Some 14 years after abandoning the law enforcement market, Chrysler is again offering 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 are the company’s first rear-drive cop cars since the 1991 Dodge Diplomat.
The 2005 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 Hemi Charger sedan join the lineup. Rated at 340 hp and 390 lb-ft, it gives the Magnum/Charger a power-to-weight ratio of less than 12:1. (Crown Victoria: 16.5:1, Impala: 15:1.) This translates into 14.0 quarter mile times at 100 mph and a 146 mph governed top speed.
With 250 hp, the five-speed automatic V-6 SXT variants can hit 130 mph-plus, although both are electronically governed to lower velocities.
Packing Hemi power and backed by a Mercedes-sourced five-speed automatic, Dodge limits the police Hemi’s top speed to 150 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.)
Despite their long hours behind the wheel, having gone through numerous police pursuit driving schools—several of them instructor-level—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 zero to 100 mph in 14 seconds with a governed top speed of 159 mph.
Having owned a new, fully equipped B4C purchased from Chevrolet Engineering—one of a handful of six-speeds produced that year—I can attest to the fact that 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 1990 5-liter Mustang Special Service Package five-speed. In comparison the Mustang was stone-age technology and handled accordingly. The B4C Chevy could eat it for lunch.)
In comparison to the Dodge Magnum, the new 240 hp 3.9-liter pushrod V-6 police Chevrolet Impala and 250 hp 4.6-liter SOHC V-8 Ford Crown Vic both require 24-odd seconds to hit 100 mph. And 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 beefy push bumpers also significantly degrade top speed.
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 DaimlerChrysler 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 built, 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, 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. After about 25 more laps around the track, most of them with law enforcement brass behind the wheel, few of them with any driving talent, 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 245 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 5500-pound SUV—it could keep up with the Crown Vic—but the Impala’s prodigious understeer and bog-slow acceleration coming out of low-speed, second-gear corners (it has a first-gear lockout to prevent manual engagement and refuses full-throttle downshifts to first at speeds over about 25 mph), gave the 3-ton truck a marked 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 cavernous cargo hold is of special interest to police. The 2005 Crown Victoria has 20.6 cubic feet of trunk room and the Impala 18.6—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. This is nearly minivan-level capacity, unheard of in a passenger car-based police vehicle. The only downside to the open cargo area is the requirement for a mini-cage–a Plexiglas barrier–to keep cargo from flying forward in an accident, not to mention keeping it out of prisoners’ idle hands.
The Charger has some 16.2 cubic feet of trunk room, but compensates for the smaller capacity, compared to the Ford, by having its battery located at the right rear corner, precisely where vehicle outfitters want it. In the Ford and Chevy, long runs of heavy-guage, fused wires run from battery to trunk to power the extensive electronics found in today’s police vehicles. The simplified wiring should endear the Dodges to aftermarket equipment manufacturers and outfitters alike.
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 Magnum/Charger (and their civilian equivalents, including the excellent Chrysler 300C) and with the most recent tweaks, no doubt has eliminated the rear axle tramp that plagued the preproduction police cars and led to some embarassingly public refusals to decelerate properly on command.
The ride, despite the low-profile 18-inch rubber and tightly snubbed suspension, isn’t harsh and the payoff is in minimal body roll and only moderate understeer. The dynamic stability control electronic nanny can be switched off entirely but its threshold is high enough that a tail-out attitude can be maintained through corners without the usual Mercedes’ level of intrusiveness, which steps in instantly to chop power and apply rear brakes, regardless of whether that’s what the driver wants or not.
The police Magnum/Charger benefit from all the key attributes demanded by American law enforcement: high performance, excellent handling qualities, rear-wheel drive, beefy four-wheel disc brakes and an apartment-sized cargo area (the Charger is a conventional sedan with a moderately-sized trunk). 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. Rumor has it that Dodge has already sold nearly several thousand police Magnums and Chargers–although most are V-6-powered, due to the stiff $2,095 tariff of the Hemi option. Still, Ford, the sole source for front engine/rear-wheel drive police cars for a decade, has every reason to be nervous.
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, transporting their entire police model lineup there, including some engineering mules, to allow him to test on the demanding road course.