Front- drive police cars have never found much favor in this country. Credit this to less interior room, a smaller trunk, fuel mileage little better than the full-size units and a disturbing tendency to make pretzels of their halfshafts when bounced over curbs. But brand loyalty among Chevrolet's law enforcement customers is so strong that when the Caprice disappeared, many purchased Luminas last year rather than switch to Fords. This is no minor decision in view of the different handling characteristics and, well, more- retrained performance.
Ford no longer offers the Taurus police package, leaving the Lumina as the sole front-drive sedan available in police trim. Its 1.3 inches longer and 4.3 inches narrower than the Tahoe, offers 58 inches of front shoulder room and 57.4 inches of rear shoulder room compared to 65 inches front and rear for the sport utility vehicle. Officers accustomed to the sofa- like front shoulder room of the Caprice will notice the five fewer inches offered by the Lumina. Rear- seat legroom is almost identical, however.
MacPherson struts at each corner benefit from stiffer springs and tighter shock valving and are linked by fatter anti-roll bars. The combination does limit body roll and produces predictable handling, although heavy understeer is always on duty. Power is provided by a 3.1- liter pushrod V-6 generating 160 bhp at 5,200 prm and 185 lb-ft of torque at a lofty 4,000 rpm. The four-speed automatic cooperates by snapping off downshifts without delay when more grunt is called for, a frequent occurrence if you're in a hurry.
Stopping is capably handled by discs at each corner, and augmented by four-wheel ABS. The standard Goodyear Eagle GT+4 rubber offers up .79g of lateral grip without protect and helps produce 160- foot stopping distances from 60 mph. Steering is only average in feel but accurate enough to pick off apexes on demand.
The standard Recaro front bucket seats have drawn criticism from some drivers more accustomed to the overstuffed lounge chairs found in many sedans. But Recaro- equipped Lumina we suspect they'd notice the absence of the lower-back aches and pains common to lesser seats.
The Lumina isn't offered as a leading candidate for pursuit duties. Questioned about the matter, one Chevy fleet sales manager responded without hesitation, "If a guy runs on you, my advice: Get on the radio."
Not that its performance will subject the driver to total public humiliation; zero to 60 tolled by in 11 seconds, and the car saw 100 mph in 35 seconds. Top speed was an unremarkable 114 mph, a figure that can be expected to drop significantly if the bar is burdened by a high- drag light bar.
But a high top speed doesn't rank among the more important qualities sought by Lumina customers. They're shopping for reliability and value in a Chevrolet police car. We'd opine that the Lumina delivers.
Alternative: Clean- air vehicles
Ford is to be commended for making a natural gas- fueled 4.6- liter Triton V-8 available for police service last year. (Dedicated in this case means no dual- fuel operations like most alterative- fuel vehicles; the CNG Crown Victoria consumes only natural gas.) Under the hood, only the presence of a large pressure regulator suggests a requirement for natural gas; the stock engine's fuel rails are retained to sequentially inject compressed natural gas (CNG) rather than liquid fuel. Pistons from the DOHC 4.6 Triton engine raise compression one point to 10:1 and a different engine computer is installed.
Most of the NGV hardware is hidden from view, with two of the four cylindrical steel CNG tanks displacing the full-size spare tire at the forward part of the trunk. The other two tanks occupy the space normally filled by the stock gas tank.
So equipped, the NGV engine generates 175 bhp at 4,500 rpm, 35 fewer horsepower than the gas engine. Torque drops 40 lb-ft at 3,500 prm. Other than the lower power output, use of CNG does dictate some compromises. Trunk capacity is reduced to 14 cubic feet from 20.6, for example, and cruising range drops to the equivalent of 10 gallons of gas. And the CNG car offers only a 2.73:1 final drive, delivering less acceleration. In last year's Michigan State Police vehicle tests, such a unit achieved zero to 60 mph in 12.07 seconds (9.10 for the gas-motor version) and zero to 100 mph in 37.59 seconds, far off the pace of the gas motor's 25.18 seconds. Top speed is governed to 107 mph (132 mph for the gas motor).
We sampled a CNG-fueled Crown Vic and found it little different in behavior from the stock unit. The more- modest performance was evident, but the car otherwise acted just like its stablemate. Refueling is accomplished by coupling a high pressure adapter to a receptacle mounted in the stock fuel door, the opening a valve and activating the refueling pump. Found minutes later we were back on the road.
The CNG Crown Victoria is exceptionally clean- burning, emitting barely one-tenth the maximum emissions allowable under California's 1996 model-year standards. More significantly, it's fully 35 percent below the stringent federal Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) standards, likely making it the lowest emissions vehicle ever to be certified.
Law enforcement agencies in many municipalities large and small are being forced to buy and operate low-emission vehicles, a result of federal clean-air legislation. Although the NGV Crown Victoria is a compromise, the car itself is a well-sorted and proven performer in fleet service. Look for the more clean- burning police cars to appear from Ford and other manufacturers in the near future.
Craig Peterson is an automotive performance consultant to private industry and frquent contributor to POLICE.