Versus the competiton:
You can call the Ford Crown Victoria stodgy and boring, and you won’t get much argument from me.
In fact, I have this irrational fear that using the words “sport sedan” and “Crown Victoria” in the same sentence could cause my computer to crash. (OK, I got away with it this time.)
But what I don’t want to hear in connection with this grand old American traditional is a lot of guff about gas-guzzling dinosaurs. Not in a marketplace dominated by sport-utility vehicles.
Sure, the Crown Vic weighs in pretty close to the two-ton frontier, and its agility is some distance from best among full-size sedans.
But compared with most sport-utilities, the Crown Vic is a lightweight, with the agility of a halfback. And its fuel economy — 17 m.p.g. city, 24 highway, according to EPA projections, just more than 22 in my week with a test car — puts those same sport-utilities to shame.
If you’re still wondering why a car like this persists, here’s why: It’s big, it’s roomy, it’s rugged, it’s quiet, it’s smooth, and if it doesn’t offer much in the way of driver involvement, well, that’s just exactly what its drivers covet — full-size, traditional American transportation almost undiluted from a carefree era.
Incidentally, the word traditional goes even deeper here than you may think.
The Victoria name goes way back in Ford model history, at least to 1930, and in another sense it actually predates the advent of the automobile itself. Before self-propelled buggies began wobbling around on public roads, a Victoria was an open horse-drawn carriage for two.
The first Ford Crown Victoria, as nearly as I can tell, came along in 1955, which was when the domestic industry was embarking on the golden age of fins, chrome and uninhibited color combinations.
Maybe you remember it. It was a two-door model then, with a chrome tiara, or crown, spanning the roof amidships. Garish, but nevertheless right in step with its times.
As a kid, I loved its looks, and I remember a sense of outrage when one of the older guys I knew managed to drive his Vicky, as we called it, into a pressure ridge in the Lake Minnetonka ice at a pretty high rate of speed.
Understand, this was Minnesota in midwinter. The ice was thick, and during January and February we all drove our cars on the lake.
But we were savvy enough to avoid pressure ridges, which were caused by the constant expansion of the ice as it froze. With no water underneath, the ice wouldn’t support the weight of a car, and plook, the Vicky broke through and bubbled some 40 feet to the bottom, the owner safely jumping ship before she sank.
Obviously, the Crown Vic of today doesn’t have much in common with the one that did that Titanic act back in ’55.
Chrome is out, ditto Easter egg two-tone color schemes, a modern overhead cam V8 has replaced the old push-rod version, and the standards for handling and stopping have improved by a whole o rder of magnitude.
On the other hand, there are ties with that earlier age that you just won’t find outside the Ford Motor Co.
Specifically, the Crown Victoria is one of the very few passenger cars whose body and frame are separate units. The others are the Mercury Grand Marquis, essentially the same car with slightly different trim, and the Lincoln Town Car.
Although body-on-frame yields slightly higher curb weights than the near-universal unitbody approach — where the frame rails are integrated with the body shell — it can be more durable.
You might wind up with a few more squeaks and rattles over the years, but you’ll also have a car that’s capable of absorbing a real pounding.
That’s why all pickup trucks are body-on-frame designs.
It’s also a key reason the Crown Vic is so popular for uses that require exceptional durability.
The New York City taxi fleet, for example. Or police cars.
That last i an important element in the Crown Vic’s survival.
With the demise of the Chevrolet Caprice, the Crown Vic has become America’s cop car, claiming 85 percent of police-related sales in North America, according to Ford.
What the police want and need for their demanding duties is a big, rear-wheel-drive sedan with reasonable power, good handling, and lots of room, including a big trunk for all the emergency gear police officers have to lug around.
The Crown Vic is roomy enough inside, with seating for six, and enough space in back for three adults to sit comfortably, even when they happen to be wearing handcuffs.
The trunk in my test car, however, was compromised by the spare tire, one of those temporary ones, which sits atop a shelf that rises out of the depths about halfway into the trunk.
As you’d expect, police organizations also need stiffer suspension components for emergency activities that require first-rate handling.
No argument there, but I really wish Ford would make the same stuff available to ordinary Crown Vic customers.
Despite upgrades to the suspension last year, and a $615 handling and performance package (slightly firmer springs and 215 horsepower, versus 200 for the standard Crown Vic), my test car’s handling responses were not what you’d call knife-edged — unless you happened to be comparing them with, say, a Ford Expedition, or others of that ilk.
And its steering, though improved in that same update, is still pretty much devoid of any tactile information about what the front wheels are doing.
And like some other recent Ford products, the Crown Vic rates five stars — the top mark — from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its ability to protect the driver and front-seat passengers in head-on impacts.
Inside, the Crown Vic is move-around roomy and reasonably comfortable — if you like seats that are devoid of any lateral support.
Ford has installed climate and audio controls that are operable even with gloved hands, and the sound quality was excellent. But the monochromatic appearance of the interior in my test car, a uniformly funereal blue, was just flat dreary.
My test car was also equipped with a digital speedometer, part of a $2,150 option package that included leather, a premium AM-FM-cassette sound system, power seat controls, automatic climate controls, and 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels.
I hate digital speedometers, partly because they don’t give a good sense of how fast you’re accelerating. But I suppose for drivers who aren’t in a hurry they’re just fine.
After all, that’s what the Crown Vic is all about. Relaxed transportation that’s short on flash and long on durability, with the bonus, for some, of rear-wheel drive.
It seems to me that Ford could broaden the Crown Victoria’s appeal by making elements of its police car package available to civilians, as Chevrolet d id with the Impala SS a few years back.
But even without that enticement, it’s clear that there’s still a place for the Crown Victoria and its Mercury sister in this market.
It’s also clear that Ford is doing a pretty good job of keeping this all-American tradition on the road. Long may it live.
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive full-size sedan
Key competitors: Buick LeSabre, Dodge Intrepid, Pontiac Bonneville
Base price: $24,530
As tested: $27,525
Standard equipment: Antilock brakes, four-speed automatic transmission, air-conditioning, AM-FM-cassette audio, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering
Engine: 215-horsepower 4.6-liter V8
EPA fuel economy: 17 m.p.g. city, 24 hwy.
Curb weight: 3,917 pounds
Wheelbase: 114.7 inches Length: 212 inches
Width: 78.2 inches
Height: 56.8 inches
Where assembled: St. Thomas, Canada