Police forces traditionally have favored big, affordable, rear-drive V-8 sedans. There's a lot of room in them for felons and doughnuts, and they have enough power to catch most of the bad guys.

Alas, the years have not been kind to the sub-luxury subspecies of Gigantis Reardrivicus. Chrysler stopped building one back in the '80s. The Chevy Caprice tossed in its greasy towel in the mid-'90s.

That leaves the Ford Crown Victoria to reign alone as - a flourish of clarions here - America's police car.

"The Crown Vic has sales of between 110,000 and 120,000 a year, and 50 to 60 percent of those are for police car service," reports George Pipas, a Ford sales analyst.

The Crown Vic Police Interceptor model accounts for 85 percent of the cars sold for use as police pursuit vehicles in the United States and Canada, according to Ford.

Actually, the Crown Vic is not just beloved by the gendarmes. It also has a mature fan club that appreciates a powerful, roomy, comfortable car that can tow a lot - and does not make its clientele float a bond to buy it.

Consider: The Crown Vic starts at $22,100. The well-equipped, top-of-the-line LX model that I tested was base-priced at $24,120. Even after the PR operatives got out there with pitchforks and loaded it up with just about every available option, the Vic weighed in at $28,215, including shipping.

It had been a while since I was in America's police car, and frankly, I did not expect to be impressed.

I was. The test car proved lively and athletic for a two-ton sedan.

Part of that engine zip and cornering competence was courtesy of an optional handling and engine performance package. In addition to replacing the standard, 16-inch steel rims with some handsome alloy ones, this inexpensive ($615) package tweaks the Vic in a number of ways.

The package's dual exhausts raise the horsepower rating of the car's gutsy, 4.6-liter V-8 from 200 to 215. A lower differential ratio further boosts acceleration.

To improve handling, the package equips the car with performance tires, and stiffens the suspension with bigger stabilizer bars, revised shock absorbers, and rear air springs, which also provide automatic load leveling. (About the only performance-oriented hardware that does not get massaged is the braking system. With huge standard discs at all four corners, it does not need any.)

The net result is a big, old sedan that addresses the corners in an unexpectedly flat and composed manner - and does not exact a hard-ride trade-off.

In addition to performing nicely, the Crown Vic is comfortable company. It easily seats six in its quiet cabin, and provides them with plenty of room for their luggage in its cavernous trunk.

Ford has been making the Crown Vic for a long time, and it shows. It shows in the way it is screwed together, and in the small amount of aggravation it causes its customers. (It was among J.D. Power & Associa tes' top 10 quality vehicles last year.)

Gas mileage is pretty good for a car that weighs this much. The Crown Vic has EPA mileage ratings of 18 m.p.g. city and 25 highway. I got 19.8 in mixed driving.

The Crown Vic, finally, is not a sports car, but acquits itself surprisingly well in the performance department, particularly when fitted with the handling package. It is not a beautiful car, but it has a certain utilitarian dignity.

What it is is a large, strong, durable automobile that can tow boats and campers, and carry a lot of friends (or felons) and doughnuts.

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Base model:Rear-drive, 4.6-liter V-8, four-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch steel wheels, P225/60R16 all-season radials, power brakes, antilock braking system, speed-sensitive power steering, dual air bags, air-conditioning, power doors with keyless entry, power windows, power mirrors, power driver's seat, tilt steering, intermittent wipers, rear window defrosters.

Test model: Traction control, floor mats, full-size spare tire, premium sound system with trunk-mounted CD changer, engine performance and handling package, power passenger's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, climate control system, leather seats.

Base price: $24,120

Test price: $28,215 (inc. shipping)

EPA city mileage: 18 m.p.g.

Test mileage: 19.8 m.p.g.

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.