Click the Dodge Charger cop car for a high-res gallery

Every September since the 1950s, the Michigan State Police have conducted vehicle performance testing on the latest cop cars. Prior to the early 1970s when the first oil embargo occurred, they would go out for bids every year and then test just the low bid vehicle. In those days, testing was limited to acceleration, top speed and braking distance.

According to Lt. David Halliday of the Michigan State Police, as carmakers were struggling at that time and scrambling to sell their bigger vehicles, they all started submitting bids around the same price with only a $45 spread covering all the contenders one year. Around that time they decided to start testing all of the available vehicles and they also made their test results available to all interested police agencies. For the past three decades, a chunk of that annual testing has been conducted at the Chrysler Proving Ground in Chelsea, MI.

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All of the manufacturers that officially offer what are termed as "special service" vehicles bring out their wares to be evaluated for this annual get together. Special service vehicles are what Jake and Elwood would have called cop cars with cop motors, cop suspensions, and cop brakes. These vehicles are made available for fleet sales for police and fire departments, taxis and other uses. They'll typically have heavy duty cooling systems, possibly transmission coolers, different brake linings for better heat resistance and stripped down interiors.

Since the 1970s, the testing regimen has certainly been expanded. In addition to the top speed, acceleration and braking tests that are run at Chelsea, they take the vehicles across the state to Grattan Raceway near Grand Rapids for a series of vehicle dynamics tests. Because many of the vehicles are equipped with flex-fuel engines, there are two examples of each of those vehicles tested, one with gas and the other with E85. After all of the testing is completed, the Michigan State Police publish their test results and make them available online for any police agency to access.

The most recent addition to the police car ranks are the Dodge Charger and Magnum. As the only rear wheel drive sedan alternative to the ancient Crown Victoria, these have proven quite popular with police forces since their introduction in 2006. According to a Chrysler representative, they have sold over 11,000. Various agencies also purchase other Chrysler vehicles like the Durango and assorted Jeeps, but these aren't officially offered so they weren't on test.

General Motors offers a wider variety of vehicles with special service packages including the Impala
sedan, the Express full-size van, and the Tahoe and Suburban SUVs. The Chevy vehicles are flex-fuel capable and currently the SUVs are the only ones equipped with rear-wheel drive.

Ford has the widest variety of vehicles available including the ancient Crown Victoria and the Econline van. They also offer the Escape, Explorer, Expedition and F-150 pickup with police packages. While the Crown Vic special service vehicle seems like it's been around since the time of Henry Ford, it still accounts for about 50,000 annual sales out a total of about 60 - 65,000 total.

Part of the reason the Vic still dominates in spite of the arrival of the Charger is legacy equipment. If you've ever looked inside a modern police car, you'll find the front is packed with equipment including radios, computers, gun racks and more. All of the mounting hardware for this equipment is specifically built to fit into a specific vehicle and when vehicles are replaced, much of this equipment is just moved from the old car to the new car. Switching cars means buying more auxiliary equipment, as well. There is also the issue of training service personnel and stocking new parts.

The Crown Vic also has an advantage in trunk space compared to the Charger. For State police and rural forces that may spend an entire shift patrolling a significant distance from their post, the ability to carry all of the necessary equipment, including emergency equipment, is critical. The Ford's 20.6 cu.ft. trunk trumps the Charger's 16.2 cu.ft.

The Crown Vic on the left, Charger on the right. The spare tire tray in the Vic slides out for easier access.

When asked about the future of the Crown Vic, a Ford representative said that there are no current plans to redesign the current car. The current model remains very popular among police forces and cab companies and maintains some advantages in size compared to the newcomers. They will be making incremental improvements to powertrains to improve performance and fuel efficiency. Diesels are out of the question, although some variation of the Twin-Force engine is a distinct possibility. Twin-Force is Ford's branding for smaller displacement engines with turbocharging and direct-injection that will debut next year in the Lincoln MKS. A rear-wheel drive variant of the twin-turbo GDI V-6 is expected in the next Mustang in 2010, and this engine could make its way to the police interceptor.

Performance wise, all of the four-wheeled vehicles were pretty even, with acceleration times of 0-60 mph from about 8.2 to 8.8 seconds. The one exception were the 5.7L Hemi-powered Dodges, which ran the same test in 6.35 seconds. Braking performance was also pretty similar in the range of 135 - 145 feet for the cars and 156 feet for the SUVs. Although pretty much all of the police forces are running their vehicles on gasoline today, they may eventually transition to ethanol as it becomes more available. Diesel is also a future option that some forces are looking at and Chrysler is willing to consider it if enough demand exists. For more on that check out the AutoblogGreen report on alternative fuels for cop cars.

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