Intrepid indeed: Dodge gets back in the cop car chase

COMMENT
Rick Kranz is product editor of Automotive News

Dodge's announcement that it plans to re-enter the police car business will have a big impact on a little segment.

Last month, Dodge made official what had been rumored for nearly two years: The Chrysler group is developing a front-drive police car using the powertrain and some components from the sporty, high-horsepower Intrepid R/T V-6 sedan. Production of the police car begins in January.

At first glance, Dodge's sales target for the police car hardly seems worth mentioning - a few thousand vehicles annually. The fwd Intrepid will challenge the car most favored by law enforcement agencies, the rear-drive Ford Interceptor sedan. That's the name Ford gives to the police car created from the Crown Victoria.

Sales of vehicles engineered for police pursuit - namely, the marked cars used by the state police, highway patrol and local law enforcement agencies - are 60,000 to 70,000 annually and considerably less when the economy sours.

Ford sold about 55,000 Interceptor sedans during the 2001 model year, and the fwd Chevrolet Impala, a relative newcomer in this market, had about 12,000 sales. The Jeep Cherokee has been a small player.

Cops prefer the big, rwd Ford V-8. The rwd configuration enhances the car's handling and balance, and the large trunk provides ample space for radio equipment, foul weather gear, riot batons and rifles. As for the wider passenger compartment, well, full-figured cops need more space.

So why bother?

That's not to say the trimmer Impala isn't respected. Law enforcement agencies have discovered that the Impala is a reliable V-6 sedan that is just as fast as the Ford. And the Impala has better fuel economy and better traction on snow and ice because of fwd.

So why is Dodge spending time and money to engineer a fwd police car for a segment pretty much controlled by the rwd Ford?

Well, the Impala in a sense tested the waters for Dodge, proving that a fwd, V-6 police car can perform the mission for many departments.

Also some police-car buyers are Ford guys, Chevy guys or Dodge guys. In some cases, the car isn't selected on price. It is spec'd by the police-car buyer so that the only model for which the county, city or township, say, will accept bids is the brand preferred by the fleet buyer.

Of course, the buyer's preference is sometimes hidden, but key words in the specifications might be "rwd only," indicating a Ford preference, or "fwd," which until now meant a Chevy preference. For the 2002 model year, the Dodge guys could specify a sedan with "more than 240 horsepower"; the Intrepid has 242 hp, while the Crown Victoria has 235 and the Impala 200.

Economics vs. preference

The rationale for "only Chevy" or "only Ford" may be economics, meaning it is less expensive for a law enforcement agency that has a repair garage to stock parts and train mechanics for one brand than for two.

The Dodge guys have been waiting 12 years, ever since the Diplomat was phased out as a cop car. The police car engineering and the Intrepid's $23,800 sticker give them a legitimate vehicle of choice.

Qualilty is also a consideration. Chrysler has been wrestling with a nagging quality issue for the past decade. The police cars must prove that engineers are up to the task of developing vehicles that can withstand daily abuse. Dodge must prove that its quality is equal to or better than that of the other guys.

The 2004 model year is the target. That's when the real Ford vs. Dodge battle will take place, when Dodge will aim for a big slice of the police car market.

The Intrepid will be redesigned for 2004, and the new sedan will be rwd, which most cops prefer. The cop shops likely will have a choice of a more powerful V-6 and eventually a big V-8, and maybe awd. Half of a 60,000 to 70,000 segment looks good to the Chrysler group, even if the profit per vehicle is small.

If law enforcement agencies won't buy today, at least the Intrepid will be on their minds when the rwd car debuts in a few years.

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