Cops and cabbies don"t follow automotive fashion, and they don"t blindly chase trends as early adopters. Out necessity, these professional motorists use cars as their most important work tool, and a large number of them drive the Ford Crown Victoria. In fact, only about one-third of Crown Victoria sales are to the general public. The rest go to police agencies, taxi companies, and other fleet buyers. The current Crown Victoria dates back more than a dozen years, and the previous model launched the nameplate way back in 1979. This ubiquitous Ford has dominated fleets since Chevrolet retired its rear-drive Caprice in 1996, handing the market monopoly to FoMoCo on a stainless-steel platter.

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When people talk about a traditional American car, they"re talking about something like the Crown Vic (or its twin, the Mercury Grand Marquis). It"s a large car with a V-8 engine under the long hood and a body separate from its steel frame. The Crown Victoria further hews to the domestic big car archetype with its wide bench seats, soft suspension, large trunk, and relatively poor fuel economy. Police departments like the Crown Vic because the V-8 makes it fairly quick, the rear-wheel drive provides predictable handling, the interior has enough space for an officer and all his gear, the simple mechanicals are durable, and the cars aren"t expensive. Taxi companies choose Crown Vics for some of those same reasons--affordability, interior space, durability--and also because the car has been in production for so long that its dedicated repair shops have mastered the maintenance and parts are relatively cheap. While some of these qualities may make the Crown Victoria sound like a good civilian machine, its newer competitors perform better in many ways.

The Crown Victoria comes in three trim levels: Standard, LX, and LX Sport. The Standard model is very plain, although that"s hardly an issue since most are destined for fleets. The mid-line LX at least has alloy wheels (in place of steel wheels and hub caps), which makes it look more like a civilian machine. The LX Sport has slightly larger alloy wheels (17 inch instead of 16 inch) and, when ordered in dark red, gray, black, or silver birch, includes color-matched monochrome trim. A black LX Sport looks a lot like an unmarked police car, so other drivers often will slow down and move to the right lane when you come up behind them, an extremely useful feature for highway commuters.

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The Crown Victoria is one of the few remaining cars sold in America that still offers a bench front seat. (The LX Sport has leather buckets). Three-abreast seating is possible, but the middle spot is cramped, leaving the passenger to contend with the driveline hump. The soft seats in the Crown Vic feel good at first sit, but their lack of support makes them uncomfortable for longer drives. The back seat isn"t as spacious as you might think given the Crown Victoria"s size; Ford"s newer Five Hundred sedan is far roomier inside, despite more compact exterior dimensions. Shorter drivers fit just fine, though, and they"ll appreciate the available power-adjustable pedals. This welcomed feature, optional on all three versions of the Crown Victoria, moves the brake and accelerator pedals closer to the driver, allowing him or her to sit a safe distance from the steering wheel and its airbag. Instruments and controls are fairly simple and straightforward, if somewhat outdated and unstylish.

One of the downsides to the Crown Vic"s advanced age is that it"s missing some of the safety gear found in newer cars, although the large car has performed well in crash tests. Side airbags are optional, but there are no curtain airbags. Traction control is available, bundled with panic brake assist, which helps apply full braking power in fast stops. Stability control, however, isn"t offered. Laminated side glass, which is more shatter resistant than regular glass, is available for the LX and LX Sport.

All Crown Victorias have V-8 power, a four-speed automatic, and rear-wheel drive. Despite the implied promise of eight cylinders, the 4.6-liter engine makes an unimpressive 224 horsepower in Standard and LX trim. In the LX Sport, it musters an additional 15 hp. In either case, the harsh 4.6-liter V-8 delivers its power higher in the rev band than is typical for larger displacement engines. Towing capacity is a relatively modest 1,500 pounds. The Ford engine"s output trails far behind the 340 hp offered by the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 available in the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Charger at a price point comparable to the LX Sport.

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The Crown Victoria is one of the last American cars still using body-on-frame construction, a V-8 engine powering the rear wheels, and a solid (or "live") rear axle. Because this layout was common in years past, the Crown Vic has a certain "retro" feel behind the wheel. The steering is light and numb, and the handling is rather lazy. The LX Sport tightens things up a bit with firmer springs and dampers and a stiffer rear stabilizer bar. (This same setup is available as the Handling and Performance Package for the LX, as well.) Neither suspension setup is very smooth riding, however, as the solid rear axle makes the car hop over bumps and under heavy acceleration. Again, Chrysler is able to provide both a better ride and more composed handling thanks to the more sophisticated, independent rear suspension in its 300.

Aside from its main audience of fleet customers, the Crown Victoria appeals mostly to mature drivers who find the car"s old-school driving experience comfortably familiar, or even nostalgic. But even among this crowd, the slightly more plush but functionally similar Mercury Grand Marquis is a more popular choice, despite costing a few extra bucks. Someone who"s interested primarily in a large car with a spacious interior would be better served by Ford"s more modern Five Hundred sedan or Mercury"s version of the same, the Montego. Both are far more comfortable inside and offer a huge trunk, and also provide a smoother ride, better handling, and overall more-modern driving experience. Both of those newer models use V-6 engines and either front- or all-wheel drive. Buyers who really want a V-8, rear-wheel drive American sedan--and are willing to spend a bit more--should also consider the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Charger. These relatively new entries offer more powerful engines and better ride and handling. The Charger is the less expensive of the two, but has a stiffer ride. Of course, if your ultimate goal is to play "Hawaii Five-O" or be Travis Bickle, the Crown Vic is definitely the car for you--at least until the police version of the Charger hits the streets.

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A definitive American sedan, the Crown Victoria appeals most to drivers who remember first-hand the classic cars from the 1960s. Otherwise, the Crown Vic is best left to the professionals.