Photos JP Molnar
Photos JP Molnar
The back seat provides ample room for even large arrestees. Photos JP Molnar
The Charger's trunk is smaller than those on the Crown Vic and Impala, but I was able to fit everything I needed. Photos JP Molnar
FEATURED IN VEHICLE OPS
In the real world of police work, new vehicles get the acid test. Officers see what they can cram in the trunk, who they can cram in the back seat, how fast the thing goes and where they need to stuff that chai latte with a no-foam lemongrass twist. An upstart hopeful either makes the cut or it doesn't. When it does, the reward is a full order sheet. When it doesn't, the penalties are broken cars and disgruntled officers.
In the last decade, the decision-making process for police vehicles has been fairly straightforward: the Ford Crown Victoria or the Chevrolet Impala. The Crown Vic is the crusty veteran. The descendent of the 1979 Panther platform, it has been repeatedly resuscitated through constant revisions and upgrades. It offers a big, durable and predictable driving experience. It s also slow, old and thirsty, limited on top speed by gearing and hampered by an archaic suspension. The other option, the Impala, was substantially redesigned in 2006 and has made great strides into the police vehicle marketplace (see The 2007 Impala Police Package in the May issue). Still, the Impala is front-wheel-drive, which makes it fragile for state patrol or rural use. And neither the Impala nor Vic offer traction or stability control.
So, what's an agency to do that wants a rear-drive car with good ground clearance, great handling and power, but also one that will handle inclement weather while keeping the average officer safe?
Enter the new kid on the block, the Dodge Charger. Introduced in 2006 as a police package, the Charger has slowly been finding its way into police fleets around the country. With its menacing looks, available Hemi engine, and rear-wheel-drive, the Charger seems like a good candidate to challenge the veteran Crown Vic and upstart Impala. But how does it do in the real world of day-to-day police work?
To find out, I was handed the keys to one of my department s test Chargers and asked to spend 30 days working in it. I would evaluate all aspects of the vehicle from comfort, ergonomics, power and handling to storage space and prisoner comfort. My Hemi Charger was regularly equipped with multiple radio systems, an LED light bar, spotlights, a cage, radar, a video system and a shotgun mount. My beat area covers everything from high-altitude mountain roads where summits can reach nearly 8,000 feet, to the city streets of the state capital with heavy traffic congestion. There are also two-lane state highways that stretch to the horizon, and four-lane superhighways where triple-digit speeds are commonplace. It isn t uncommon to run 30 50 miles, one-way, in code-3 mode. This provided an ideal opportunity to test the Charger in all kinds of real world environments.
The results were impressive. In short, the Hemi Charger Police Package flat smoked the Crown Vic and Impala, and sets the bar for police vehicles in modern times. To help better understand why, let s review the impressions gathered during my daily patrol duties.
Under the Hood
While the Crown Victoria has increased its horsepower to 250 and the Impala s redesign delivers 242 ponies, neither can match the 340-hp and 390 lb.-ft. of torque delivered by the 5.7-liter Hemi engine. With such an overwhelming disadvantage, the Impala and Crown Vic bring knives to a gunfight. Tests by the Los Angeles County Sheriff s Department confirm that the Hemi Charger reaches 60 in less than six seconds, but what s more impressive is how it does it. With ample torque at every rpm, the engine is very tractable. Whereas the Crown Vic s modular 4.6-liter engine feels raucous and strained, the 5.7-liter Hemi has the displacement to deliver instant torque at any speed. The Impala s new 3.9-liter engine is smooth, but it can t deliver the torque of the Hemi.
This translates to seamless merges into traffic. Need to catch up to a violator? No problem. A dip into the electronic throttle, and the Charger surges forward. Need to idle in 90-degree F weather in heavy traffic, or make your way over an 8,000' summit? The Hemi handles both with ease. Throttle response is excellent, and the thrust of power is very manageable.
This brings up a very important point: The Charger is also available with a V-6 engine that places it on par in performance with the Crown Vic and Impala, but I couldn t find a reason why that would be a good way to go. First, the power delivery of the Hemi is very even and controllable. Second, with variable-displacement technology that shuts down several cylinders under light throttle loads, the Hemi actually gets much better gas mileage than my Crown Vic. In fact, many fuel cycles in my 2005 Crown Vic routinely delivered 12 mpg. The Hemi Charger, in similar weather conditions and the same beat area, regularly delivered 16 mpg overall, an increase of approximately 33 percent.
Part of this is due to the engine, but also to the advanced technology of the modern five-speed overdrive transmission. The Crown Vic makes due with the antiquated AOD four-speed transmission that first made its debut more than 25 years ago. The Impala has a heavy duty transaxle, but it s only a four-speed. The additions of the extra gear, plus modern computer programming, make the Charger s transmission the lion in the kitten corral. It s smooth, shifts appropriately and doesn t upset the chassis with its generally good behavior. And the inclusion of standard all-speed traction control means that overzealous or clumsy throttle applications are met with proper power counseling. Bottom line: The car makes friendly Hemi power in a package that remains manageable.
On the Road
In the areas of handling, ride quality and braking, the Charger really shines. As with any vehicle, the suspension can only work as well as the body it s bolted to. The Crown Vic was designed with computer programs developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The Charger, on the other hand, is fresh off the computer-modeling block, and takes advantage of all of the latest production techniques. This makes for a very stiff chassis that maximizes the four-wheel independent suspension with its upgraded spring rates, stabilizer bars, shock valving and standard 225/60R-18 tires and 18" steel wheels.
The rear of the Charger uses a five-link, independent setup with coil springs, which makes for excellent stability and tracking at high speeds, as well as for precise power delivery and good ride quality. The front suspension uses what Dodge calls a short- and long-arm configuration, which allows the upper ball joints to be positioned high up, helping to keep the hub and wheel assembly more perpendicular to the roadway under cornering loads. It also means Dodge was able to individually tune each suspension bushing for both performance and noise reduction.
Trips up winding mountain roads produced minimal body roll, with excellent stability and tracking. In fact, the Charger is so stable at any speed that it s comfortable to drive in code-3 situations because there s a level of proficiency that simply isn t there in the Crown Vic or Impala. In addition, the Charger s standard electronic stability control (ESP) system evaluates improper applications of steering, braking or gas and makes adjustments in braking and throttle. This is, of course, a last resort, and multiple code-3 runs in the Charger on freeways, mountain roads and city streets revealed it to be an excellent-handling vehicle that never made me question its stability or abilities.
In more mundane tasks, the Charger did not want to bottom out entering driveways like my Crown Vic, and ride quality was firm but very manageable. It also was very quiet. In fact, I didn t realize how quiet it was until I borrowed a fellow officer s new Crown Vic. The difference was dramatic, which is important because a quiet, refined vehicle makes for less fatigue on the officer, as well as makes it easier to hear the radio.
In the braking department, the Charger comes equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, ABS and Emergency Brake Assist. The brakes are strong and progressive, and brake dive is little to none. I ve heard of a number of cases where the brake system on the Charger is proving troublesome with regards to durability. My particular Charger had the brakes replaced during my time with it. The odometer showed approximately 16,000 miles, and the dealership replaced the front pads and rotors. It s important to point out that all of the miles on this Charger were accumulated in the course of testing and evaluation, so it s hard to say what the longevity would be with one or several officers regularly driving it.
Sitting down in the Charger for the first time can make you a bit claustrophobic the door sills are high, the windshield header is low and the dashboard profile is prominent. It feels more like a sports car than a four-door police vehicle. It s very different than the upright seating and near vertical glass areas of the Crown Vic, and more like the Impala with its high C pillars and narrower interior.
Seat comfort was very good with decent lateral support, and ingress and egress was easy with large door openings and an adjustable steering wheel. My Charger came with a decent stereo system with MP3 input and a CD player. Power locks and windows, a certified 160-mph speedometer and cruise control come standard. I also liked the multi-function climate-control system that was easy to use with its large dials for temperature and air control.
Once accustomed to the lower seating position, I grew very comfortable with lane changes, u-turns, backing and tight maneuvers. Again, the new technology in the Charger made for a much more refined driver s area, and spending hours in the car did not produce fatigue.
In the back seat, leg room with the cage and rear-door openings were both adequate. In fact, one of my arrestees stood almost 6'3", and he got in and out without issues and had sufficient leg room. Aftermarket plastic seat options can add more leg and head room if needed. My Charger had the standard cloth seats, and that didn t seem to pose any problems.
If there are two items that need revision, it would be the column-mounted shifter assembly and the seat-belt buckles. The Charger normally comes with a center-mounted shifter assembly, but because police agencies like column-mounted shifters so they can mount center consoles, the Dodge engineers appeared to have scrambled in finding a usable setup. The result is a notchy, somewhat inaccurate shift pattern that can make it hard to get the transmission in and out of park quickly. Dodge could take some tips from the Vic and Impala on this one.
Regarding the seat-belt buckle, the buckle assembly is too short, which means it gets buried between the driver s seat and the console. Add your duty belt to the mix, and trying to buckle up often becomes an exercise in frustration. Simply raising the height of the buckle would solve the issue.
Still, even with these two areas of needed improvement, the interior of the Charger remains the place to be when on patrol.
If there s one area that has caused a lot of concern, it s the Charger s trunk space. It s deep vertically, but not so much horizontally. Add in a full-size spare, and the space gets even more premium. That said, I was still able to fit the following in the trunk in addition to an 18" wheel and tire: a full-size medical bag, a Tupperware evidence box the size of an airline carry-on suitcase, several boxes of flares, six full-size traffic cones, a camera and bag, a box of electronic LED Turboflares, several 100' 300' measuring tapes, two roll-a-tapes, a full-size duty bag, a tuffy jacket, a 10-lb. fire extinguisher, stop sticks, and an AR-15 in a nylon case. And I still had some room.
So, while the trunk isn t as big as a Crown Vic or Impala, you can still fit a lot of crap in there. I was able to fit all the important things that I use every day. Removing the full-size spare would free up a lot more room should you find that you need to carry even more stuff than I listed above.
Style-wise, the Charger looks bad. Bad to the bone, that is. Citizens love it. Cops love it. Heck, even the people I arrested enjoyed being transported in it. It s definitely the meanest looking police vehicle to come along in a long while, and the smooth bumpers, grill and roofline make for an aerodynamic vehicle that s very quiet on the road, even with a push bar and light bar. The styling s a hit, and it looks the part better than any police car out there.
The introduction of the Hemi Charger to the police vehicle marketplace has elevated the benchmark to new heights. My experience in the Charger in daily duties determined that it pulls away quickly as the fastest, best handling and most refined police vehicle available to agencies today. With a new rear-drive Impala on the horizon, and the Crown Vic s need to modernize to stay competitive, the police-vehicle wars are just starting to heat up. This bodes well for those of us who drive our offices every day.
State Trooper JP Molnar has been teaching EVOC since 1991 for various agencies. He has also raced cars for 24-plus years, and has taught at numerous high-performance racing schools.