Some 16 years after abandoning the law enforcement market, Chrysler again offers rear-wheel-drive police packages, the Dodge Magnum and Charger. Although a police package for the Dodge Intrepid was available for three years before that model was discontinued, the Magnum and Charger remain the company's first rear-drive cop cars since the late, unloved 1991 Dodge Diplomat.
The Magnum SXT, powered by a 250 hp 3.5-liter SOHC V-6, was the first offering. As a Special Service Package, police-speak for "beefed-up but not intended for pursuits", the SXT is intended for K-9 units, general transport and similar roles. For the 2006 model year, the pursuit-rated 5.7-liter Hemi version and the Charger sedan joined the lineup. When equipped with the Hemi (340 hp and 390 lb-ft), it gives the Magnum/Charger a weight-to-power ratio of less than 12:1. (Crown Victoria: 16.5:1, Impala: 15.2:1.) This translates into 14.0 quarter mile times at 100 mph and a governed 146 mph top speed.
With 244 hp, the four-speed automatic V-6 Intrepid could reach 135 mph, as can the 250 hp SXT, at least when Dodge leaves it electronically ungoverned and there's no drag from a light bar.
Packing Hemi power and backed by a Mercedes-sourced five-speed automatic, Dodge limits the police Hemi's top speed to 146 mph, significantly more than the current Crown Victoria Police Interceptor's electronically-limited 129 mph. (When fitted with the optional 3.55 rear gears, the Crown Vic is limited to only 119 mph to prevent the composite driveshaft from coming apart. In contrast, Chrysler engineers admit privately that they've seen over 160 mph from some engineering mules at their Chelsea Proving Grounds west of Detroit.)
Having gone through numerous police pursuit driving schools--several of them week-long, instructor-level courses--it's been my experience that most police officers have very meager driving skills. Not surprisingly, they tend to crash with some regularity, witnessed by the carcasses of destroyed police vehicles littering the back lot of every police garage I've ever visited. (It's no coincidence that many Camaro-equipped departments mandated special driving classes for officers assigned to those cars.)
Equally telling, in the early Nineties Ford quietly shopped around a 140 mph police Taurus powered by the SHO high-output V-6. They dropped the idea after being told by many commanders that the collateral damage certain to accompany a 140 mph patrol car couldn't be justified. Their officers had been convincingly demonstrating an inability to control much slower cars for many years. Putting high-powered cars into their hands was an invitation to disaster, they said.
For law enforcement customers, 0-100 mph acceleration will be the most important performance attribute of the Hemi-powered Magnum. There's been a performance gap the past few years following the departure of the Camaro B4C Special Service Package, good for 0 to 100 mph in 14 seconds with a governed top speed of 159 mph.
In the mid-Nineties GM police-car program manager Bob Hapiak loaned me a new, fully equipped six-speed B4C for a year. After elaborately equipping the vehicle and turning it into an eye-catching show car, we trailered it around the country for two years, displaying it at major trade shows for a client and putting on demonstrations for the media. These included appearances on "Good Morning America" and a host of other TV shows. After a year I purchased it from Chevrolet and used it in a number of my own video productions, many of them training programs for police departments. It was fast and handled beautifully. But the low seating position, long, heavy doors, minimal cargo room and cramped interior made it somewhat less than ideal for police work. It had a single mission in life: traffic enforcement. And it was very good at its job. (By coincidence, at the same time I also owned a fully outfitted 1990 5-liter Mustang Special Service Package five-speed. In comparison, the Mustang was stone-age technology and its handling varied between heavy understeer and hair-raising oversteer, sometimes during the course of negotiating a single curve. The B4C Chevy could eat it for lunch.)
In comparison to the Dodge Magnum, the current 240 hp 3.9-liter pushrod V-6 police Chevrolet Impala and 250 hp 4.6-liter SOHC V-8 Ford Crown Vic can reach 100 mph in the low- to mid-20-second range. That's a bare car with only the driver aboard. When loaded with police equipment, acceleration lags even further. Aerodynamic drag from light bars, spotlights and push bumpers also significantly degrade top speed, particularly on the Ford with its less favorable power-to-weight ratio.
The Magnum and Charger's rear-wheel-drive and sophisticated four-wheel independent suspension deliver major handling advantages. Daimler-Benz is a master at developing multi-link suspensions and Dodge clearly benefits from ready access to the corporate Daimler-Chrysler engineering database and parts bin. In contrast, the Crown Victoria soldiers on with a solid rear axle with Watts linkage and the FWD Impala makes do with a fairly rudimentary independent rear suspension.
I first tested the Impala in the summer of 1999 at the Colorado State Patrol's high-speed 1.2-mile track northwest of Denver, just prior to its debut as a 2000 model. Aside from sampling the performance of this replacement for the 9C1 Caprice, in my opinion the best all-around police sedan ever, my crew and I were there to produce a documentary video on the new Chevy. To get some footage of the competition-and to compare their handling qualities-I asked the CSP to bring along a new Crown Victoria Police Interceptor as well.
After a dozen timed laps in each vehicle I verified that the Ford could run rings around the Chevy (then equipped with a wheezy 3.8-liter, 200 hp V-6) to the tune of two seconds per lap, a huge amount. The front-wheel-drive Impala is hampered by a significant front weight bias and the suspension is tuned for heavy understeer. It's nearly impossible to spin the car but it's a bit slow in exiting corners.
After about 35 laps around the track with assorted law enforcement brass behind the wheel, few with any driving talent and most of them rusty from years spent driving a desk, the right front tire had ground itself into rubber dust and I had to swap it for the spare to keep the car driveable.
More embarrassing, in my 265 hp 1997 Special Service Package 4WD Ford Expedition, with a full load of video production gear, a cameraman and three passengers, I reeled-in the Impala within two laps and passed it. The intention was merely to grab some car-to-car action shots but after falling in behind the Chevy, cameras rolling, I had to continually spike the brakes to keep from rear-ending it in the corners.
Admittedly, I'd developed a lowered, pursuit-capable suspension for the 5600-pound SUV--it could keep up with the Crown Vic--but the Impala's understeer and bog-slow acceleration coming out of low-speed, second-gear corners (it had a first-gear lockout to prevent manual engagement and refused full-throttle downshifts to first at speeds over about 25 mph), gave the 3-ton truck an edge over the 3600-pound car.
The Crown Victoria handles reasonably well on smooth roads but throw in some rough pavement and Watts linkage or not, the back end gets lively enough that reduced speeds are called for. Under the same conditions, the Charger and Magnum's much more rear sophisticated suspension helps it shrug off pavement irregularities and faithfully track through corners. On low-traction surfaces or cratered pavement the IRS gives it a clear advantage over other rear-drive police vehicles.
The Magnum's big cargo hold is of interest to police units that generally haul extra gear: SWAT, K-9 and so on. The Crown Victoria has a generous 20.6 cubic feet of trunk room and the Impala 18.4--but only if a mini spare is installed in the latter. The full-sized spare almost universally ordered eats up valuable real estate by sitting squarely in the middle of the trunk.
The Dodge Magnum has 27 cubic feet with rear seat upright. With the 60/40 split-rear bench folded flat, nearly 72 cubic feet of cargo room is available. The downside to the open cargo area is the requirement for a small second cage--a Plexiglas barrier--to keep cargo from flying forward in an accident, not to mention to keep prisoners from snooping around in the trunk.
The Charger has some 16.2 cubic feet of trunk room, significantly less than the competition.
The ZF Sachs Nivomat rear suspension is automatically self-leveling to maintain an even keel regardless of heavy loads. ZF Sachs ride engineer John Thompson spent three years tuning the suspensions of the LX-platform vehicles--Magnum/Charger and their civilian equivalents--including the excellent Chrysler 300C.
The ride, despite the low-profile 18-inch rubber and tightly snubbed suspension, isn't harsh and the payoff is minimal body roll and only moderate understeer. The dynamic stability control electronic nanny (Mercedes' ESP system)can be switched off entirely but left on, its threshold is high enough that a tail-out attitude can be maintained through corners without Mercedes' usual level of stubborn intrusiveness.
The police Magnum/Charger benefit from all the key attributes demanded by American law enforcement: high performance, excellent handling qualities, rear-wheel drive and beefy four-wheel disc brakes. Toss in a Hemi and we're talking about the fastest police car since the 140 mph-plus 1970 Dodge and Plymouth 440-powered sedans.
But performance alone hasn't led to big sales numbers. Dodge's police-vehicle program is a mess and the cars themselves are often priced too high to be competitive in state bids. Small wonder DCX sold barely 3,000 vehicles in 2006, the first year they had a two-model lineup. If prices come down and stay there, both cars could become players. In any event, a Hemi Charger is the last police car you'll want filling your mirrors.
Publisher's Note About the Author
Craig Peterson created Police magazine's annual road test issue in 1991 and personally road-tested and reviewed every police vehicle--cars, SUVs, undercover units, you name it--each year for the next decade. The industry isn't always happy with his unvarnished reports but respects his expertise. Chevrolet once rented Firebird Raceway in Phoenix exclusively for his use for a full day, trucking their entire police model lineup there, including some engineering mules, to allow him to test on the demanding road course.