DETROIT — The police car you see on the roadside — or in your rearview mirror, if luck's not on your side — might not look like you expected.
The sporty upstart Dodge Charger is aiming to challenge the Ford Crown Victoria as chief of police cars. Chrysler LLC's full-sized model that debuted in 2006 is no immediate threat to the Crown Vic or Chevrolet Impala, the market's other major player, but the Charger is gaining momentum in a market that sells 75,000 vehicles a year as national tests cite its speed and handling.
"We've been steadily gaining market share and acceptance for the police vehicle since its inception," said Chrysler LLC spokeswoman Shawn Morgan. "We see that trend continuing."
It's a small dent in the automotive industry, which expects to sell about 16 million cars this year. But it's an important niche for automakers because it gives them a chance to put their products to the test when life — or at least the law — is on the line.
"That vehicle has to accommodate a bunch of requirements — it's an officer's first-aid station, comfort area for accident victims, command post for a crime scene. Next thing you know it's involved in a high-speed run, responding to a heart attack, chasing a criminal," said Lt. David Halliday, who leads the Michigan State Police's annual police vehicle tests that serve as a national standard for law enforcement.
"We really ask (the automakers) to do an enduring duty for the public that's often underestimated," he said.
Automakers don't break out data for sales to law enforcement agencies, but overall sales for the full-sized Charger were 97,833, up 1.5 percent for the first 10 months of 2007 compared with last year. The Crown Victoria's sales were 51,286, down 7.2 percent during the same period. The Impala's total sales through October were 270,504, up 12.6 percent, according to Autodata Corp.
John Felice, Ford Motor Co.'s director of North American fleet operations, said the decline is due to a drop in retail sales, which accounts for a small percentage of the Crown Victoria's sales. He said Ford forecasts flat sales this year for police cars and controls about 80 percent of the market.
The latest round of police vehicle tests on 2008 models found the Charger with the 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine had the fastest acceleration, highest top speed and among the shortest braking distances.
"Law enforcement has always liked good performance in a vehicle," Halliday said. "For example, the (5.7-liter) Charger has a top speed of (nearly) 150 mph. If you're in the market for a vehicle that has that kind of performance, that kind of vehicle will fit the bill."
Halliday said his testing team doesn't assign scores to the vehicles or declare winners. It assesses what each vehicle offers and how it can be applied to a department's mission. The tests also include road racing course times on a two-mile course. The winners: the V-8 versions of the Dodge Charger and Magnum wagon.
Halliday said the Charger also has an advanced stability-control system, which senses when a driver may lose control of the vehicle and automatically applies brakes to individual wheels to help keep it stable and avoid a rollover. He said his team is working with the other automakers on developing such systems for their police vehicles.
Likewise, many agencies opt for the Impala because it has front-wheel drive, which offers additional traction control in slippery conditions, he said.
Halliday believes the Charger might be garnering attention because it offers a new option in the market, long dominated by Ford and General Motors Corp.'s Chevy division.
Chrysler returned to the police car market in 2000 after a 14-year absence, but received what Halliday called a "lukewarm response from law enforcement" to its Dodge Intrepid. The Charger has been much better received, he said.
A state police spokeswoman says the department currently has about 670 Crown Victorias and 10 Chargers.
Ford's Felice said the Dearborn, Mich., automaker keeps a close eye on competitors but also works closely with law enforcement and is confident it's continuing its 50-year tradition of making safe, affordable, roomy and reliable vehicles for law enforcement.
"Really when you look at the overall police market. It's really ... not an individual attribute," Felice said. "It's who brings the product to the marketplace that meets the collective needs of this customer, the police officer."
Despite the new cars entering the police segment, Ford remains the dominant player, Felice said.
Gene Taylor, the police chief in the Detroit suburb of Belleville, said his small department has used Ford vehicles for several years, but bought a Charger a year ago and plans to buy another. He said his department, which has five cruisers, sought another option after having major problems with several Crown Victorias and came across the relaunched Charger.
Taylor, who describes himself as "an old Dodge boy," initially thought Chrysler was using an old nameplate to promote a new product. But he tested all three automakers' offerings at a Chrysler event and came away impressed with the Charger's handling and performance.
"It's lived up to the hype so far," he said.
Halliday says all three automakers are making vehicles that stand up to the rigors of law enforcement.
"Competition is good for law enforcement," he said. "It strengthens the industry in making the vehicles capable across the board for a variety of missions."
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