Chevy, Dodge and Ford were tested for the first time by the Michigan State Police. Only Jalopnik has the results.

For 36 years, the Michigan State Police have run an annual battery of speed, braking and handling tests on cars, trucks and motorcycles offered to U.S. law enforcement agencies. Vehicles have to pass its standards to be qualified for sale as police vehicles and departments across the country use the more detailed data to decide what to buy and how much to pay.

Yet since the mid-1990s, agencies have taken the results and simply bought the Ford Crown Victoria. Cheap, easy to service, durable and powered by a V8 engine driving the rear wheels, the Crown Vic accounts for nearly three-fourths of all police vehicles sold, despite sporting a design whose age can only be determined by carbon dating.

But time, fuel economy, and toughening safety rules finally caught up with the Crown Vic. Faced with the choice of expensive surgery on a senior citizen, Ford decided to kill the Vic next year and attempt to convince thousands of police departments to switch to a Taurus or Explorer-based successor. Seeing an opening, Chevrolet and Dodge have pushed out new or updated rear-wheel-drive competitors, hoping to become the new iconic choice of public safety professionals.

The Michigan State Police tests were the first time all the new models were fully wrung out by someone outside the automakers. The cars were so new that Chrysler tried to shield the bodywork of the 2011 Dodge Charger Pursuit, since the civilian version hasn't been unveiled. (It didn't work.) With some 400 potential buyers from across the country kicking tires, the tests turned into a shootout of brawn versus finesse.

"Cop Tires, Cop Brakes, Cop Suspension, Cop Engine"

There's nothing tougher than a cop car.

Often abused, misused and run until its wheels literally fall off, U.S. police cars face some of the most demanding conditions around. Add in that many government agencies face budget cuts, and selling anything new becomes that much tougher. (More than one police officer showed up to the tests driving a cruiser with more than 100,000 miles on it).

But police cars are moneymakers, not just for automakers but the hundreds of suppliers who sell bolt-on lights, brush guards and other accessories. From full-size spares to rear seats that can be hosed out post-St. Pat's Day, police use makes a thousand demands on a car.

Although companies like Carbon Motors have talked a good game, only Chrysler and General Motors have tried to break the Crown Vic's multi-year headlock. Chevrolet has had limited success selling front-wheel-drive Impalas for light-duty work. Chrysler has been more successful with the Dodge Charger, offering V6 and Hemi-powered rear-drive variants and racking up about 11,000 sales a year.

The Great American Cop Car Shootout

Seeing that the Impala wouldn't cut it, GM has mustered its Australian Holden unit to duty, adapting the long-wheelbase Holden Commodore into the V8-powered Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle. In Australia, the long-wheelbase Caprice is grandpa's luxury ride, which makes it yet another reason why it's a good idea to retire to Australia. For the U.S. police version, Chevrolet had to make a host of changes; tougher suspension, brakes and oil cooling for starters, along with the 355-hp V8.

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For 2011, the refreshed Charger gets a host of mechanical upgrades, including Chrysler's new corporate 3.6 liter V6. It also benefits from a redesign that gives it the most sinister stance among all new comers, something that police officials said could help sell the Charger among police chiefs reluctant to part with the Crown Vic.

Ford will take orders from the Crown Vic through March, and won't start building the new Police Interceptor sedan and utility until December 2011. Yet it wanted to take part in the Michigan State Police trials, to give agencies a sneak peak of how well the new models would perform. Instead of relying on one model, Ford plans to offer a buffet of options, from a front-wheel-drive Explorer up to the police version of the Taurus SHO, with all-wheel-drive and more than 365 horsepower from its twin-turbo V6.

And like its customer models, Ford will try to sell high-tech features; the police models offer the Sync voice command system which can be used to power on sirens and lights along with the radio.

But what about the track?

High Speed Testing

The first day of testing at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Ground measured how quickly the vehicles could move up to 60mph and beyond, as well as their top speed. The Michigan State Police won't officially publish the results for Ford's new models, since they're not available for sale in the next 12 months. But we and a few other folks wrote them down anyway.

Here's the results:

The Great American Cop Car Shootout

You want to think that bad-ass cops require bad-ass cop cars that can top 150 mph and stop on a perp's shadow. But the shoppers at the evaluations said the performance numbers were nice to have, but not as important as they once were. Many cities bar high-speed chases by police; many rural counties don't have roads that could sustain one. Launch speeds matter more, especially the 0-60 and 0-100 times, since that can nip a pursuit in the bud.

As the tests show, the new Caprice moved to the front of the class for straight-line speed. It was the only model to hit 150 on the test track. The Dodge Charger with the Hem...er, 5.7 liter V8, kept a close second.
And the Ford Police Interceptor all-wheel-drive turbo was not far behind, although Ford execs at the test were hoping for a little better performance from it and the Explorer-based Utility, which was using only the regular 3.5 liter V6.

Ford also limited the top speed of its interceptors, a decision it said it made based on feedback from officers.

You'll also note, that although the Ford Police Interceptor Utility won't count in testing as it's not yet for sale — because it's based on the Ford Explorer — this is the first documented third party instrumented testing of the new crossover from Ford. It performed about how we'd expect.

The Great American Cop Car Shootout

Handling Course Testing

On Monday, the Michigan State Police took the show to the Grattan Raceway for handling tests, where four drivers took five laps each in all the models, with the best times averaged. Here, the data shifted more in Ford's favor.

The Great American Cop Car Shootout

Watching the action on the short track, it was evident that the Ford's all-wheel-drive grip became more of an asset. The Caprice's power boomed through the straights, but its oversteer through the curves proved a little difficult to control in spots, and a couple of drivers nearly went sideways. The Dodge was slightly better planted, with less waggle around the course but a lower top speed.

The Ford turbo PI posted not only the best average, but also the lowest lap time of the day, barely beating the Caprice. It's braking times were also best in class; Ford upgraded the entire braking system for police use. The one downside in Ford's times was the braking on the utility, a number that drew some headscratching and vows for improvement.

Jealous Of Robocop's Mom

Listen to law enforcement buyers talking about what they want from a police cruiser and you'll start to think you're at a focus group for minvan moms.

The most precious resource to an officer isn't power or gadgetry, but space. Wearing a utility belt with a gun and radio grabs several inches of hip space; sitting in the same position several hours a day can add a few more over time. The meanest police car in the world won't win many fans among officers if its not comfortable, and every model sported seats customized for police work.

The Great American Cop Car Shootout

Everything in law enforcement — the radios, equipment and most importantly the officers themselves — has been stamped by 20 years of Crown Victoria use. That means new police cars can't deviate too far from certain measurements: All three sport a center console that's 9 inches wide, which can hold the computer and equipment trays designed to be bolted into Crown Vics.

All of them also move the shifter onto the column to free up extra space — except the Caprice. There's no off-the-shelf parts for column-mounted shifting in the Commodore, and the engineering necessary to rework the steering column couldn't be completed for 2011. Chevy has a space-saving temporary fix in the works, but according to several shoppers the shifter alone knocks the Caprice off the list.

After interior space, safety ranks high among police concerns. No other vehicles are placed so frequently in dangerous positions; one trooper showed off his cellphone photo album of crunched Vics from highway collisions. The original Charger lost some sales because its visibility was poor compared to the Vic; the new model sports larger windshields, a lower belt line and a larger greenhouse. Ford will certify that its new Police Interceptors will protect occupants in a 75-mph rear-end crash.

And there's a host of political and ingrained habits that make the process even more complicated. Government fleet mechanics used to working on simple V8 engines may rebel against the idea of a twin-turbo V6 and all-wheel drive. Others will wonder how many parts might have to come from Australia. And several complained loudly when brake pads on the initial Dodge Chargers wore out after a few thousand miles in service, a problem Chrysler said it's tackled.

The Great American Cop Car Shootout

So who won?

Ford's numbers were impressive, especially for vehicles more than a year away from production, but only in handling not in speed. Given that they can't be bought today, we'd say Ford can't qualify for the podium, but can certainly make a case it knows what police officiers want in their cruisers.

Chevy, on the other hand, has produced one badass-and-fast patrol vehicle that trounced both the Dodge and the Ford. If we were outfitting the Jalopnik County Sheriff's Department, the Caprice would top our list for sheer speed, acceleration and spaciousness. We'd tell our officers to get used to the floor shifter (being Jalopnik County, they'd want manuals) and look forward to an annual charity road rally (actually, it'd make an excellent drifter, given the rear wheel drive).

But given the constraints of the real world, the ingrained habits of police officers, and the head start among young law enforcement professionals moving up through the ranks who adore the Charger's mean looks, we suspect if there's a real winner here it'll be Dodge. Somehow we think it won't be long before there's more Chargers on the road driven by the men and women in blue than Crown Vics.

Photos by Alex Conley, Wes Tucker for Jalopnik