Image: Ford Interceptor
The Ford Police Interceptor, one of the entries from Detroit's Big Three automakers vying for the law enforcement vehicle market.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 9/10/2010 12:02:49 PM ET 2010-09-10T16:02:49

There’s a three-way shoot-out blazing on the mean streets of Detroit. This one pits Ford against General Motors, with Chrysler hoping to score with a lucky shot of its own.

The three makers are all vying for the police interceptor market Ford will vacate when it pulls the plug on its time-worn Crown Victoria, long the vehicle of choice for the nation’s law enforcement community, in September 2011.

While police departments have used a variety of vehicles in recent years, especially for unmarked and undercover cruisers, the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor has garnered the lion’s share of law enforcement sales, with about 60 percent of the 75,000 vehicles sold annually. That demand was one of the main reasons Ford has kept the Crown Vic in production so long.

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But times have changed since Ford’s last rear-wheel-drive model represented the state of the policing art. And each of Detroit’s Big Three hopes to lock down the market by offering new alternatives they bill as safer, easier to operate and, considering the budget constraints most communities now face, even more fuel-efficient.

Ford is taking cover behind two armored alternatives. The more traditional model is a beefed-up version of the popular new Taurus. Dubbed the Ford Police Interceptor, it recognizes that it’s a more dangerous world out there – and a higher tech one.

The full-size FPI offers plenty of room for the computer gear that virtually every police car now carries up front. And its 6-speed automatic transmission is reportedly a lot more efficient than the Crown Vic’s old 4-speed. Overall fuel economy is claimed to be 20 percent better.

Ballistic armor
The Taurus-based Interceptor, meanwhile, boasts ballistic armor in the front doors, and “anti-shiv” shields built into the back of the seats to prevent a “perp” from sticking an officer with a hidden knife or other sharp object. Meanwhile, it’s being touted as able to survive a 75 mph rear-end crash, a serious concern for freeway patrols.

The cruiser will also share the numerous safety features found on the civilian Taurus, including Curve Control, a technology designed to keep the sedan under control should a driver – or an officer in hot pursuit – enter a corner a bit too fast.

While the Taurus FPI may be about as big as a modern sedan gets, many police departments have been demanding even more room and flexibility. That has driven a small but growing number of law enforcement organizations to adapt and convert crossovers and sport-utility vehicles. So, Ford is targeting that potential market with a second police model.

The Ford Police Interceptor Utility is based on the 2012 re-make of the Explorer, until a few years ago the most popular SUV in the country. The all-new version of the Explorer migrates from a truck-based chassis to a car-based platform, though Ford insists there is little to no sacrifice in terms of flexibility and functionality.

The FPIU will feature similar protection to the Taurus-based cop car. It will also use a reasonably fuel-efficient V6 which is rated at 280 horsepower, compared with 210 for the civilian Explorer.

It’s been 14 years since General Motors was a serious contender in the police market, ever since it abandoned its last American-made rear-drive sedan. But while it has no plans to add one to the U.S. line-up, it thinks it has found an alternative.

Chevy's entry
While Ford might be the favorite in this gunfight, Chevrolet plans to weigh in with a revived version of its old standby, the Chevrolet Caprice. To be more precise, it’s an Australian-made, rear-drive, V8-powered sedan that will carry the familiar badge. (And Chevy says it has no plans to market the new Caprice to the U.S. consumer market.)

Dubbed the Police Patrol Vehicle, or PPV, the big Caprice conversion boasts at least one feature likely to win over the average police officer, specially-designed front seats sculpted to accommodate a bulky tool belt.

Chevy claims the PPV's 6.0-liter V8 will deliver best-in-class 0-60 times of less than 6 seconds, something that's still valued by officers in pursuit. The big engine can be fueled with ethanol but for applications where fuel economy is a priority, the patrol vehicle will offer an optional V6. Meanwhile, the PPV features two in-trunk batteries, one to power the vehicle's computer system and other police gear.

Chrysler announced some plans of its own to get into police market, recently — not-so-coincidentally just before Ford unveiled the Explorer-based Police Interceptor Utility. The maker has made a small business out of low-volume sales of its own rear-drive Dodge Charger sedan, and it promises to bring an even better version to market when the next-generation Charger is introduced in late 2011.

Chrysler was short on details, but it appears the maker is also looking at the possibility of equipping a version of the more upscale 300 sedan, which will also go through a complete remake for the 2012 model-year.

In years past, 75,000 sales might not have seemed like much, but in today’s increasingly fractured automotive market, that’s a reasonably solid volume – all the more so when you consider that industry sources say a well-outfitted police cruiser can go for $30,000 even before a law enforcement agency adds radios, computers, shotguns and other tools of the trade.

That’s enough to encourage an entirely new player to want to get into the game. Carbon Motors is pitching a purpose-built police cruiser that it hopes to build at a new plant in Connorsville, Ind. Powered by a 245-hp BMW diesel engine, the start-up company claims it has so far received 14,000 reservations for the E7 cruiser from law enforcement agencies in 48 states.

The fight for tomorrow’s police car business is only getting hotter. Who’ll be left standing once the aging Crown Victoria goes out of production next year remains to be seen.

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But for police departments, the fundamental reality of the law enforcement marketplace isn't all that different from the retail automotive market: price rules.

"We'll go with the state bid," notes Sgt. Mike Bunting, of the Pleasant Ridge, Mich., police department, referring to the model that will ultimately be chosen by the Michigan State Police. "Whatever they go with, we'll go with, because that's the way to get the best price."

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