Wham! The sound from the impact of the 2010 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor on the garage door stunned the audience of fleet managers waiting for the unveiling of the company's new patrol vehicle last month in Las Vegas. Then the Crown Vic smashed through another (Styrofoam) garage door and shot out of view. Behind it came the star of the show: Ford's Next Generation Police Interceptor (NGPI).

The symbolism of having the Crown Vic smash down a barrier for the NGPI was inescapable. The Crown Vic has been the most successful police vehicle in history, securing some 70 percent of the market for Ford, but Ford is retiring the model in 2011 and replacing it with the NGPI.

And the question that everyone in law enforcement is asking is: Can the police version of the Taurus sustain Ford's domination of the patrol car market? We won't know the answer until the company starts releasing sales figures for the new model and the car goes on duty. What we can say now is that the NGPI is a fine-looking automobile with the sleek lines of a luxury sports sedan; it performs like a muscle car; and it was designed from the ground up for police duty.

That last point is perhaps the NGPI's greatest selling point for law enforcement agencies. For more than two years now, Ford has been working closely with a collection of veteran law enforcement officers on its Police Advisory Board to take the basic Taurus and turn it into a purpose-built patrol car.

A good place to start this discussion is in the interior. It's about 90 percent different than the interior of the civilian sedan. The front seats are sculpted to make ingress and egress easier for an officer wearing a duty belt and all the tools of modern law enforcement. Another nice touch on the front seats is a stab panel to prevent any unpleasant surprises from the rear seat. The rear seats have also been designed for patrol duty. They are vinyl for durability and easy cleaning.

Also, Ford has designed the interior to make room for computers, cameras, control consoles, radios, and all the other electronic goodies that you need on duty. For example, the NGPI has a column shifter so that the center console can be used for equipment. There's also a really cool horseshoe-shaped depression on the dashboard that Ford created for placement of video cameras, radar, and other electronic equipment. The depression is deep enough that placement of the equipment in this spot minimizes its impact on the driver's line of sight. That simple design touch won a lot of praise from the Vegas audience of fleet managers.

But what most impressed the fleet managers was the safety features on the NGPI. Ford engineers spent many long hours enhancing the safety features of the Taurus, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives a five-star crash test rating. The roof of the NGPI is reinforced enough to survive six seconds of rolling or about 3.5 flips. Crush zones are reinforced with boron steel pillars. The car is certified to survive a 75-mph rear-end collision. And stability control and side curtain air bags come standard.

Side impact air bags can be a problem on patrol cars. Sometimes the prisoner cage gets in the way. Ford says that won't happen on the NGPI. Also, Ford believes that the side curtain air bags in some cars don't deploy fast enough for police operations, so the company has developed a side impact pressure sensor that according to Ford safety engineer Stephen Kozak triggers the air bags 30 to 40 percent faster than conventional systems.

That air bag pressure sensor reveals the level of detail and forethought that Ford has given to the safety features of the NGPI. Ford engineers were concerned that gun shots into the side panel might trigger the air bags and trap the officer during a gun fight. So the company set up a car on a firing range and asked the members of a police tactical unit to whale on it with everything in their arsenal, including full-auto MP5s and ARs and 12-gauge slugs. The engineers then took the pressure data from the impacts of each of those rounds and used it to calibrate the sensors. That job was much easier said than done according to Kozak, who said the pressure wave from the 12-gauge slugs was very similar to a vehicle impact.

Like the civilian Taurus, the NGPI offers two different drive trains: front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. It also is available in two different engine configurations: a base 3.5-liter power plant and a 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged engine with direct injection. Both engines are relatively small but Ford says the base power plant offers better performance than the 4.6-liter V-8 Crown Vic. As for the twin turbo EcoBoost engine, it generates 365 horsepower, 115 more stallions than the V-8 Crown Vic. The EcoBoost runs on regular unleaded, but Corey Weaver, Ford EcoBoost engine engineer, said it gets better performance on premium. Weaver estimates that both engines will get 28 percent better gas mileage than the current Crown Vic. EPA ratings are not yet available.

In addition to all of the law enforcement specialty features that come standard on the NGPI, it will also be available with many of the luxury options from the civilian Taurus, including backup cameras, Ford's Blind Spot Information System, and voice control through the Sync system.

Overall the NGPI received rave reviews from the dozens of fleet managers gathered in Las Vegas for the unveiling. Some expressed concern about the vehicle because it is front-wheel drive, but Wyatt Earp, fleet director of the Marion County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, dismissed such concerns. "The problem with front-wheel drive is that we're not trained for it," he said. "Once we've trained with it and used it, it will be OK."

Other officers had no concerns about the car. Lt. Keith Wilson of the Michigan State Police oversees the department's annual evaluation of police vehicles and he worked with Ford for two years on the company's Police Advisory Board during development of the NGPI. He is very satisfied with the final product. "No changes are needed on this design," Wilson said. "Ford is really moving forward into the future with this car and taking advantage of new technology."

Ford said the complete list of standard features and options has not been finalized. Pricing for the NGPI is expected to be comparable to the Crown Vic Police Interceptor. Production is scheduled to begin in 2011.

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