The All-Star Police Car

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

If it were up to me, I’d nominate the current Dodge Charger for induction into the Police Car Hall of Fame. That’s assuming there was such a place, which there isn’t. That doesn’t mean the police-package Charger doesn’t belong there, though, or that it wouldn’t be worth waiving the imaginary Hall’s eligibility requirement that a model be retired for five years before consideration.

America’s meanest cop car owes much, despite a deft 2011 redesign, to the stunning 2006 model that debuted in 2005 at the New York auto show. From its stand at the Javits Center, this Charger authoritatively proclaimed the rightness of its transformation from humble but badass passenger car to cop-car extraordinaire. This thing’s not just scary, it’s malevolent. It looks pissed off, angry, and unreasonable. Which is key.

If you think police cars are selected to instill warm feelings in the People about the laws of the land and law enforcement in general, then you probably believe the purpose of the American penal system is rehabilitation rather than meting out punishment, a dish that we — with roughly 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners — like to serve cold. And often.

Either that, or you live in Europe, where police don’t all carry guns and are expected to drive goofball conveyances like the Ford Ka and the Fiat Panda in pursuit of the bad guys. Seriously. The BMW 5-Series police car I saw in the U.K. recently is more impressive, and I don’t even know what I’d think if one of Italy’s Lamborghini Gallardo highway patrollers were to come up from behind while I was buzzing the autostrada.

Here, police cars aren’t meant to make us feel all fuzzy but to instill powerful sensations of fear. Which is why the Charger has been a hit. At their best, police cars look strong, stout, capable, and, most of all, mean. To the extent they make bad people feel scared, they make those of us who ought to feel safe (because we’ve done nothing wrong) feel safer, while still feeling scared.

Mopar contributions to the cause of intimidating vehicles have been epic, as anyone who ever watched Adam-12 or The Blues Brothers will attest. However, the latter may be credited with accelerating the Dodge Monaco’s extinction by several decades.

Long before I could drive, before I was a suburban teenager wandering the streets at night with a specific desire to not run into the police, I knew the fear a cop’s car could instill. As a teen driver and for years to come, visions of 1973 Plymouth Fury police cruisers — which I could identify by the shape and position of their prominent amber parking lights — woke me at night, as I imagined, not without foundation, that I was about to be pulled over.

That surely improved my driving habits, as has sighting any Ford Crown Victoria from the 1980s through the present. By contrast, things like Ford Escapes and Jeep Compasses make me think mall cop. But you really hate to get that wrong, so be careful out there.

The irony is, police cars are accidental. Like taxicabs, they aren’t really purpose-built. Rather, police forces and government agencies choose from what’s out there, a function of which carmakers raise their hand and say, “Sure I’ll make some rubber floor mats, throw in a suitable wiring harness and some heavy-duty springs and shocks.” Presto, police cruiser.

With the death of the plausibly ominous Crown Victoria, many have made do with police-package Ford Tauruses and Explorers, which don’t scare enough, even with light bars on top and armed police-academy graduates inside.

Chevrolet’s new Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle promises to be a decent car; under the skin, it’s a rear-wheel-drive, Australian-built relation of the short-lived Pontiac G8, which would’ve made a good cop car itself. Except, like the Chevy PPV, the G8 had the scare factor of unspoiled rice pudding.

That leaves the Charger, America’s indisputable reigning champion cop car, to reign longer. It’s the distilled automotive essence of every TV cop who ever drove a car, from Broderick Crawford on, all rolled into one angry, authoritarian appliance. No wonder countless agencies across the country favor Chargers. They’re not kidding around, and you might as well know it.