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."[PAGEBREAK]

The Test

At this year's MSP testing the officers of the Precision Driving Unit evaluated the vehicles for acceleration, top speed, braking, ergonomics, communications, and fuel economy at the Chrysler Proving Grounds. A separate vehicle dynamics evaluation was also completed at Grattan Raceway Park's two-mile course in nearby Belding. The Grattan course simulates maneuvers officers perform during pursuits.

For the most part, testing protocols didn't change this year, except for the use of an optical sensor to more precisely monitor braking distance. To gather the data, the sensor sends a beam of light onto the pavement from an opening in a small square black box that's mounted to the vehicle's door panel.

When results were posted, the new models raised the bar from existing models in ways that will matter most to officers-quicker off-the-line acceleration, more responsive braking, and cockpit layout/ergonomics.

Top Speed

VIDEO: MSP Tests the 2011 Chevy Caprice PPV

The performance of the 2011 Chevrolet Caprice PPV was so impressive that it led General Motors executives to later declare their plan to "flip" Ford's market dominance. Overall, the six Chevrolet vehicles topped the charts for speed.

The 6.0-liter, V8 Caprice (run on E85 flex fuel, as well as regular) captured the top speed, as police drivers of the car reached 148 mph on the 4.8-mile raceway in Chelsea. Close behind was the 2011 Dodge Charger Pursuit powered by a 5.7-liter V8 that reached 146 mph. Upgrades to the new Charger from the 2010 model year include more aggressive lines, hood scalloping, and more cockpit room for officer gear and components.

Chevrolet's 3.9-liter Impala (E85 and regular) and 5.3-liter Chevrolet Tahoe PPV (E85 and regular) recorded top speeds of 139/138 mph and 139/139 mph respectively.

Ford's 2012 Police Interceptors were next. The three sedans reached 131 mph. Ford's 3.5-liter V6 P.I. Utility with all-wheel drive reached 119.

VIDEO: MSP Tests the 2012 Ford P.I. Utility

Dodge's 3.6-liter Charger with a new V6 Pentastar engine that boosts horsepower from the 2010 V6 reached 130 mph. And Ford's Crown Victoria Police Interceptors with 3.27 and 3.55 rear-axle ratios reached 129 mph and 110 mph respectively.

0-60 Acceleration

The Caprice with a 6.0-liter V8 was the quickest starter in the 0-60 mph category, hitting that mark in 6.14 seconds running E-85 flex fuel and 6.18 running regular unleaded. The Dodge Charger Pursuit's V8 reached the mark in 6.24 seconds, while the V-6 needed 8.65 seconds.

Ford executives observing the tests were smiling when the 0-60 results were announced for their 2012 Police Interceptor with the 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost engine. The all-wheel-drive vehicle logged a 6.27-second time, which puts it on par with its V8 competitors.

As a means of comparison, the Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor with a 4.6-liter V8 that will be offered in 2011 for the final year reached 0-60 mph in 9.01 and 8.87 seconds (with a rear-axle ratio of 3.27 and 3.55 respectively).

Ford is offering its 2012 sedan in front- and all-wheel drive with the 3.5-liter V6 and EcoBoost turbo V6 with direct injection. Ford's second new police vehicle, the Ford P.I. Utility that also arrives with the 3.5-liter V6, reached 0-60 in 8.74 seconds.

Rounding out the acceleration test were Chevy's vehicles. The Impala reached 60 mph in 8.68 seconds on E85 fuel and 8.78 seconds on unleaded. The Tahoe running E85 needed 8.24 seconds and 8.7 on regular.[PAGEBREAK]

Braking

The MSP's braking distance tests used optical sensors mounted to the sides of the cars that measure stopping from 60-0 mph.

Ford's Interceptors will arrive with police-specific brakes offering rotors with more surface area and a larger pad than the Crown Vic. The new Ford has an 18-inch wheel compared with the Crown Vic's 17-inch wheel.

VIDEO: Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor

Ford's all-wheel-drive P.I. (non-turbo) needed 126.6 feet to reach a dead stop from 60 mph, an improvement of 15 feet over the Crown Vic. The Chevy Caprice was nearly its equal, stopping in 128.3 feet, 11.5 feet shorter than the Chevy Impala. The 5.7-liter Dodge Charger shaved 10 feet from the 2010 model, needing 133.9 feet to stop.

It is not unusual for manufacturers to make modifications of their new police vehicles after the MSP testing in preparation for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department vehicle testing in November. This year, for example, Chrysler decided to change the axle ratio on the Charger Pursuit for the LASD test. David Callery, police and emergency response vehicle program manager for Chrysler, says the alteration does not mean the company was unhappy with the Charger's score at the MSP test.

"Overall we were very pleased," says Callery, who is a retired New York state trooper who once managed the agency's massive vehicle fleet. He explained that the reason the company was testing a different axle ratio at the LASD evaluation was to see if it will give the Charger more midrange acceleration, what troopers call "closing speed."

VIDEO: Effective Pursuit Driving

The Vehicles Tested

This year's tests were held Sept. 18-20 and included 18 vehicles submitted by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Kawasaki, Harley-Davidson and BMW.

General service:

Chevrolet Caprice 9C1 6.0 liter

Chevrolet Caprice 9C1 E85 6.0 liter

Chevrolet Impala 9C1 3.9 liter

Chevrolet Impala 9C1 E85 3.9 liter

Dodge Charger 3.6 liter

Dodge Charger 5.7 liter

Ford CVPI 4.6 liter (3.27 rear axle)

Ford CVPI 4.6 liter (3.55 rear axle)

Ford Police Interceptor FWD 3.5 liter

Ford Police Interceptor AWD 3.5 liter

Ford Police Interceptor AWD 3.5 liter turbo

Special service:

Chevrolet Tahoe PPV 2WD 5.3 liter

Chevrolet Tahoe PPV 2WD E85 5.3 liter

Ford Police Interceptor Utility AWD 3.5 liter

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