Uh oh. Those red-and-blue strobes. Lighting up your rearview mirror like the finale in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." They're for you. Time for your best Ned Flanders impersonation. Pull over, hands in plain sight on the wheel, pathetic smile. "What's the trouble, Mr. Officer, sir? Did I leave my checkbook back at the orphanage?" Only a fool would do anything else.
Ah, but this is Motor Trend. Your vehicular Fantasyland. The place where four-wheeled dreams-permissible and illicit-come true. Thanks to countless action movies and TV police dramas, the question has become a staple of bar-stool debates: What if, in the presence of those flashing red-and-blue disco balls, you...made a run for it? Quick downshift, stand on the gas, a nip and tuck through traffic, and...Would you leave the police cruiser in the dust? Would the cops hang right on your tail-the way they always seem to do on the silver screen? How well does modern cop iron stack up, anyway?
Only one way to find out. We rounded up today's three most popular police pursuit sedans-one each from the Big Three-and hit the test track with takedown lights ablaze. To make things really interesting, we also brought along three increasingly formidable "perpetrator" cars-a Mazda MX-5 Miata, a Mitsubishi Evo MR, and a Porsche 911 Carrera 4-and turned them loose on the same course. Did the cops run them down? Did the perps get away? Is it fun to drive a car with a siren? Read on as we reveal all.
The truth in black and white
In 2005, the most recent year for which the stats are available, there were 7934 police chases-in California alone. That's roughly 22 "COPS" episodes statewide every day. "The majority of pursuits end in under one minute," says Tom Marshall, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. "Of course, in Los Angeles all the television stations have helicopters with cameras, so any time there's a long pursuit it gets a lot of attention. That's what everybody thinks we do all day."
Not surprisingly, given the seemingly unlimited supply of reprobates attempting to get on "World's Wildest Police Chases," the cops take their vehicles seriously. Every 12 months, two agencies-the Michigan State Police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department-conduct grueling tests on all factory police vehicles for the new model year; the published results are used as buying guides by agencies across North America (and as far away as Australia, Guam, and Malaysia). "We test acceleration, top speed, braking, vehicle dynamics, ergonomics, and fuel economy," says Lieutenant David "Doc" Halliday, commander of the Michigan State Police's Precision Driving Team. "We don't pick favorites [if a vehicle fails a test it can be rejected, however], but we do lay out all the data so agencies can choose the right vehicle to meet specific missions. We also work with the manufacturers to develop their police packages, though ultimately it's up to them to determine what they want to offer."
Despite what Hollywood may lead you to believe, the key ingredients for a good police car aren't "Mad Max" superchargers and "Starsky & Hutch" meatball tires. "The most important thing for law enforcement," says Halliday, "is you gotta build 'em tough. I can't tell you how many times we get a 'tough' new piece of equipment, and in 10 minutes the officer is back, saying, 'Uh, I broke it.' You want heavy-duty cooling, brakes, electrical. Also important is good room and comfort. In the 1970s, a typical police car had a siren-control head, a radio microphone, and a dome-light switch. Today, you have computers, printers, dual-antenna radars, video cameras, six-cup coffee maker, the whole nine yards. And when an officer is spending an eight-hour shift behind the wheel, repeatedly getting in and out of the vehicle, well, if he isn't comfortable it's going to have a pretty dramatic effect on morale."
No wonder Dirty Harry drove a roomy, four-door 1968 Ford Galaxie.