Much to the dismay of police departments nationwide, rear-wheel-drive, V-8-powered body-on-frame sedans are done. Ford Motor Company's mainstay cop car has finally gone to that great taxicab-used car lot in the sky. But you had better believe Dearborn desperately wants to hold on to the 70 percent of the law enforcement fleet business it owned thanks in large part to its outgoing Crown Victoria.

In an effort to fight off the Dodge Charger Interceptor, Chevrolet's Impala and Tahoe, and the coming Chevy Caprice and Carbon Motors efforts, Ford is marketing its new Taurus- and Explorer-based Police Interceptors for their safety and tight handling. The '11 unibody Police Interceptors -- the new Explorer is on the same platform as the Taurus, of course -- have crush zones that the body-on-frame, Panther-platform Fords lacked.

This is a big deal. It emphasizes police officer safety over police fleet cost. Body-on-frame cars and trucks are very easy and cheap to repair. The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's motor pool has its own body shop and frame straighteners, and can have a cop car that starred in last night's Action News 'copter chase scene back on the road in a matter of days, often with a front clip from a junked taxicab. Of the Detroit Three's volume cop cars, the Chevrolet Tahoe is the only body-on-frame model.

With its new Explorer -- uh, Police Interceptor sport/utility -- Ford is emphasizing the availability of all-wheel-drive, which is also offered on the P.I. sedan (Taurus). Ford says either car is better suited for most PDs with the AWD option, because AWD can better handle winters, and in places like L.A., can handle a variety of terrain.

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Ford drove this point home by driving us around a tight autocross course first in the old Crown Vic cop car, then in an AWD, EcoBoost Taurus-based P.I. (Abbreviations are like doughnuts to cops.) Ford didn't allow journalists to drive, but from the short demonstration it was clear the new unibody model has tighter, better, more predictable handling thanks to AWD versus the RWD Vic. Although you can't steer the new AWD car with the throttle, it did display some line tightening oversteer in one tight, fast turn. (Hollywood will have to use the RWD Chevy Caprice or Dodge Charger for big chase scenes.) And the front bucket seats are a bit more supportive.

The surprising thing is the power difference. The 2010 Crown Vic Police Interceptor still used the 210-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 engine. The new Police Interceptor and Police Interceptor SUV will be offered with Ford's 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V-6, mated to the six-speed automatic. It makes "280-plus" horsepower, according to Ford, is E85 flexible, and goes 20-percent farther on a gallon of gas than the Crown Vic.

Ford will offer the sedan (Taurus) with the optional 3.5-liter EcoBoost, which makes 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet in the Taurus SHO. The EcoBoost won't be available in the Police Interceptor SUV (Explorer) at launch, though Ford brass hinted heavily that it would be added soon afterward. Still, with the new models making at least 70 horsepower more than the old Crown Vic's V-8, many PDs may choose not to pay extra for EcoBoost and premium gas.

Ford did not announce pricing, but said the new models will be in the same ballpark as the old cop car. And the price of the SUV won't be too much higher than for the sedan. The company expects many police departments will increase sales for the SUV, which can easily accommodate rifles and other equipment, and K-9 police dogs.

Both the sedan and SUV Police Interceptors feature the usual cop car components. The standard unibody platform features 60-percent high-strength steel, and a hydroformed, high-strength steel tube that runs the width of the vehicle to improve structural rigidity. Body structure is twice as stiff as the Taurus and Explorer. The two models have been crash-tested for rear collision up to 75 mph, a sensitive point, considering some police department complaints about the Crown Vic in rear-end collisions.

Both Police Interceptors have all the usual airbags, including rollover bags.

They have ballistic door panels that absorb up to Type 3 ammunition, and anti-stab plates in the rear of the front seats, so a suspect with a hidden knife can't attack police officers.

The sedan and SUV come with the same 9-inch center console width as the Crown Vic so that police departments can retrofit equipment they already own. The rear seat is vinyl and rubber floor mats replace civilian carpeting. Both back seats are tight for such large vehicles, although the P.I. SUV has a bit more foot space for the suspect than the sedan. The sedan's front seat might be a bit tight for taller police officers, too.

The Police Interceptor comes with six-way power adjustable driver's seat, adjustable pedals, tilt steering wheel, and of course, a column shifter to preserve the precious real estate between the seats, which are designed on the inboard side to make room for holsters.

Heavy-duty components include larger caliper brakes and rotors that can manage more heat, 18-inch steel wheels common to both models, and a full-size spare. The cooling system has been beefed up for twice the capacity.

The two Police Interceptors will carry no Taurus or Explorer badges, and they won't be included in Taurus or Explorer sales numbers. With all the heavy-duty equipment and with the P.I. name, Ford wants to make sure they're sold only to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The company claims no control over where they go on the used car market, so if you're into the extra structure and weight or you own a fleet of taxis, this would be a good time to start supporting your local sheriff.

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