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New blood: Dodge puts a Charge(r) into the police vehicle lineup

By Craig Peterson

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In the years ahead, model-year 2006 will likely be remembered as one of the strangest on record. After a decade of dominating the market with its Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, the only rear-wheel-drive (RWD) V-8 police sedan, Ford finds itself squaring off against Daimler-Chrysler's rear-drive Dodge Charger sedan. The latter joins its sibling, the Magnum station wagon, giving the company a two-model RWD lineup.

Although a pursuit-rated, V-6-powered Dodge Intrepid was available for three years before that model bowed out in favor of the new LX-platform models, the two newcomers are Dodge's first rear-drive cop cars since the late Diplomat disappeared just prior to Bill Clinton's taking up residency in the White House.

Eyebrows rose when Dodge tested the waters by unveiling the 2005 Magnum last year. The station wagon, its rakishly creased sheet metal notwithstanding, is a stylish answer to a question very few fleet managers recall having asked.

In contrast, the Charger is a four-door sedan, trunk and all, and judging from the reactions I witnessed at IACP 2005, law enforcement is much more willing to embrace this more conventionally styled car than the Magnum. It doesn't hurt that the 340-hp 5.7-liter Hemi engine is optional.

Both come standard with the 3.5-liter, 250-hp SOHC all-alloy V-6, backed by a Mercedes-designed, Indiana-built five-speed automatic with manual shifting capability. Although the V-6 is governed to sub-130 mph velocities, the Hemi will easily reach 146 mph before its electronic nanny steps in to halt the fun. (Ungoverned engineering mules have seen the far side of 160 mph at the Chelsea proving grounds.) But even with the limiter, it's the fastest full-size, rear-drive police car since the fabled 440 Mopars of the late 1960s. Faster, actually, and unlike its predecessors, this car can make more than one stop from maximum speed without toasting the brakes.

On the GM front, the Chevrolet Impala gains 20 hp and an additional 22 foot-lbs. of torque, courtesy of the power infusion from a new 240-hp 3.9-liter pushrod V-6. For the first time it not only matches the Crown Victoria in acceleration, but, at least in slick-top trim, it exceeds 140 mph, giving it an edge in top speed over the 129 mph-governed Ford (119 mph with optional 3.55 gears to keep the composite driveshaft from unraveling). It gives up 10 hp to the Crown Vic but is 500 lbs. lighter and has marginally less aerodynamic drag, more than offsetting the power deficit. Additionally, Chevy upgraded the cooling capacity to match the elevated performance and added more standard equipment.

Another oddity this year: Chevy alone continues to offer police-spec SUVs, although the four-wheel-drive variant is a Special Service package not intended for pursuits and speed-limited to 97 mph. Regardless, Chevrolet's pursuit-rated two-wheel-drive Tahoe sport-ute has shown it can hang tight with the Crown Vic from 0-100 mph, run right up to its electronically limited 124- mph top speed and stop just as quickly from 60 mph, a significant achievement for a 2.5-ton truck. It's not that far behind on a road course, either. But they've done this exercise once before, when the two-wheel-drive police Tahoe was released in 1997 for a few model years to plug the gap left by the late, lamented LT1-powered Caprice. It was an excellent police vehicle, but at $24,000 it was competing with $16,500 Crown Vics, and the outcome was predictable. Today the price gap has narrowed, SUVs retain stellar resale values and the cost justification for purchasing one is within reach of many departments, particularly with a torrent of homeland security grant money flowing.


So, is everyone poised to purchase 146-mph Dodge Hemi patrol cars? Probably not. Ordering the hotrod engine adds $2,095 to the sticker, pushing prices close to $22-large for the Charger and into the mid-$23,000 range for the Magnum. Meanwhile, the Crown Victoria is listed on many state bids in the low-$19,000 region and the Chevrolet Impala for as little as $16,000. Small wonder that Chevy sold 12,000-odd Impalas last year.

Utility & Handling

With more than 27 cubic feet of cargo area-72 cubic feet with rear seat folded-the V-6-powered Magnum SXT Special Service package is tailored for general-purpose duties, such as K-9 units, administration, general transport and similar roles. It hasn't yet been wholeheartedly embraced by lawmen for the usual reasons: It looks different, and it has no service history. The latter is one of the Charger's weaknesses at present, and the modestly sized trunk and slightly narrower front passenger compartment are two more.

Ford is putting on a brave face, but the future may not be all that rosy. Periodic statements hinting at the end of Panther platform production have had fleet managers on edge for years. Unfortunate and very public squabbles with some major departments and some stonewalling on reliability issues, not to mention the nasty and largely unfair thrashing Ford has taken on the gas-tank fire issue, have primed the market for the arrival of an alterative RWD cop car. Daimler-Chrysler's LX platform may be it.

And youth does have its advantages. Ford makes do with a solid rear-axle platform that, aside from incremental improvements-hydroformed frame rails, Triton engine, rack-and-pinion steering and a Watts linkage for the rear suspension-has remained largely unchanged for decades. But it's a rugged, body-on-frame design, well-proven and thoroughly sorted out.

In contrast, the Dodge LX platform is very contemporary, and its sophisticated four-wheel independent suspension delivers major handling advantages. Daimler-Benz is a master at developing multi-link suspensions, and Dodge clearly benefits from ready access to the corporate Daimler-Chrysler engineering database and parts bin. But how well its unit-body construction will fare under the rigors of police duty remains to be seen.

The Crown Victoria handles reasonably well on smooth roads, with acceptable path accuracy and predictable final understeer to protect the unwary and unskilled. But throw in some rough pavement and Watts linkage or not, the back end gets lively enough to call for reduced speeds. The Impala suspension is tuned for heavy understeer, and while it's nearly impossible to spin the car, the conservative suspension settings can make for slow forward progress on twisty roads. Under the same conditions, the LX cars' much more sophisticated suspension helps them shrug off pavement irregularities and faithfully track through corners at eye-watering speeds.

On freeways you can take your hands off the wheel of one of these Dodges at 90 mph for a quarter mile at a time and the car continues die-straight, with path accuracy so good you'd swear it's laser-guided. On low-traction surfaces or cratered pavement, the E-Class Mercedes-derived suspension gives it a clear advantage over the Crown Victoria, and its minimal understeer, plus the electronic backup of the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) by Bosch, make it far quicker than the Impala and much more forgiving of driver error than either competitor.

ESP is a superb stability control system used by Mercedes and is standard on both Dodges, along with an all-speed traction control system and electronic brake-force distribution. (Ford's version is called Traction Control System and is standard on the Crown Vic.) The ESP system can harness even the Hemi's prodigious 390 foot-lbs. of torque, getting it underway on greasy pavement with barely a slip of a wheel. And ESP can straighten out the car from an incipient spin in an eye blink, saving it from even the most ham-fisted drivers. The threshold for both systems is set high enough that neither intervenes unless it's really necessary.

When it comes to stopping the Dodge, Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) applies maximum braking pressure when the computer senses imminent disaster, regardless of the driver's pedal pressure. Countless ABS-equipped police cars have been crashed because of too-tepid application of the brakes (I once crashed a B4C Camaro in the wet for exactly this reason); EBD counters such mistakes automatically.

Initially at least, Dodge bravely will allow the driver to disable ESP, something superior drivers will treasure, because it allows them to balance the car's attitude via throttle and steering. Unfortunately, most officers couldn't identify understeer or power oversteer on a bet, much less employ either to control the car. Let's hope they don't figure out how to disable ESP, because with rare exceptions, most will definitely need it, particularly when the red mist inevitably sets in during an extended pursuit.

But that's a selling point for Dodge. Chevrolet and Ford offer no stability control systems for their police cars, only for SUVs. Given that police departments crash a car on average every 27,000-odd miles-state highway patrols do somewhat better, encountering less exposure to risk-preventing even a few accidents could potentially save a department millions in banged-up cars and wrongful-death lawsuit settlements, not to mention the lives of some officers.


I tested a Hemi Charger in 111-degree F Arizona heat with three aboard, and it still ran the quarter-mile in 15.08 seconds at 93.2 mph. This despite the fact the performance computer revealed that only 237 rear-wheel horses were on duty at the time, the rest of the herd having called in sick due to the performance-sapping effects of the heat and single-digit humidity. That, plus the additional 300 lbs. of passengers, easily cost one second and 6-7 mph of trap speed in the quarter mile. That makes the Charger V-8 at least 9 seconds faster to 100 mph than the Ford, a huge margin. And the performance gap continues to widen at triple-digit speeds when the aerodynamic drag from light bars, spotlights, push bumpers and other hardware exacts a greater penalty on the lower-horsepower cars than on the 340-hp Dodge.

This is significant because there's been no traffic car available since the Camaro was cancelled. Sure, a Crown Vic or Impala-at least a 2006 model with the 3.9-liter engine-can heave itself onto the pavement in pursuit of a high roller and, miles later, eventually reel him in. But those long minutes spent slicing through traffic can be a lawsuit waiting to happen. Able to reach 100 mph nearly as quickly as the Camaro, and with 150 mph on tap, the Hemi Charger will have traffic unit commanders drooling in anticipation. I suspect that a fair number of small-town chiefs and sheriffs will also find a way to spec-in a Hemi, even those with five square miles of patrol area to cover with a maximum speed limit of 35 mph to enforce. It's that testosterone thing, you know.

But the 150-mph capability could prove a bit problematic for Dodge. In the early 1990s, Ford quietly shopped around a prototype 140-mph police Taurus powered by the SHO high-output V-6. They dropped the idea after hearing from many commanders that the collateral damage certain to accompany a 140-mph patrol car simply couldn't be justified. Their officers had been convincingly demonstrating an inability to control much slower cars for many years. Putting high-powered units into their hands would be an open invitation to disaster, they said. A decade later, a 330-hp DOHC 4.6-powered Crown Vic was also demonstrated privately to a few key departments. Same reaction.

It'll be interesting to see how Dodge fares with this issue. But unless the Hemi option price is reduced, most Dodges will be V-6-powered anyway, making this a moot point.

Both the Dodge police Magnum and Charger benefit from key attributes traditionally demanded by American law enforcement: sparkling acceleration and prodigious top speed (at least when Hemi-equipped), excellent handling qualities, RWD and good brakes, plus a smorgasbord of advanced safety systems. Within a year or two of entering service, if the Dodges prove reliable and the company chooses to price them competitively, Ford's decade-long run as the sole provider of rear-drive police cars may be over.  

Craig Peterson has been road-testing and reviewing police vehicles-cars, SUVs, undercover units and others-since 1990 and has constructed a number of widely publicized police concept vehicles seen at IACP and similar venues. He's an IPTM-certified police radar instructor, an ex-race car driver and has authored hundreds of stories on vehicles, driver training, mobile electronics and speed-measuring technology for U.S. and foreign law enforcement magazines since 1990.


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