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Pros and Cons of Front-Wheel-Drive Police Cars

April 01, 2005  |  by - Also by this author

To say that Ford’s Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is dominant in the police pursuit vehicle market is a gross understatement. The Crown Vic is so prevalent in police operations that motorists will often slow down at the sight of one, whether it’s a true police car or a family sedan.

For a long time, Ford’s chief competitor in the police car market was the Chevrolet Caprice. Chevy fans still speak reverently of that car, the same way that Ford enthusiasts praise the Crown Vic. These two cars had several things in common, but the factors both possess that make them favorites of patrol officers are their size, their powerful engines, and their drive trains. It’s a fact, most officers prefer rear-wheel-drive vehicles for police operations. And the Caprice and the Crown Vic are both rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

When the Caprice ceased production at the end of the last decade, only one rear-wheel-drive police pursuit car remained, the Crown Vic. Its two primary competitors throughout much of this decade were the Dodge Intrepid and the Chevrolet Impala, both front-wheel-drive vehicles with sleeker designs than the more traditional-looking Ford sedan.

Sleek, front-wheel-drive police cars like the Intrepid and the Impala have been hard sells to patrol officers. Despite moderate success with the Intrepid police package, Dodge has discontinued the model and is launching a police version of its rear-wheel-drive Magnum station wagon later this year. Chevy’s Impala cop car was introduced in the 2000 model year and sales have been strong.

Still, despite moderate acceptance by fleet managers, selling officers on a front-wheel-drive patrol car is an uphill battle. “You have some well-ingrained people in (fleet management) positions who cut their teeth on rear-wheel drive. That’s all they know. That’s all they understand,” says General Motors’ representative Bruce Wiley.

Wiley and other proponents of front-wheel-drive police vehicles say that officer prejudice against the Impala and the Intrepid is largely a matter of perception, not because of any specific shortcomings with the cars.

However, it may also be based on early experiments with front-wheel-drive police cars. Officers who were on the job in the ‘70s and early ‘80s may remember the woefully inadequate Chrysler “K” patrol cars like the Plymouth Reliant K. Younger officers may have experience with front-wheel-drive cars that were pressed into police duty without proper modifications. Either way, front-wheel drive has a bad reputation with some officers, many of whom have no experience driving the vehicles.

In contrast to those early front-wheel-drive police cars, the Intrepid and the Impala patrol cars were built from the ground up to be police vehicles. “We benchmarked the Impala against the old Caprice,” says Wiley. “Where the Caprice left off is where that car had to start from.”

Still, some officers are decidedly chilly toward front-wheel-drive vehicles. Pinellas County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department fleet manager Bob Helmick says his officers actually ask not to be assigned to the department’s Chevy Impalas. The reason? “They feel that the rear-wheel-drive Crown Vic is a larger, heavier car with a huge trunk, and they just think it’s the best thing in the world.”

The Crown Vic is indeed larger than its front-wheel-drive competitors. But it’s not that much larger. Helmick knows the stats by heart because he has to argue them with his agency’s patrol deputies. “The Chevy Impala has three-tenths of an inch less [front seat] legroom and two-tenths of an inch less [front seat] headroom than the Crown Vic. But you can’t convince a police officer that that’s not a significant amount.”

There are decided advantages and disadvantages of front-wheel-drive cars. The first major advantage of front-wheel drive that is often touted by its proponents is that front-wheel-drive cars tend to have a tighter turning radius. This improved maneuverability can be a great asset in a patrol car.

So can traction. And unless you’re working in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can’t beat the all-weather handling of a front-wheel-drive car. “We’re starting to convert a lot of people in municipalities above the snow belt,” says GM’s Wiley. “They understand what front-wheel drive does for them from a mobility standpoint. They can maneuver and get around in inclement conditions better than they can in a rear-wheel-drive car.”

The disadvantages of front-wheel drive are a matter of driving style. Some officers who worship acceleration say that front-wheel-drive patrol cars are not as fast off the line as their rear-wheel-drive counterparts. Of course, this is more a function of engine than it is drive train.

Another slam against front-wheel-drive cars is that they can be more expensive to service and repair. Fleet managers say that, as long as their mechanics are familiar with the vehicles, this really isn’t a major concern. However, front-wheel-drive cars can be tricky to repair because everything—the engine, the drive train, and the differential—is in the same general place. All that crowding can make working under the hood unusually complicated.

But perhaps the most damning criticism of the current crop of front-wheel-drive cop cars involves their ground clearance, an issue that is independent of their drive trains. Helmick says Pinellas County has experienced some issues with bottoming out. “The Intrepid is a half inch lower than the Crown Vic,” he explains. “Some of our guys have ripped off the front air dams when hopping curbs.” For these and other reasons, patrol cops tend to prefer big, rear-wheel-drive cars. But if you ask fleet managers and administrators what they want, you’ll hear another story.

With regular unleaded tickling the $2.50 per gallon level, gas mileage has become a huge issue for police fleet managers. The EPA says the Impala gets about five miles per gallon more than the Crown Vic. Fleet managers say that the Impala’s EPA rating of 23 MPG is a fantasy for a patrol car that spends an awful lot of time at idle, but it does get slightly better mileage than the Crown Vic.

Helmick says fuel economy is definitely one of the reasons that he likes to have front-wheel-drive, 3.5-liter Dodge Intrepids in the Pinellas County Fleet. “Fuel economy is a huge thing for us,” he explains. “Our Crown Vics in real world use get eight to nine miles per gallon. With the Intrepid we get 11 to 13 miles per gallon.”

The other economic reason that some agencies prefer front-wheel-drive Impalas over rear-wheel-drive Crown Vics is purely a matter of marketing: To gain market share Chevy prices the Impala less than the Crown Vic. “Two weeks ago I asked our patrol supervisors whether they wanted 120 Crown Vics or 140 Impalas,” Helmick says. “They all chose more new cars.”

Bottom line, according to most fleet managers interviewed for this story, is that officers always want the biggest and fastest patrol cars, regardless of the configuration of the drive train. “It’s the law enforcement personna,” says Keith Branner, director of fleet services for Harris County, Texas. “Now they’ve come out with the Tahoe, and everybody wants the Tahoe. If it’s bigger, greater, better, then that’s what they want. Cost isn’t a very big consideration for the officers.”

Of course, cost is a huge consideration for fleet managers and administrators, and it always will be. So, as long as the vehicles can do the job, fleet managers can’t make their buying decisions based on officer preference or officer prejudice.

Tags: Ford CVPI, Chevrolet Caprice, Chevrolet Impala, Patrol Cars

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