Clash of the cruisers - Macleans.ca

Clash of the cruisers

With Ford set to retire the Crown Victoria, automakers are battling to build the next generation police car

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Chrysler Group LLC/ Mike Segar/Reuters/ Ford Motor Co.

For the first time in more than a decade, Dennis Simcoe won’t be able to simply pick up the phone and call Ford Motor Co. when it’s time to replace one of Edmonton’s 230 Crown Victoria police cruisers. That’s because Ford, which currently boasts 70 per cent of the North American police car market, is finally retiring the aging, tank-like police car next year, creating unease among police departments and an opportunity for competitors to step in. “It’s a very well-performing police vehicle,” says Simcoe, who oversees fleet operations for the city of Edmonton and already sounds a touch nostalgic for the Crown Victoria. “You can pound on them and they still keep ticking.”

For Ford, though, the “Crown Vic” lost its commercial appeal a long time ago. Built in St. Thomas, Ont., the car has been relegated to police and taxi fleets since 2007 after Ford decided the consumer market for big, rear-wheel-drive sedans had all but disappeared, save for a handful of Florida retirees. Even taxi companies are moving away to smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. And police departments, although important and high-profile customers, only buy about 60,000 of the roughly $30,000 vehicles a year in total—not enough to justify a dedicated assembly line.

Ford is now attempting to convince police to move to a car based on its front- and all-wheel-drive Taurus platform, as well as a sport utility vehicle, promising performance benefits that stem from modern vehicle stability systems and the improved fuel economy of a smaller but still powerful V6 engine. “We can add that advanced technology and maybe change the way people think about police cars,” says Marisa Bradley, a Ford spokesperson.

But police departments aren’t yet sold. They like the Crown Vic’s old-fashioned body-on-frame construction, which makes the cars cheap and easy to repair since damaged panels can simply be replaced. Moving to a front- or all-wheel-drive car will also require police officers to be retrained at considerable expense because the vehicles handle differently. In general, rear-wheel-drive cars are thought to handle better than front-wheel-drive vehicles, although they can lose traction on slippery roads (all-wheel-drive cars are said to offer the best of both worlds).

Ford’s competitors, not surprisingly, are eager to muscle their way back into the market and have seized on the uncertainty. GM, in particular, is touting a big, burly, rear-wheel-drive vehicle with a V8 engine that boasts more interior space to house the $25,000 or so worth of equipment—radar guns, computers, protective shields—that police officers need to do their jobs. As well, the seats are specially designed to accommodate the bulky gun belts worn by patrol officers. The car also carries a familiar name: Chevrolet Caprice, which used to be the go-to police car until GM decided to scrap the model in 1996 and the Crown Victoria took over. “[Police] customers have been asking for us to bring back a full-sized rear-wheel-drive sedan,” says Dana Hammer, the manager of law enforcement vehicles for Chevrolet. He adds that the Caprice PPV (police patrol vehicle) is a “modern” vehicle based on a rear-wheel-drive platform built in Australia and sold elsewhere in the world under the Holden brand. No decision has yet been made on whether it will be offered to police departments in Canada.

The sales pitches (and trash talking) have already begun in earnest. Earlier this month, Ford, GM and Chrysler, which sells a police car based on its rear-wheel-drive (V6 or V8) Dodge Charger model, brought their offerings to a test track in Michigan, where state police hold an annual evaluation. Following the event, GM quickly issued a press release that trumpeted the performance of the Caprice, noting that it was faster from zero to 95 and zero to 160 km/h than the Ford and Dodge cars, and stopped in a shorter distance.

Ford’s Bradley, however, scoffed at GM’s claims. “It was convenient that they left out the new [Ford] Police Interceptors and judged their cars against the Crown Vic,” she said, adding that the Taurus-based Police Interceptors beat the field in handling and braking at the Michigan tests. The results weren’t official because the cars, nearly a year away from production, are considered prototypes. Still, for Edmonton’s Simcoe and other police fleet managers across the continent, the Crown Victoria remains the car to beat.