Dodge Charger becoming popular police car choice

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 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.

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 Vic'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 because of a drop in retail sales, which accounts for a small percentage of Crown Vic 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.

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 might 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.

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.

Despite the new cars entering the police segment, Ford remains the dominant player, Felice said.