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From the Detroit Free Press:

CHASING THE POLICE: Dodge Charger and Magnum go after Ford's venerable Crown Vic

The driver never saw it coming, said Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.

The Mini Cooper pulled alongside Whetsel's new, unmarked Dodge Charger police car on an Oklahoma road, looking for a race.

The race didn't last long.

"I won because I had a radio and lights," said Whetsel, who clocked the Mini Cooper at 95 m.p.h. before pulling the driver over for a ticket.

Would-be speeders and more serious offenders beware. You could be seeing more Dodge grilles in your rearview mirror with flashing lights.

The Chrysler Group, which had all but dropped out of the police car market over the past five years, is making another run at law enforcement agencies. After introducing police versions of the Charger and Magnum last fall, the Chrysler Group has secured contracts for more than 3,000 vehicles for law enforcement agencies.

Charger and Magnum police car sales still fall well short of the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, the iconic law-enforcement vehicle. Last year, Ford sold more than 47,000 Crown Vic police cars.

Ford officials say the Crown Vic remains the best combination of size, speed and features designed specifically for law-enforcement purposes.

"The Crown Vic stands alone as a police car," said Tony Gratson, Ford's national government sales manager.

But the Chrysler Group says it has serious contenders. Early adopters praise the Charger and Magnum for their acceleration and handling.

"The Ford is going to be a very strong competitor," said Roxie Thomas, the Chrysler Group's senior manager for government sales. "It's not going away gently, but neither is Dodge."

Built for a special market

Law enforcement agencies place specific demands on their cars: They need them to be fast enough to track down suspects, big enough to haul them to jail and durable enough to run for hours on end.

Most police cars are special versions of mainstream vehicles with added equipment, such as beefed-up brakes, heavy-duty alternators and batteries, and high-performance tires.

For more than a decade, Ford's Crown Vic has been the leading choice among law enforcement agencies. It's a roomy full-size sedan with rear-wheel drive, which officers swear by for acceleration and handling.

Older models of the Crown Vic had been criticized by safety advocates for gas tanks that ruptured and caught fire in high-speed rear-end collisions. Ford now has a fire suppression kit in the rear and says the Crown Vic is the safest police car.

Ford also points to its long-term commitment to the segment, introducing the first package specifically for law enforcement agencies with a version of the 1950 Ford Deluxe.

General Motors Corp.'s and Chrysler's abilities to compete in the segment faltered, depending on their rear-wheel drive offerings.

GM dropped the rear-wheel drive Chevy Caprice, including the police version, in the 1990s. It still builds police versions of the Impala, a front-wheel-drive car, and the Tahoe. Both are popular choices, especially in the North where front-wheel drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles provide good traction. GM would not provide sales figures.

Dating back to the 1950s, Chrysler also was a major player in the police segment with cars like the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Fury, but it abandoned its rear-wheel-drive platform in the 1980s. The front-wheel-drive Dodge Intrepid never sold in large numbers as a police car.

Dodge comes back

In 2004, Chrysler came back with a set of rear-wheel-drive cars for the mainstream market. First, it was the 300, a luxury sedan. The Dodge Magnum and Charger followed.

With police versions unveiled last fall, the Charger, a four-door sedan, is targeted for patrol purposes. The Magnum, a four-door sports wagon, is being pitched primarily for special uses, such as canine units.

The Charger and Magnum received a boost in October when Hemi-powered versions of these cars placed first and second, respectively, in acceleration, braking and top speed in the Michigan State Police's performance testing.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Department added two Chargers this month to its fleet of marked patrol vehicles. It also has 95 Crown Vics, 35 Impalas, 19 Tahoes and one Camaro.

Police packages

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Ford Crown VicTORIA

Base price (MSRP): $25,445.

Sales: 45,000-50,000 annually.

Pros: Ample room, rear-wheel drive and a track record of holding up to grueling police work.

Cons: Competitive on performance but topped on acceleration by Hemi-powered Charger.

Dodge Charger

Base price (MSRP): $26,825.

Sales: 3,000 since introduced last fall.

Pros: Excellent acceleration and handling, rear-wheel drive, attractive design.

Cons: New to the market, durability unproven.

Chevy Impala

Base price (MSRP): $23,760.

Sales: Company would not disclose sales figures, but it likely ranks second behind the Crown Vic.

Pros: Smaller size, front-wheel drive good for city driving and winter roads.

Cons: Front-wheel drive isn't as good for acceleration; interior more cramped than Crown Vic and Charger.
 
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