When we visited Ford back in September 2011 for an exclusive preview of their new "Police Interceptors", we felt the story wasn't complete without getting behind the wheel, which we finally had the opportunity to do. The Sedan and the first pursuit-rated Utility available represent a thoughtful and considered approach to designing cars specifically for law enforcement use. We sat down at Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, MI with Lisa Teed, the Marketing Manager for the Police Interceptor line, and Mike Interian, the line's Vehicle Integration Engineer. We learned about the difficulty of designing a purpose-built machine to service one of the most specialized jobs on the market.
At first glance the Interceptor models bear a striking resemblance to the standard Ford Taurus and Explorer consumer market automobiles. Initially, we were really disappointed, having imagined a design similar to one you'd more likely find in a science fiction movie—but therein lies the amazing design story of these cars. They build off of existing car platforms, which cuts development and maintenance costs. Their design is functional rather than superficial, and nearly every component of the cars other than what you see right away is tuned and suited to the very different uses that these look-alikes perform. From their radiators and engines to their stiffer bodies, steel wheels and enormous breaks, not to mention the column shifter, equipment plates, special fabrics and wide door openings, nothing has escaped the team's (and their customers') considerations. Ford isn't new to the law enforcement space—its Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is a law enforcement standby that continues to dominate the market, but is being discontinued to make room for the Interceptors.
"Ford has been making police vehicles for 60 years," says Teed. "We usually took our products and then we morphed them to fit the needs of police. That was until the Crown Vic—and keep in mind the Crown Vic is on a 19-year-old platform. Our mission said the next generation must be equal to or better than the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Well, that's easy from a platform perspective—you can find a better platform. It's got to be safer. It's got to be equal in durability—now that's the hard one."
"Police don't treat the vehicle all that nice, honestly," Teed continues. "This is a vehicle that lives 24/7. One person gets off the shift and the other person comes on. The vehicle just takes a beating all day long. That's why the Crown Victoria has this great reputation. So we have to build vehicles that have the same durability in the life of police use. From a design perspective, the vehicles aren't about aesthetics, they're about function. But from an engineering perspective, it's all about good design because you've got to make this thing survive."
From custom interior fabrics for easy cleaning to skid plates on the undercarriage, Ford went to great lengths to ensure the durability of the new models. Door hinges are reinforced to double the lifespan of the components, a necessary measure on a car that is constantly exited and entered. The 18-inch wheels are bigger than those found on civilian models, and are built to meet the needs of the extra-large calipers and brake pads—both of which translate to jaw-dropping braking capabilities. Match that with an optional 3.5L EcoBoost V6 engine souped up with two turbochargers and a high-pressure direct-injection system, and you have a 365 horsepower vehicle that can jump to high speeds and slow to a crawl at the drop of a hat.
Due to the difference between civilian and police driving techniques, all of the driving dynamics like suspension and turning sensitivity have been tweaked to provide optimum performance. If you imagine that driving a police car is fun, you are right. I was able to drive both the Crown Victoria and the new Interceptors on identical courses, and the differences were instantly noticeable. The Crown Vic has the brazen power and handling that's a bit of a throwback. The Interceptors leverage AWD and every modern engineering tool to create a vehicle that handles and performs better, safer and more easily. I'm not going to lie, however—throwing a Vic around a corner is a helluva good time.
Most surprising, perhaps, was the way the Utility Interceptor drove, which didn't feel anything like its street version. It gripped and turned more like a car than an SUV, and its braking was particularly impressive. The cars also feature 20% better fuel economy than the competition, and considering how much it costs municipalities to keep fleets gassed up that really matters.
Another important element to consider was distraction while driving, which inhibits decision-making. "We tried to make it as easy to drive quickly as possible," says Interian. "A lot of the new technologies help us with that. The all-wheel drive, the stability controls—we tuned the suspension to that kind of driving."
While the interior looks much like that of an explorer or Taurus, subtle details are peppered throughout. "We took a lot of design effort in the seats," said Teed. "We took down the bolsters to the point where there was hardly any foam left so that the butt of the gun would fit. The seat has "anti-intrusion" plates—there's a nice big steel plate that runs through the back of the seat. Then you put a partition in there, which is generally common in most patrol vehicles, and all of a sudden it becomes a cell, a safety cell." Ford also pushed back the rear seats and widened the door, creating safer and easier entry and more legroom for all.
Ford worked with a team of officers from start to finish, making sure that every detail was purpose-designed for the line of duty. In some cases that included doing less with technology—fleets can either be ordered with standard keys that work in all models or individual fobs that are car-specific. While Ford included their iPod and USB-enabled info-center, the real innovation came in allowing "after-market" technologies to work in the automobile. They inserted unassigned control buttons on the wheel that can be wired to sirens and other police-specific electronics. Ford realized that older models are often rigged to accommodate police needs, so the new Interceptors are designed to be easily customized.
One of the unique quirks of law enforcement fleets is that electronics often outlast the automobiles. With Ford's malleable models, police forces can outfit the new cars with existing technology utilizing the customizable features. The trunk of the Sedan features interior lights and a custom-mounted gear box for installing technologies out of the way. On the Utility, a wide berth and mounting options make it easy for officers to include their own after-market storage.
In terms of safety, crumple zones have been specified to divert impact away from the cabin, a feature that is enhanced by (optional) ballistic door panels. Airbags are intelligent, and can distinguish the difference between the impact of a bullet round and that of a collision. Steel has been used throughout the car for its ability to diffuse heat. This, combined with the larger radiator and and auxiliary transmission oil cooler, help to counteract overheating from long running times.
The Interceptor Series, building off of a long history of police-specific automobiles, is a great example of how purpose-built design can turn standard-issue sedans and SUVs into a versatile tools of law enforcement.
All photos by Josh Rubin and Evan Orensten