When it retired the venerated Panther rear-wheel drive platform last year, Ford lost more than the beloved Lincoln Town Car. Panther underpinned the Ford Crown Victoria, which, while discontinued for retail sale after model year 2007, continued to be produced in the all-important Police Interceptor configuration until last year, when Panther production finally ceased altogether.
To borrow a term that is used a little too cavalierly these days, it is entirely reasonable to call the Crown Vic an icon. For many, it and "police car" are interchangeable terms. Anyone who drives knows that sinking feeling you get when your rearview mirror fills with the visage of a Crown Vic wearing the telltale black grille. Suddenly, you discover the speed limit and hope you don't see red-and-blue lights. But with Ford's ubiquitous patrol car accepting the proverbial gold watch after decades of service, how would the automaker follow up? Earlier this week, we drove the two vehicles that will fill the Vic's very big shoes, the 2013 Ford Police Interceptor sedan and SUV.
Setting the stage
Ford staged the event at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, where they set up three autocross-style courses in the stadium parking lots. One was intended to simulate a more urban environment, with tighter turns and more abrupt changes. The featured vehicle here was the Police Interceptor Utility, based on the Ford Explorer. The next two stations were a speed course and a handling course, both of which highlighted the Police Interceptor EcoBoost Sedan, based on the Ford Taurus. Before driving the new cars, we took a Crown Victoria Police Interceptor through each course, so we'd be able to see the differences between the old car and the new ones. During the pre-drive presentation, the Ford minders reminded the assembled media that when we hit the courses, it "wasn't about getting the best lap times" and that it wasn't a competition. A bunch of us chuckled at the irony of this, because moments earlier, the hosts boasted about how the EcoBoost Sedan had, yes, scored the fastest lap times in the LAPD's tests against the new Dodge Charger and Chevy Caprice police cars.
First, driving the Crown Vic
It was no secret going in that the new police cars were going to make the Vic look obsolete. That didn't make driving the old car any less fun - it was like living out some cop-show fantasy.
So, with the theme to The Streets of San Francisco playing in my head, I gleefully ran the 250-hp, V8-powered Vic through the three courses. It felt heavy, body roll was evident, the transmission hunted for the best gear when you tried to power out of turns, and throttle response was lazy. Bottom line? It got the job done, but it wasn't pretty doing it, and it wasn't particularly quick, either. It's a passenger car that's ultimately designed to be easygoing, roomy and comfortable. Even when muscled up for police duty, that inherent nature penalizes it in a performance scenario.
And there are other things that make it less than ideal. One of the men on hand for the event, a retired Illinois state trooper, explained that some of the little details in the Vic that are meaningless in civilian use have an effect on officers behind the wheel for hours at a time. For instance, the seatbelt receptacles come out through the seat cushion. For you or me, that's no biggie. For a police officer, that receptacle is exactly where his or her sidearm resides if it's worn the right hip. From experience, he said that the safety belt hardware literally presses the gun and holster up and into the driver's side. This is, to say the least, not comfortable. Also, the seats are not optimally designed for people wearing gun/equipment belts in general, so after an eight hour shift in the car, a police officer can feel pretty beat up, even though they've been seated for the most part. Lower back pain? Not uncommon.
Sizing up the new Police Interceptors
The general theme is that the 2013 Police Interceptor is better than what it replaces, period. Doesn't matter if you pick the sedan or the utility vehicle. All cars are set up with all-wheel drive as standard equipment, though departments can delete that and specify front-wheel drive on the SUV and non-turbocharged sedan. The EcoBoost twin-turbo sedans are AWD-only, like their equivalent civilian Taurus counterparts.
The cop cars get beefed-up suspension components and engine mounts, improved cooling systems, 220-amp alternators, and police-specific brakes. Furthermore, the transmission and stability-control programming is different, so the cars can be pushed to higher limits before electronic intervention.
Inside, backseats are vinyl-upholstered, and the cars have vinyl flooring so they're easy to clean. The interior back door panels are also simplified, and the rear doors swing open wider for better accessibility when it's time for someone to take an unwanted ride. In a law-enforcement version of the child-safety locks you'll find in passenger cars, the Interceptors have plunger locks accessible from the outside of the car that disable the interior door handles. The front seatbacks are shaped to better accomodate gun and utility belts, and the seatbelt hardware is mounted outside the edge of the seat cushion, for better comfort.
Pre-drilled holes in the dash simplify the installation of commonly-used aftermarket equipment, and the big metal mounting plate between the front seats (where you'll commonly find radios, computers, and the like) is fully crash-tested with the car. As with the Crown Vic, the new Police Interceptors are also rear crash-tested for a 75-mph impact.
The new police cars retain the multifunction steering wheels you'll find in their civilian counterparts, only in this application, they can be programmed to operate features like lights and sirens. There are even auxiliary and USB jacks to allow the use of an iPod or other portable media device through the audio system.
Operating costs are a key consideration, so Ford designed many of the wear items to be interchangeable between the sedan and utility vehicle. They use the same wheels, tires, brakes, filters, batteries, alternators, spark plugs, transmission and differentials. The V6 engine lineup in the new cars is good for an estimated 20 percent improvement in fuel economy over the Crown Vic's V8, and is 35 percent more efficient at idle. Every engine is more powerful than the outgoing V8 as well. Even the SUV is faster to 100 mph than the Crown Vic.
Driving the new Interceptors
"Will a regular Ford Explorer handle like this?" I asked the Ford people after running the Police Interceptor Utility through the cones at the event's simulated urban environment course. "No," was the immediate reply, followed by the explanation that the civilian Explorer is tuned for comfort, not performance.
Too bad, because the Police Interceptor Utility was the revelation of the day, as far as I was concerned. Powered by the same 304-horsepower, 3.7-liter V6 used in the base Ford Mustang, the police-duty SUV was quick, agile, and completely entertaining, especially in contrast to the Crown Vic I had climbed out of minutes earlier on the same course. Where the old sedan threw its weight around and required lots of correction, the all-wheel-drive Interceptor Utility was flatter around the course, accelerated surprisingly well, and very predictable overall. It was simultaneously agile and more forgiving when pushed hard, and the AWD system puts the power down more effectively than the rear-drive Vic ever could. The transmission is infinitely better as well; it'll hold its gears longer, making it easier to power through the course.
As good as the SUV is, however, the Police Interceptor EcoBoost Sedan is better. Compared to the Crown Vic, the new all-wheel-drive turbo sedan is like supersonic flight in the age of tall ships. It's ridiculous. Underhood is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 making 365 horsepower. It will not only humiliate the Vic in a drag race, it crushes it around the two courses we got to play on. Like the Crown Vic, the new Taurus-based Police Interceptor is a big sedan. Unlike the Vic, it handles like a performance sedan. It's actually a blast to drive, as you can effortlessly throttle-steer it through turns (lifting off the gas to swing the rear end, then jumping back on it to power out), and the new cars' bigger brakes are clearly superior. I could brake later before cornering than in the Crown Vic, and I could carry more speed through them, too. That's really the beauty of the way these new cars are set up. They're not just fast, they're easy to drive fast.
Incidentally, one media friend of mine actually got in a non-turbo sedan that was there largely for display purposes (it has a 288-horsepower version of the 3.5-liter V6) and he said it's noticeably less snappy than the 3.7 in the utility vehicle.
I wondered aloud if the updated 2013 Taurus SHO (the civilian equivalent of the PI) felt like this, and was again basically told no, that it's dialed in for more comfort, and that its ESC programming was not the same. The party line was that since police officers are essentially professional drivers, that the Police Interceptor models are set up accordingly, the message being that civilians don't have the requisite training. While the latter may be true, it rings hollow coming from an automaker that is set to drop a 650-horsepower, 200-mph factory Ford Mustang in showrooms this summer.
After a morning spent throwing police cars around empty parking lots, it was evident that the new-generation vehicles are better in every measurable way. The underlying message I got is that they're better than their sportiest civilian counterparts, too. Bully for the police officers whose departments order these - they're excellent vehicles.
In a few years, these new cars are going to be very popular items at police auctions as they come out of municipal service and head into private hands. That said, I'd take a retired Police Interceptor as a daily driver today with no problem. They'll continue to part traffic ahead like Moses with the Red Sea for years to come.
As for the new cars, the black grilles have a different shape than before, but that sick feeling you'll get when it pops into your rearview will be the same. And if the lights come on, just pull over. You're not gonna win. After getting a hot lap in the turbocharged Police Interceptor with a pro driver, I commented that it looks like it's a good time to be a policeman. He laughed, looked at me, and replied: