By Aaron Bragman on November 15, 2013
Note: Impersonating a law enforcement officer is a felony. Do not try this at home.
You might think that driving a new SRT Viper or Ferrari 458 Italia makes you king of the road. You feel empowered, intimidating - you know that few other cars out there look like yours, could beat you in a race to the next stoplight or could catch you if you robbed a bank. Few other cars could - except the one I'm driving.
I'm behind the wheel of a 2013 Dodge Charger Pursuit: a Hemi-powered, rear-wheel-drive, black-and-white, honest-to-goodness cop car. I'm driving it through rush-hour Detroit traffic, with fully operational lights and sirens right there at my fingertips. The temptation to push buttons is overwhelming, but my desire to not be charged with felony impersonation of a police officer continues to win out, thankfully.
It doesn't actually say "police" anywhere on the car, and indeed there are big magnetic "not in service" signs on the sides and trunk, but nobody sees those - all they see are the big letters that say "Pursuit," "Law Enforcement" and "911."
Driving this beast in public is an experience like no other. You truly are the apex predator, the great white shark among the defenseless swimmers. I find myself giggling constantly at the effect it has on the drivers around me. And I begin to notice some patterns of behavior emerging from my fellow motorists upon spotting me on the road with them. All in all, here's what it's like to drive a genuine police car:
Oncoming traffic, people on side streets, people I'm even passing on four-lane roads, they all hit the brakes when they see the Charger Pursuit coming. It's instinctive and reflexive, but it automatically makes me wonder if they were going too fast to begin with or if it's just a panic maneuver.
Traffic parts for you like Moses parting the Red Sea. I'm cruising along at 75 mph in the left lane, and cars just move over, unbidden. Even in the middle lane, people move to the right. Nobody wants a cop behind them, even if they're going the speed limit. On top of this, nobody tailgates you, regardless of how slow you're going. Nobody passes you either. What's really fun is to drive along at the speed limit at night in the center lane and watch car after car hit the brakes as they zip along in the fast lane - only to realize that there's a cop right there, resulting in everyone hitting the brakes.
If there's nowhere for people to easily move over, their default action is to go 5 mph below the speed limit. Meaning you can't get anywhere quickly when driving on side streets and around town. As one active-duty police officer friend of mine told me, "At the end of a 12-hour shift when all you want to do is get home and use the bathroom, this is infuriating."
The alterations needed to turn a civilian Charger into a police cruiser are significant. As Elwood Blues so famously put it in "The Blues Brothers": "It's got a cop motor. ... cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks." Just like the Bluesmobile, the Charger is fitted with a heavy-duty suspension meant to survive jumping a concrete curb at high speeds. While the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine has largely been left alone, it does feature an upgraded cooling system and a larger heavy-duty alternator to power all the electronics the car will be fitted with and to deal with long periods of idling. The interior carpet has been removed and combined with the low-profile light bar up top, push bar out front, LED spotlights in the A-pillars and a constant fan under the rear package shelf to cool the electronics controller in the trunk, the interior of the Charger is actually pretty noisy at speed.
Growing up, sometimes you got to be the Duke boys; sometimes you had to be Rosco. Nobody would complain about being Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane of "The Dukes of Hazzard" if he had this to drive, however. The Charger Pursuit may be one of the sexiest police vehicles ever made. The transition from aggressively styled sedan to even more aggressively styled police car is a smashing success. It looks and sounds intimidating. It drives like a tank. And while you can't buy one from your local Dodge dealer unless you've got some special credentials, picking one up used at an auction (without the lights, sirens and stickers of course) is a real possibility as more departments buy these beasts. What you'd get is a rugged, powerful but not terribly fuel-efficient big sedan (I averaged 18 mpg combined) that has some surprising amenities - mine came with Bluetooth phone and audio connection, iPod control, a very good audio system, backup sensors and more. Everything you need to chase down perps in style.
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron