TAMPA — A law enforcement icon will soon be history.
Ford no longer produces the Crown Victoria, the go-to patrol vehicle for nearly two decades, so police agencies have no choice but to switch.
And for the first time in years, the market is wide open. Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford all offer competitive police vehicles.
Hillsborough County law enforcement is turning to the Dodge Charger Pursuit. The Tampa Police Department recently decided to purchase about 50 Chargers at a cost of about $1.1 million. They will likely be on the road in early 2013.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office bought about 110 last year at a cost of about $2.4 million. The agency will likely buy 120 more this year, a typical annual purchase for the sheriff's office, which employs about 1,100 deputies.
Law enforcement agencies regularly buy new cars to replace older ones in their fleet. Most age out after about six years or 120,000 miles, said Steve Mitchell, who works for the sheriff's office.
When police cars are too old to use for patrol, the agencies remove decals, take out the special equipment and send the cars to auction. Many Crown Vics are bought by taxi companies.
Tampa police spent the summer testing the three leading patrol models: the Dodge Charger Pursuit, the Chevrolet Caprice PPV and the Ford Interceptor, based on the Taurus model.
Police bought two of each car and swapped them among driving instructors and officers, who filled out surveys on each model. That information, added with the car's features and cost, put the Dodge Charger slightly ahead.
"They all had their pros and cons," said Capt. Lee Bercaw, who oversaw the testing for the department. "There was no one perfect police car. But when it came down to it, we decided on the Dodge."
One reason: It was the least expensive. It also had good mileage and five-star safety rating.
And, at the Sheriff's Office, "the sheriff likes it," Mitchell said.
The Charger costs about $22,000 before police-specific additions such as computer systems, which cost about $6,000 more.
Across the bay area, other agencies have found the replacements that suit them.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has been using the Chevrolet Impala for several years now.
"We did buy some Crown Vics, but they were not the majority of our cars over the last couple years," Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said.
He expects the agency will buy more Impalas, as well as the Ford Interceptor, this year.
The St. Petersburg Police Department bought 86 Crown Vics in 2011, a $2.1 million purchase that wasn't popular with everyone in the City Council. The city had tried to use Chevy Impalas in 2010 but determined they were too small for the cage that separates officers from detainees. Spokesman Mike Puetz said the department will likely purchase Ford Interceptors later this year.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has turned to the Charger and the Chevrolet Tahoe, a sport utility vehicle.
The Crown Vic rose to prominence as a police vehicle partly because it was durable, was reliable and had rear-wheel drive. It also didn't have much competition, Mitchell said.
"As a default, the Crown Vic became the police car," he said. "I think they seized the market and just went forward with it."
But in recent years, its bulky, boxy look and low gas mileage made it less popular.
According to fueleconomy.gov, a Crown Vic gets 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. A Dodge Charger gets 19 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway.
"It also has better handling and enhanced brakes," Bercaw said.
And it's a conversation starter. Tampa residents have been going up to the officers testing the Dodge Chargers this summer, admiring the car.
"It gets people approaching police," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.