A family sedan goes looking for the mean streets.

by Tom Yates

Can the venerable Chevrolet Caprice ever be replaced in the hearts of the men in blue?

After spending the better part of a work day, about 6 hours, behind the wheel of the new Chevrolet Impala police package, its Caprice predecessor, and the Ford Police Interceptor, we found more than just the name had changed - in many ways, for the better.

The old Caprice was a V-8-powered front-engine, rear-drive sedan built on a separate frame and chassis. Cops have been driving this type of vehicle since Dick Tracy was a beat patrolman. The new Impala is a V-6-powered front-engine, front-drive sedan built on a unit body with a high-strength aluminum front engine cradle that carries the engine, transmission and front suspension.

That's a pretty radical change for cops, a group that resists change as a basic tenet of survival. In the police business, equipment has to work. There's no time for experimentation or product development. But Bruce Wiley, GM's North American vehicle and product manager of Police, Fleet and Commercial Operations, tells us Chevrolet has done its homework. The carmaker knows there’s going to be a lot of resistance from conservative cops, but Wiley thinks Chevy's put together a front-drive package that will work for them.

Conventional wisdom and cop cars

The terms front-wheel drive (FWD) and police car have always been mutually exclusive. Wiley says the resistance to FWD goes back to the early 1980s, when Chevrolet attempted to build a police package based on the FWD Celebrity. "That attempt failed miserably,” he says. “We didn't have the knowledge base back then that we do now."

Conventional wisdom says that front drivers won't stand up under the stress police work puts on a vehicle. It also says FWD performance and durability can't equal that of a RWD vehicle; driving through ditches, jumping curbs and the general hard driving cops have to do has generally been hard on FWD.

Wiley says the new Impala Police Package is going to change those perceptions. During our visit to GM’s Oshawa, Ontario, headquarters - also home of the new police package, since it’s built in the GM factory there - Wiley said the Impala is the first automobile GM has designed that started out on the drawing board with law enforcement requirements in mind. In past models, police-car designers were given a retail market vehicle and told to make the best of it. When the new Impala design parameters were laid down, police requirements were included with those of the retail market.

When doing that, Wiley said, they took their experiences with the old Caprice and included them in the new design. For example, the Impala has new bolt-on wheel caps instead of covers held on by metal or plastic clips. That was a direct result of experience they had with the Caprice wheel covers, which became shiny Frisbees under hard cornering. As a result of referring back to past experience, he said, they have a car that works well in both the retail and police market, and the taxicab market, too.

Wiley said the benchmark for the Impala was the Caprice, both in durability and performance. In the cases of reliability and performance, "We knew where the Caprice was, and we knew what we had to work with (in the Impala),” Wiley said. “What we had to do was optimize the Impala's performance and reliability in order to be successful in law enforcement."

He added, "You will be able to jump curbs in the new Impala." Is that a dare?

The heart of the matter

The heart of the Impala is the engine, the same 200-hp 3.8-liter V-6 used in the Lumina. The engine started life in the early 1960s as the Buick V-6 and has been developed and refined over the ensuing 30-plus years. The engine speed is limited to 124 mph to protect the fluid systems in the vehicle.

The Impala's transmission is the same 4T65E transmission used in the Lumina Police Package. As in the Lumina, the four-speed automatic is unique to the Impala. Shift points are higher, different and more durable clutch packs are installed, and a different converter with a lower stall speed is used. Final drive ratio is 3.29:1.

The police-ready Impala also has battery rundown protection, a problem for cops. Other small details of the Impala include an air-to-oil power steering oil cooler, a 100-amp outlet in the trunk to make mounting equipment there easier, a surveillance switch for instrument panel lights, and a SightsaverTM interior light. The SightsaverTM has both red and white lenses on the interior dome light. In normal conditions the white light is used, under surveillance or other special conditions the red light lens is used. (The red light doesn't ruin night vision and is virtually invisible from any distance.)

Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard on the Impala. Tires will be 225/60x16 Eagle RSAs mounted on 16-inch steel wheels. That's the same size tire the Ford Police Interceptor uses, but Wiley said it's a different tread compound, so the tire will perform differently. Aside from that, the Police Interceptor tires are V-rated while the Impala's are H-rated. Bolt-on wheel center caps will be standard.

While we didn't do any measured acceleration times, Chevrolet told us they'd tested the Impala and came up with acceleration times of 0-60 mph in 8.6 seconds and 0-100 in 23.0 seconds. In testing the Impala against the benchmark Caprice, the older model did beat the Impala in 0-60 times, but only by 0.8 seconds. We did some digging and found the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had tested the Impala. According to them, the Impala Police Package accelerates from 0-60 mph in 8.64 seconds versus 9.25 seconds for the Crown Victoria. For comparison, the '99 Lumina, which had the same engine and transmission but was heavier, ran 0-60 mph in 9.32 seconds at the 1999 Michigan State Police Police Vehicle Evaluations.

Cruising the beat

On the road the Impala is an impressive vehicle. One of the first things we noticed was interior room. While the Impala is 4 inches narrower in shoulder room than the Caprice and 0.9 inches narrower than the Ford Police Interceptor, it made virtually no difference. There's still plenty of room between the driver's shoulder and the door. Space between the bucket seats is less than either the Ford or the Caprice, but there's still room for equipment.

On interstate highways, the Impala was smooth and quiet. We found the seats more comfortable than the Caprice or the Ford. Given the equipment officers wear, the bucket seats gripped well enough. When it comes to legroom, a 6-foot-2-inch officer had to move the driver's seat up a notch or two from the rearmost seating position. While noise from the light bar was noticeable, it wasn't intrusive. Controls were close at hand, though the heater controls were partially blocked by the laptop computer screen when it was in the open position.

Moving over to the short-handling course, the Impala really began to shine. Its rack-and-pinion steering made the maneuvers smooth and easy, yet there was no numb or overboosted feel in the steering. While we had to struggle to keep the Caprice and Ford from understeering off the road, the smaller Impala definitely felt more agile. Steering was closer to neutral and we felt little understeer in sharp corners. Again, the ABS made its presence known as we braked hard for corners.

Chevrolet has done its homework. The carmaker freely admits the Impala isn't the Caprice. It doesn't have the acceleration or the top speed of its predecessor. It's a little smaller inside, a little slower off the line, and the trunk room is no match for the Caprice, especially when the full-size spare is ordered. But it has the handling, braking and overall performance to do the job.

The Impala will probably come in priced $2,000 or more under its Ford competitor. (Retail prices for the civilian 2000 Impala are $19,265 for the base model and $22,925 for the uplevel LS version.) Knowing GM's competitive streak, we'd say it will probably do some pretty aggressive pricing in order to recapture the sales it's lost over the "Capriceless" years. Just guessing, we'd say Chevrolet will probably bring the Police Package in at around $19,500 - good news for taxpayers.

A variation of this story originally appeared in LAW & ORDER Magazine. Tom Yates, TCC's RV writer, is also Vehicle Editor for L&O and writes extensively on police cars and other law enforcement vehicles.

© The Car Connection

 

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