New Police Cars Blend Into The Crowd

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Very soon — and for the first time in living memory — it will be next to impossible to visually pick out cop cars from the crowd.

For years, it was pretty easy to do that. Even without a radar detector, alert drivers knew to slow down when they saw a Ford Crown Victoria or Chevy Impala sedan up ahead. Because for the most part, only two types of people drove these last-of-their-kind, full-size American sedans:

Old people. And cops.

If you saw grey hair (and other obvious clues, such as wire wheel covers and AAA stickers on the bumper) you were in the clear. But the claxons immediately went off if the driver appeared to be a younger guy — and the car had dog dish hubcaps and a spotlight by the driver’s side window.

It’s Officer Friendly — and his not-so-friendly radar gun!

We Americans have been immensely blessed in this respect. In most other countries, the cops drive ordinary cars, including cars you’d probably never suspect — even minivans. You never knew who might be in that car by the side of the road. Whereas in the U.S., if you saw a Vic or an Impala tucked into one of those cutouts on the Interstate, you could be next-to-certain it was a Johnny and take appropriate precautions.

Well, the Impala (the real one – the big one that looked like Shamu the whale) is already gone. Chevy stopped building them in the late ’90s and most departments have stopped using them. (Many were rebuilt, with new engines and fresh drivetrains – but even these few holdovers are now getting tired.)

Next year (2011) will be the last year that Ford builds the last of the old-time cop cars – the Crown Victoria. So within five years, at most, the cops themselves will become all-but-invisible as they transition over to much-less-obvious “units” like the Ford Taurus.

Not only will they be harder to spot, they’ll be harder to escape.

The Crown Vic is slow. Even in “police interceptor” trim, anyone with some muscle under his saddle stands a decent chance of giving one the slip. I’ve got a neighbor who is a state cop. He drives a Vic. And he has told me he doesn’t even bother turning around when a high-performance sport motorcycle buzzes past him at Warp Speed because he knows there’s no point. By the time he gets the Vic turned around, the bike will be in the next county and long gone.

But in the not too-distant future, he may be driving a police-spec Taurus SHO — complete with 365 hp twin turbo engine and 0-60 capability of about 5 seconds flat. The SHO Taurus (and similar pepped-up police package cars like the Dodge Charger R/T with Hemi V-8) can also run 150-plus on top.

This evens things up a lot. It will be harder to speed (and get away with it). And much more challenging to successfully flee.

There is one potential fly in the pie, though. And it might just save our (had to say it!) bacon. While slab-sided, full-framed, solid axle, rear-wheel-drive cop cars like the Vic (and the Impala) were incredibly tough old tanks that could stand up to abuse such as driving over a curb at 40 mph in pursuit of a fleeing felon — or be used as mobile battering rams to knock suspects off the road — modern unibody front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive cars like the Taurus are much more fragile. Run one over a curb at 10 or 20 mph and it’s a sure bet the front end will need major work. Use it to play bumper cars and it will not end well.

The other issue is service and maintenance costs. A Vic is a relatively simple machine, even though it has a computer as all modern cars do. But underneath the wires and hoses is a straightforward V-8 with a pretty conventional automatic transmission and a tough, primitive, suspension system with a few basic components that are almost unbreakable and if they do break, easy and inexpensive to replace. A new Taurus SHO has an amped-up DOHC V-6 engine with twin turbos and intercoolers; a dauntingly complex AWD system — and a sophisticated but relatively fragile chassis/suspension that wasn’t designed for daily abuse.

These facts may work in our favor. The cops may have to go back to a car more like the Vic — one that would also have the virtue of being more recognizable.

Meanwhile, better get ready. And more suspicious.

The old Rules of Engagement are about to change…. .

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