I've got some good news and some bad news, depending on your propensity to break the law.

The good people of America will be glad to know that the ancient Ford Police Interceptor is no longer the only "proper" police car on the market. Pretty soon, police departments will be able to trade in their archaic body-on-frame Fords with their underpowered 250-hp 4.6-liter V-8s for the new Dodge Charger squad car, which is considerably faster, better handling, more efficient and safer.

For criminally minded individuals, however, this is apocalyptic. It means that the police will be able to respond faster and will be more difficult to outrun on the highway or elude on city streets. When the inevitable occurs, lowlifes will find the rear compartment isn't air-conditioned or heated and it's not awfully comfortable either, especially with a set of cuffs on. The only bright spot for perps is that it should get you to the station faster than ever, and if it happens to be a HEMI-powered model, it'll make a pleasing V-8 rasp along the way.

Woo woo woo woo

The Charger enters the cops fray simply because Dodge decided it wants a bigger piece of the 70,000-unit police car market and that wasn't going to happen with the insipid Intrepid. According to Peter Kash, whose job it is to bring the car to police departments for evaluation, the interest in the vehicle is considerable as police officers all over the country are craving a new squad car.

And who can blame them? Not only is the Dodge more modern and technologically advanced than the Ford, it's considerably meaner and more menacing in police drag. I know it really shouldn't matter in a police car, but for some reason you feel less inclined to run from something that looks as ticked off as this. They also developed a police-specification Magnum, which is intended to replace the SUVs used by non-pursuit units, but it really doesn't slacken the bowels quite as convincingly as the Charger.

So what am I doing behind the wheel? Other than realizing a boyhood dream, not much. Although the Charger has a full set of police lights and POLICE plastered down the sides it's not a real police car, per se, so the lights have been deactivated and I'm not allowed to play with the siren. Even so it attracts a lot of attention, especially from vigilant police officers who are willing to overlook impersonation of a police officer charges for a peek at the new car.

I even encountered one curious trooper during my brief drive and he was extremely excited at the prospect of a 340-hp police car.

"I bet this sucker runs, with those low profile lights and that HEMI," he drawls, admiring the slick light bar on the roof.

"We have to limit you to 147," says Kash, "but you won't need to go much faster than that, will you?" The officer tells us about a local video game programmer with a twin-turbo Viper who's proving to be an elusive foe. The officer might need a little more speed to take him down, we concur, but otherwise 147 mph should suffice.

A great cop car

As you might expect, it takes more than a set of lights and stickers to make a cop car. A great many requirements have to be met and each car has to be tested extensively by the Police Vehicle Evaluation Program before being certified for service. As part of its modifications, Dodge had to move the Charger's central-located gear selector to the column to make room for all the police equipment that lives between the seats. There's no finesse to the new shifter's operation, but it does feel like it will last an eternity.

The engines are stock, but Dodge has fitted an engine hour meter and there are external oil coolers for the engine oil, transmission fluid and power steering fluid, allowing the Charger to run at extremely high speeds for sustained periods. It also has a heavy duty cooling system and, naturally, air conditioning is standard, but only for front seat occupants. You're just going to have to sweat it out, scumbag.

The suspension is stiffer and more robust than usual and the speedometer is a certified and calibrated unit. The 18-inch steel wheels are wrapped in high-performance tires and the brakes are bigger than those fitted to the Viper, with dual piston front calipers, anti-lock brakes and three-mode ESP as standard. As a result, it's noticeably sportier to drive than the standard Charger, though it's anything but harsh and actually offers more road feel than the civilian-spec sedan.

A 250-hp 3.5-liter V-6 is the basic "economy" engine, matching the output of the Ford Interceptor's V-8, while the growly, 340-hp 5.7-liter HEMI is a $2,200 option and the one every cop wants to have. According to L.A. County Police vehicle tests, the HEMI-powered police Charger can hit 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds and can actually reach 150 mph, making it about 2 seconds and 20 mph swifter than the Ford.

Just the facts, man

The wiring loom has been adapted to make it easy to add new devices and accessories, and the whole vehicle wiring and electronic system has been upgraded to cope with the massive electrical needs of a police vehicle.

Holes are drilled into the A-pillars and wiring is put in place for spot lamps, while the front and rear lights flash alternately (known as "wig-wag"), and there's a stealth mode switch that turns off every light on the car except for the gear indicator, which legally has to be left on.

Finally, you have the basics like the mounting bracket between the front seats, a rollover bar, compartment divider with a Perspex screen and hard-wearing material on the seats and floor. A couple of things surprised me about the Charger squad car, however, like the fact that Dodge fits a CD stereo as standard and there are no cupholders to be found in there. I guess that explains why they always throw their coffee out the window when a call comes in.

I may not have been allowed to play with the car's lights and sirens, but it was interesting to see the variety of buttons used by police to operate the multitude of functions both offer. The "Take Down" button is the one that pretty much illuminates everything on the car to make it easier to take down a perp. The arrow buttons make the roof lights point traffic in a particular direction, while the "Alley" switches turn on powerful side lamps to illuminate dark areas to the side of the car.

Despite the restrictions, there was still lots of fun to be had driving around in a police car and I swear, the follicles on my upper lip were starting to tingle profusely by the end of my drive. For example, you can drive at the speed limit and line traffic up for miles behind you, while drivers of oncoming vehicles are constantly slamming on the brakes when they notice the Charger approaching. Nobody eyeballs us at traffic lights, either, and the world becomes a utopian land of courteous and good-natured drivers that move out of the left lane and use their turn signals when they're supposed to.

It says a lot for the new Charger police car's presence that it commands such respect, even from a considerable distance, and it's good to know that agents of law enforcement now have a modern and agile vehicle to better protect us in the future. If you fancy a Dodge Charger Police car for yourself, all you need to do is join the force and convince the local mayor you need $26,575 for vital police equipment, or better yet, $28,805 for the HEMI.

If that sounds like too much work, though, there are easier ways to get a ride in the new Charger squad car. None you want to commit, however.

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