What’s black and white and induces four-letter expletives when viewed through a rear-view mirror? A Crown Victoria police car.

For more than three decades, many law enforcement agencies have placed their trust in Ford’s full-size, rear-wheel-drive cruiser, creating an automotive icon synonymous with police presence and authority.

But Ford’s near-monopoly on law enforcement vehicles may soon come to an end as the Crown Victoria stops production and a new era of police vehicles vie to become the replacement of choice.

Many police officers spend more time sitting in their work vehicle than sitting on the couch at home, so the emergence of next-generation automobiles will have a significant impact on the comfort, livelihood and safety of patrolling officers.

Each of the Big Three automakers has developed a new sedan aimed at law enforcement. Ford is transitioning from rear-wheel drive with its new Police Interceptor, a modified version of the Taurus that comes with a 3.5L V6 or 3.5L twin-turbo charged EcoBoost V6; Chevrolet retooled a line of vehicles from its Australian subsidiary, Holden, to create the 6.0L V8 Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle (PPV); and Dodge offers the Charger Pursuit, available with a 3.6L Pentastar V6 or 5.7L HEMI V8. Meanwhile, newcomer Carbon Motors aims to redefine the industry with the world’s first purpose-built police vehicle, code-named “E7,” slated for release in early 2014.

Winner to Be Determined

Carbon Motors’ concept is good, said Colorado State Patrol Fleet Manager Kyle Shelton. “But without actually touching, getting in, driving ... it’s hard to say.”

Shelton manages about 700 law enforcement vehicles for 23 troop offices, and said a purpose-built vehicle is ideal, but he has reservations about some of Carbon Motors’ choices like the use of diesel fuel, which isn’t as prevalent as unleaded.

Shelton said he has driven the V8 Charger Pursuit and Caprice PPV and was impressed by both. He hasn’t yet driven the new Ford, but said that with proper training, he believes all-wheel drive is always a better option. “It’s good to see American competition,” he said. “They are comparably equipped vehicles.”

With old Crown Victorias being swapped out every four years, Shelton is considering which replacement vehicle to suggest to his superiors, although he hasn’t settled on one yet.

As existing police vehicles reach the end of the road, law enforcement leaders around the country will be deciding which next-gen option is right for their department. Here’s a brand-by-brand breakdown:

Ford

Photo: Ford's all-wheel-drive Police Interceptor squeezes more than 350 hp from its twin-turbo V6.

In developing their new law enforcement vehicles, each manufacturer followed a similar recipe: They asked law enforcement agencies what they wanted and tried to give it to them. But Ford’s decision to abandon real-wheel drive, a de facto law enforcement standard, is a bold move given that police request rear-wheel-drive vehicles and are typically trained for pursuit driving in them.

Lisa Teed, the marketing manager for Ford’s new Police Interceptor, said that while rear-wheel drive is a standard that Ford has long supported, she believes officers will come to appreciate  the handling characteristics of the new front-wheel and all-wheel-drive vehicles. Officers switching to Ford’s new vehicles won’t need extensive training behind the wheel, she added.

“Change is never easy for anyone,” Teed said. “But emergency vehicle drivers have personally told me these vehicles require less effort to drive.”

Drivetrain preference aside, few would dispute that Ford’s offering is a step forward technologically. There are so many new features that it’s hard to find a part of the vehicle that hasn’t been upgraded. Side-curtain airbags, wide-opening rear door hinges, a redesigned interior, reinforced subframe and powertrain mounts, a 220-amp alternator, bigger brakes, upgraded suspension, a voice-activated communications system, a color rear-view camera system, radar-powered cross-traffic sensors and a blind spot alert system are all found in the new sedan.

Dodge

Photo: The Dodge Charger Pursuit, equipped with a HEMI V8, delivers more horsepower and torque than its competitors.

Likewise, Dodge’s Charger Pursuit was designed to be a large step forward from the old platform, Charger Chief Engineer Breanna Kaufman said. “We worked to integrate as much of the police-specialized equipment in the design of the car as possible,” she said. The Charger’s center console and front seat interior were given great attention. “With the budget cuts, a lot of these officers don’t even have offices anymore,” Kaufman said. “The car is their office.” With this in mind, docking hookups for police equipment come standard.

The interior may be nice, but with the option of a 5.7 HEMI V8, the Charger Pursuit offers more torque and horsepower than any other police sedan, the automaker said. The Charger is also heavy on safety options: driver’s knee airbags, multistage front air bags, side-curtain airbags, front-seat side thorax airbags, hill start assist, rain brakes, traction control, stability control and brake assist. It’s no wonder the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the 2011 Charger one of this year’s top safety picks.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com