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Old 05-13-2003, 07:32   #1 (permalink)
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Challenging the Crown Victoria: Calling all cars

Rear-wheel drives might open doors for GM, DaimlerChrysler

May 13, 2003
BY JOCELYN PARKER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

While Ford Motor Co. grapples with problems linked to its popular Crown Victoria police cars, its crosstown rivals are staging their own attack on the police market.

General Motors Corp. said recently it will make a new police version of its Chevy Tahoe sport-utility vehicle in 2004. DaimlerChrysler AG is also planning a new family of police vehicles over the next few years that will compete with the Crown Vic, company officials say.

GM said it will lower the Tahoe's center of gravity and adjust its suspension to make it suitable for high-speed chases and patrol use. DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, will replace its current Intrepid police car with a line of police vehicles that could be based on the LX platform, mother to such upcoming vehicles as the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300C.

The automakers' plans come amid continuing controversy surrounding Ford's ubiquitous Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. The sedan, which has been the overwhelming choice of law enforcement officials for the past several years, has come under scrutiny due to fuel tank fires following high-speed, rear-end collisions. Nearly a dozen police officers have died following such crashes.

Even so, many police departments throughout the nation have been slow to change the brand of vehicle they use because the Crown Victoria is their only full-frame, rear-wheel-drive option. There's a perception among the police community that rear-wheel-drive vehicles have better handling and durability than front-wheel-drive cars, so many departments have been outfitting their Crown Vics with devices that protect the fuel tank instead of unloading the vehicles.

But that could change if DaimlerChrysler and GM decide to resurrect rear-wheel-drive police vehicles, experts say. The new version of the Tahoe, for instance, will be a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. And if Chrysler uses the rear-wheel LX platform, so could its police vehicles.

In past decades, both automakers have manufactured rear-wheel-drive vehicles that gained popularity among police officers. GM, for instance, owned a big portion of the market in the 1990s with its Chevrolet Caprice. Chrysler also had hefty chunk of the market with its Plymouth Gran Fury during the 1970s and 1980s.

Art Spinella, who follows the auto industry for CNW Marketing/Research, said any rear-wheel-drive entry into the police market would pose a threat to Ford because it would give the departments more options. The only reason some departments switched to the Crown Vic is that GM stopped making the Caprice in 1996, he said.

"They didn't switch because the product was bad, the Crown Vic was the only thing available," Spinella said. "Many would switch back if there was a comparable vehicle to Ford's."

Already, agencies such as the New York State Police Department have said that they are looking for options outside the Crown Victoria, which currently owns about 80 percent of the market. The department was in talks with the other automakers a couple months ago, although a spokesman said the department hasn't ordered anything different yet.

Despite concerns about the Crown Vic, Ford says it can hold its own in the police market.

Police departments like the body style and design, said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley. "All these factors put it in favor."

Still, Gerald Appie, manager of fleet engineering at the Chrysler Group, says he gets a lot of inquiries about the company bringing back a rear-wheel-drive police vehicle.

Sgt. Randy Force of the Phoenix Police Department, which has outfitted its Crown Victorias with fuel-tank shields and protective bladders, said the Crown Vic best suits the department's needs, but said he's looking forward to what Chrysler has to offer.

"If there's something better, we would certainly look at it," Force said.

Police officers also like rear-drive vehicles because they are easier to repair after front-end collisions. In front-drive vehicles, typically there are more parts up front, such as axle and steering components, and that makes them more costly to repair, experts say. Rear-wheel drives also turn tighter than the front-wheel-drive vehicles, a key attribute for vehicles involved in chases.

Automakers, nevertheless, argue that their front-wheel-drive vehicles already get attention.

For instance, the Auburn Hills Police Department uses mostly Dodge Intrepids for its fleet after years of using the rear-wheel-drive Caprice.

"The Intrepids have done very well and there were a lot of naysayers to front-wheel-drive cars," said Auburn Hills Deputy Police Chief Jim Mynsberge.

Mynsberge added that some of the Intrepids have been hit from the rear at very high speeds and "nothing has burned up yet."

Mynsberge, however, said he's interested in Chrysler's upcoming offerings because he's heard that they could be larger than the Intrepids -- a plus for taller police officers.

"If Chrysler has something new, whether it be front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, we'll look at it," he said.
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