A steady September drizzle fell onto the pavement of the Chrysler Proving Grounds, coating the racetrack and creating a slick and unfriendly surface.
The timing of the rain couldn't have been worse for the Michigan State Police's Precision Driving Unit. The officers of the unit faced a full day of work. Fourteen four-wheel police vehicles and four two-wheel machines were scheduled to be evaluated that weekend for the annual MSP police car test.
While the MSP drivers and crew worked out in the rain, an anxious crowd of fleet purchasers from a wide variety of agencies nationwide huddled under canvas tents sipping hot coffee, snacking on pastries and cheese. They chatted about the pluses and minuses of the new Chevy, the new Dodge, and the new Ford and wondered aloud if the weather would keep them from seeing America's next great patrol cars put through their paces.
But soon the weather system moved out and the drizzle drifted away. Then troopers ran some MSP Dodge Chargers on hot laps to dry the track. And anticipation gave way to top-speed runs.
The Next Generation
The Michigan State Police have been driving and rating new police vehicles since 1974. But this year is special. The agency's precision drivers say they would be hard-pressed to name a year of testing that's generated more discussion and anticipation than this one.
At this year's test, police drivers, fleet managers, and automotive writers had a chance to put their hands on more new models than ever before. The testing lineup included the 2011 Chevrolet Caprice PPV, the 2011 Dodge Charger Pursuit, and a pair of Ford's 2012 Police Interceptors-the Taurus-based Next Generation Police Interceptor and utility vehicle.
VIDEO: MSP Tests the 2011 Dodge Charger Pursuit
A new era of patrol vehicles is dawning. And this year's MSP test was its sunrise.
Michele Thorne, fleet logistics manager for the Prince George's County Sheriff's Office and Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland summed it up best. "To see the radical changes in vehicle engineering developed for the 2012 Ford Interceptor and 2011 Chevrolet Caprice coupled with their sleek new body styles and to watch them run on test tracks with the new Dodge Charger was very exciting." Thorne's unit purchases between 200 and 500 pursuit vehicles a year.
The new vehicles are proof of the fierce competition among American car makers as they jockey to replace the dominant Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor, which is being discontinued after the 2011 model year. The Crown Vic now accounts for 70 percent of the market.
This new wave of patrol cars also marks an evolution toward V6 engines that generate equal or better power and fuel efficiency than conventional V8s. And at the MSP testing, Ford's direct-injected EcoBoost V6 stood toe-to-toe with Chevy's V8 Caprice in testing.
What car will be dominant in this market is anyone's guess. What is known is that fleet buyers say their new patrol vehicles must balance performance, fuel efficiency, and cost. Serious consideration will also be given to drive-train choices because officers say rear-wheel vehicles provide greater stability at higher speeds. While the Caprice and Charger arrive in rear-wheel drive, Ford's new interceptors will be offered in front- and all-wheel drive configurations.
VIDEO: MSP Tests the 2012 Ford Police Interceptor
"We're looking for the best vehicle for the money," says Mike Zacious, a Findlay, Pa., officer. "Maybe we'll spend a little bit more on performance. We've seen pretty good results with rear-wheel drive vehicles."
With so many new choices, authorized agency purchasers say they will likely add a few different vehicles to their fleets initially and try them out before fully transitioning to a new patrol car.
"Our hope [by attending the Michigan State Police's annual vehicle testing] is to narrow our choices down to two or three vehicles," says Capt. Richard "Skip" Miller of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Police Department. "We can purchase one or two next year and then narrow it down to our final car."